11. The electorate


Hey, remember us, the electorate!  You know, the customer, the people that pay the wages, the ones whom all this nonsense is supposed to be for, the “stakeholders”.  Or are we just the people that get to tick boxes every three years, and provide the money that politicians get to play with (and seem more than happy to look after themselves very nicely with too, thanks very much).

So what is our role in all of this?  What do we bring to the table?  Are we, as Winston Churchill said, the best reason to get rid of democracy?  Have we become complacent, like the citizens of Rome before its collapse?

What is increasingly clear is that politicians don’t want the electorate to think, they want them to feel.  To make judgements based not on knowledge, but on instinct and emotion, and that way we will do as we are bid.  But are we motivated more by fear, or by hope?  And what happens when we are manipulated?

churchill anti democracy

The quote above from Sir Winston Churchill reflects, I suspect, the true feelings of many of our elected representatives, particularly when we aren’t gushing in our support of the marvellous job they believe they are doing.  After the Victorian and Queensland state elections of 2015, when Liberal governments were ousted in favour of Labor ones, Tony Abbott reflected that these were “classic example of what goes wrong when in a fit of absent-mindedness people elect Labor governments.”   This is an extraordinary perspective. It reveals exactly what politicians truly think of the electorate.  Foolish, prone to snap judgements, unable to perceive how wonderful their leaders are and how much they sacrifice for them.

Churchill had similar preconceptions. What many people don’t realise is that Britain’s “greatest prime minister” was voted out of office the very first general election after the 2nd World War.  Expecting the country to be eternally grateful, he failed to recognise that the war was won by the blood, sweat and tears of ordinary people, and that turning up in public, looking very well fed, smoking large cigars and stinking of whisky, when most people were surviving on rations, was not a very empathetic look.  The last remaining remnants of the class system, where the working people were deferential to the wealthy, was destroyed during World War 2, having taken a severe reassessment during World War 1, and Churchill’s defeat was symptomatic of that feeling amongst the electorate.

For many politicians, it is abundantly clear that their electorate is only of any great concern around election time.  Sure, they’ll send out Christmas cards, and leaflets telling us about all the wonderful work they’ve done both federally and locally, but other than that… not much.  And they can largely do that because they know that most people will vote for the party, rather than the candidate, such that it really doesn’t matter who the candidate is, if they are Labor, and its a safe Labor seat (or vice versa), then there is an excellent chance that they will be re-elected regardless of whether the electorate recognise them or not.

 

Contrast that with independent members, who appear to spend a lot of time in and amongst their electorate.  They are elected through representing the electors, and they know that the moment that they stop being seen to do so, that they will be voted out PDQ.

The important distinction between party politicians and independents is to whom do they give their primary loyalty.  As in the workforce, it is unsurprisingly expected to be to the people who pay their wages, and with no-one else to answer to, this is clearly the case for independents who answer to their electorate.  Party politicians, however, only have a chance of getting a candidacy and thence a seat if their local party selects them first. This creates a secondary interest base, so it is perhaps unsurprising that party politicians will tend to look after the party (and thus its active supporters) before their electorate.  This split loyalty often causes a direct conflict of interest with public expectation.  Whilst recent polling reveals the majority of the Australian public appear to be in favour of same sex marriage, for example, the government have used every political trick available to them to delay it temporarily, though with the clear intention to delay it indefinitely.  The concern is that whilst the party will always lean towards its supporters, the government is meant to represent the entire electorate.

The electorate are, in many respects, their own worst enemy.  They are encouraged by politicians to support their “team”, to the extent that a significant number of electorates are considered “safe”, with the local electorate returning the candidate of one particular party over and over again.  And with the increasing sophistication of modern technology, modern elections are now being “gamed”.  Why bother focussing your attention on seats you know your party will win, or will lose.  Focus instead on those where the final outcome is more in the balance – the “marginals” – because these are the seats where elections are actually won or lost.  And increasingly this is where parties, using the increasing legions of election experts and spin doctors, with all the various tools available to them, whether phoning, texting and emailing often highly sophisticated and precisely targeted messages to convince those “swinging voters” to vote for them.  Unsurprisingly, it is in also those same electorates where the major parties will announce all sorts of projects and other investments if their side wins.  And it works!  But is this the best way of getting electoral support?  Through bribing some electorates, indeed just some sections of that electorate, whilst ignoring others?

