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Political Questions that Can't be Answered by our Publicly Funded Public Relations Firms

Sunday, 5 June 2016  | Bruce Wearne

Last week, four days before the election was called, I received a “pre-election” letter from my “Parliamentary representative”. It began with the following disclaimer:

Dear Fellow Corangamite Resident: Soon there will be another election and I write to apologise for the fact that your letter boxes will be swamped with election material. However, it will be an opportunity for you to choose your representative – and yes, I will be standing and asking for your vote.

The sitting member obviously thinks we know what electioneering is all about. For the past two elections she, or rather her campaign “team”, have swamped the electorate’s letter-boxes with what they say is “election material”. Her advisors may recall that two elections ago, when she narrowly lost, the reigning opinion across the electorate was that had she not swamped our letter-boxes she would have probably got across the line.

We might now hope, having used the one-page letter to briefly tell us what she has done for us, and what she plans to do, that this modest communication is the summation of her letter boxing campaign. We will wait and see. We may not be “on the same page” politically, but we certainly are part of the same political environment in which she seeks to have her views heard, and her seat retained in Parliament, in the midst of a welter of publicly-funded election material. She, like the rest of us, knows that most of this printed material it is wasteful and headed for the WPB. She tells us that…

This election is about voting for a local person who works hard all year round, not just at election time. This election is about voting for a local person who is not afraid to speak out to fix local problems…. During an election campaign it is easy to criticise and put down your opponents. I will vigorously challenge bad policy, but will not play dirty. My aim is to serve you well and honestly.

Here let me encourage readers to do as I have try to do: spend at least some time in careful examination of the more readable “election material” that comes through the letter box or email in-tray. Cross-examine it. Think about its logic. Try to identify the questions it is suggesting that we, as voters, are already asking. In so doing, clarify which questions are being avoided. Such a strategy may well confirm the hypothesis I have been developing (see various posts at Nurturing Justice) for some time: our system of parliamentary democracy has shifted from “political debate” to “public relations”.

The shift to “public relations” can certainly be inferred from the above letter; it is devoid of any mention of the Candidate’s party or the party’s platform. The fact that this local member may be “Liberal” is almost incidental. In this letter of personal assurance the candidate announces her willingness to help residents and their families, being thoroughly committed to fixing local problems. Good. But there’s no indication from what she writes that this “help” is available from a Federal parliamentary representative, rather than one from the State or Local Government. Is this “help” also about helping us understand the kinds of political problems our country faces? Indeed, we get no sense of how she sees the different levels of government apart from her being here in a Federal electorate telling us she is always ready to “help”, and not just at election time. Are voter’s only responsible in a political sense at election time? Are not voter’s citizens with ongoing political responsibility for the justice (or otherwise) of our system of public governance?

So I’m left to imagine a raft of rather inconvenient questions I could ask at the “meet the candidates” meeting convened by our local Civic Association. Let me present these here with some evaluation of their relevance and/or impertinence.

1. What are you going to do about the Real Estate firm that has stolen our community’s name for its own website in its advertising of its real estate development adjacent to our Borough? Yes, this is a likely question to test all candidates. It is very local and very important. But be warned: it is very political. After more than two years of repeated effort, my attempts to have the issue raised in my submissions to “Letters to the Editor” columns in local newspapers have still not appeared. And after all: is it valid to ask a Federal member about something to do with State managed real estate issues?

2. Given that over the last decade the governing of our country has been destabilised by party disputes about leadership, with the successive dumping of Prime Ministers, what is the [candidate’s] party policy with respect to how political parties should be operating in our parliamentary system of representative democracy? This is to query the dominance of public relations over political debate. You may raise a laugh. Is it not likely that candidates of the two major parties will give the floor to the Greens candidate and the independents? It might even get into a “republican” sidetrack!

3. What is your party’s policy concerning the future of a Westminster style of government and ministerial responsibility that we are repeatedly told by elected members is implicit to our Constitution? Given that this election, your own local focus notwithstanding, is presenting us with a nation-wide competition between two rival aspirants for “The Lodge”, what is your party doing to challenge this basic misrepresentation of what our political responsibility requires of us? In other words, how does your party envisage the future of our parliamentary democracy? Good question, but keep in mind that most people simply accept the problems of successive PMs acting as if they are presidentially elected. Does not this anomaly simply sink into the swamp of realpolitik complacency? And as well this election must also compete for media time with the “election material” of a real presidential circus across the NE Pacific; how can Australia’s look-alike circus compete with that for ratings? Candidates may recognise this question’s pertinence but it will put them on the defensive so you can expect instead that discussion will turn to the need for (their leader’s) “leadership” at this time of “great complexity” and/or “great opportunity”.

When we view the Liberal-National coalition and Labor in terms of what they have become – “public relations firms” – we may give ourselves much needed “elbow room” for local “Meet the Candidates” meeting. Such questions as I have posed need further elaboration in order to suggest a comprehensive diagnosis of why politics has become so problematic. Such discussion will simply be too complex for most voters who attend such meetings expecting “relevance”, or guidance as to who they will “tick”. To be critical of the underlying political trends proves just too much.

My local member says she is not afraid to speak out in order to fix local problems. But her party, along with the parties of her political opponents, now compete in a media-ted environment tone-deaf to the structural problems for public governance that have been created by these parties-cum-public-relations-firms in cahoots with the mass media. Citizenship has thus been severely de-politicised, problematised, and effectively reduced to casting a “choice” for candidates propped up by dodgy operators. We might even say that the dominant neo-liberal ideology has been too successful in its “privatising” of citizenship.

What would be the response, I wonder, were the candidates to be asked to tell us more about the real problems they have faced within their own parties? These associations have for decades styled themselves in terms “winning the next election” – apparently that’s the problem they exist to solve. And so they have become dominated by their own public relations “drivers”. They have lost themselves as genuine political parties. So do not we, as voters, not need to know how the brave candidates have fared within these tightly managed elite-generating firms? Would not such stories now, before the election, tell us more of what we need to know in order to cast a responsible vote?

Could local “Meet the Candidates” meetings induce Candidates to tell their electors theirpolitical stories, more about the “inside” machinations of their compromised parties, and how they managed to engineer their own nomination? To ask the question is to already hear the echoes of dismissive ridicule. How unrealistic would that be? But that psychic echo is telling us why political life in Australia (as elsewhere) urgently needs to rediscover political parties as genuine, transparent associations of like-minded, like-committed, citizens, that are giving ongoing positive support, also parliamentary support, to just public governance. And without genuine political parties, the dominance of the public relations “firms” that fill our political vacuum will simply undermine public respect for public governance, for state-crafting, for our task as citizens to promote public justice, as well as for political parties themselves.

Bruce Wearne is a retired Monash University sociology lecturer. He now spends his time assisting Christian Aid and Development students while continuing research in the foundations of 20th century sociological theory.

This blog originally appeared on 12 May 2016 at Reproduced with permission.

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