The problem is that this type of electioneering creates and encourages more division.  It is abundantly clear that political parties look after their own electors at the expense of those supporters of the other side.  And whilst that is a very effective way of gaining and keeping power, is it really in the best interests of the country as a whole?

But how do party politicians (and their specialised spin doctors) persuade us to vote for them?  You would like to think that they would use facts and figures.  Present us with a vision, a strategy.  But no.  For them voters fall into three categories.  Those who will always vote for “our” party no matter what, those who will never vote for “our” party, and those who haven’t yet made up their minds – those key swinging voters.   The first two are simple.  If you support us already, then send messages that stroke their ego.  If you support the other side, just ignore them, its just wasted effort so don’t even bother.   But how to persuade the swinging voters?

Well, you’ve got a few of options.  You might try facts and logic.  But how do you know what specific areas of policy out of the many available that voter might be interested in?  That is going to take time, and be expensive. Anything simpler?  Well emotions are much easier to channel, and allow the voter to make quick judgement calls. Perhaps you might appeal to our hopes and aspirations.  Present a vision of the future, and what the voters place in it will be.  Good, but tricky. Covers lots of areas.  Far easier is simply to target our fears.  Fear of being overrun by foreigners, fear of the economy collapsing, fear of pensions being cut, fear of terrorists, fear of pay cuts, fear of higher cost of living, fear of climate change.  But mostly fear of what the other side(s) will do if they get into power.  Now this isn’t to suggest that these fears aren’t, at least to some extent, real, but overplaying them can have other consequences.

Fear is an emotional state that naturally evolved to help keep us safe.  In our prehistoric past if we saw a sabre-toothed tiger or a grizzly bear, we would react physically before we reacted logically.  Emotions are triggered by a more primitive part of our brain, tied directly into our endocrine system which releases chemicals to help us react quickly to danger.  Fear triggers the fight, flight or fright response, adrenaline causing blood flow away from the brain to the arms and legs.  It doesn’t help us think through issues logically or rationally, indeed emotions can make us do things BEFORE we even think about them.  Lets look at a few recent situations where political use of fear has had consequences.

1) The “debt and deficit emergency”.  Used extensively before the last election to undermine the economic credibility of the Labor government, the LNP put forward the narrative that the economy was going down the toilet largely due to the stimulus spending that the Labor government carried out to avoid recession (the fact that it actually successfully achieved this was significantly downplayed by a compliant media, but that’s another matter).  Whilst this slogan politics did help get the LNP into power, the impact on consumer and therefore business confidence was marked, a situation I experienced first hand as a retail business owner during that time.  People who are economically fearful stop spending and start saving.  The problem with this is that spending is what keeps money moving around the economy and generates taxes for the government.  When the electorate stop spending the economy starts to falter, and this is exactly what occurred.  In early 2008, when the Australian media started to report on the Global Financial Crisis, people stopped spending almost overnight.  In the two months prior to the 2013 budget, when the political messaging started to come out about tough measures being required, the situation was similar.

Of course, it will be argued that there was a debt and deficit emergency that needed to be addressed, however if this was the case, why did the Treasurer wait for 8 months after being elected to deliver his first budget? Surely “emergencies” require immediate action?  Because there wasn’t an emergency at all.  And in fact, in an interview carried out in New Zealand (which, as a trading partner needs to have confidence in the economy of its immediate neighbour), the treasure Joe Hockey denied there was anything wrong with the economy!   However, with the slowing of the economy caused by these statements, there certainly is an economic issue now.  So whilst the original intention of undermining the Labor governments economic credentials was achieved, the unexpected consequence is that the economy is now heading south rapidly, with the national debt now expected to have increased from $280 billion dollars when they took over power,  to nearly $425 billion dollars in debt by the end of the 2015.  Interestingly, they government have stopped talking about the economy…

2) The threat of terrorism.  National security has always been seen to be a strong suit of the LNP, but for it to be effective, you need to have an enemy to fight.  If you haven’t read 1984, where Oceania is at war with East Asia, and later Eurasia (because it ultimately matters not), the perpetual war was the ongoing reason why the government could not be questioned, had to be obeyed, and why the standard of living for the population was so poor, but had to be accepted.  Of all the conflicts currently taking place in the world, it is ISIS, or Daesh, who the current government has decided we need most to be protected against.  The threat, we are told by the Prime Minister, is imminent and they are coming for us, even though Malcolm Turnbull, the previous leader of the LNP and now Minister for Communications warns we must not overstate the threat.

Of course having this threat helps to win the argument on expenditure on defence.  Nobody has questioned investing in billions for new fighters for the Air Force, or Submarines, Frigate and Patrol Boats for the Navy (budget emergency? What budget emergency?), although how many of these assets will be of use against a land based insurgency in the Middle East, or terrorism at home, is anyones guess.

But what about the human impact?  Well it hasn’t taken long for Australian Muslims to be put under scrutiny. Whenever an attack occurs, local Muslim leaders are expected to make statements, or indeed apologies for their religion.  And according to the Prime Minister they must “mean it.  This kind of statement from the prime minister against a sub-section of the Australian community is unlikely to foster good community relations, encouraging groups such as those who believe Halal certification funds terrorism, or the more radical such as Reclaim, who want all Muslims out of Australia.  The government does not appear to be particularly concerned about these developments, even though they will potentially undermine the very strong multicultural basis which lies at the heart of our nation.

The marginalisation of any sub-section of society will have consequences.  The high incarceration levels of Aboriginals is in part due to the treatment of their culture over an extended period.  Marginalising young Muslims is more likely to alienate young Australian Muslims who are then more likely to be radicalised to either commit terrorist acts here, or to try and join Daesh in the Middle East, and indeed this is exactly what Daesh want to happen.  Either way, this attitude is more likely to exacerbate the very issue that the government is apparently trying to resolve.

 

Both these issues, and how they have been handled politically, give excellent examples of what politicians are prepared to do in order to get your support, and ultimately your vote.  Party politicians are tricky with facts, commonly using statements that are comparative rather than absolute (i.e. you might think we are bad, but those lot are worse).

Modern electioneering has become more about marketing and advertising than about actual policy.  Each of the major parties is trying to engage you emotionally, rather than rationally.  Electors trying to work out what they support are tied up in knots by conflicting “data” thrown at them by opposing parties, and end up making judgement calls, rather than thought through decisions, and this is exactly what politicians want.

But is this what electors want?  Many electors have simply given up. Many vote because they legally have to, rather than because they want to, with candidates rejoicing when they get the first slot on the ballot paper as they are most likely to attract the “donkey vote”.  Many more vote for the party that they always have, and always will, irrespective of policies, irrespective of the impact it might have on their own, and others lives.  Others vote entirely for self interest.  However there are no instructions.  No guidance is provided as to how voters should decide on how and who to vote for, and particularly for the senate vote where you can choose to simply vote for one party (which can translate, through various backroom deals conducted without the electorates knowledge and potentially different in each state, that you end up giving your vote to a party whom you entirely disagree with!)

No wonder some voters have given up caring.  They aren’t interested, and feel disenfranchised, and feel unable to change the system.  And those on the inside are perfectly happy with this state of affairs.  Big business donors on the right, big union donors on the left.  The status quo is all too comfortable, and when you’ve already compromised your values, you’re just a gun for hire.

Whilst it would be hard to argue against the premise that the business world has significant adapted to a modern world where the focus is on customer satisfaction, stakeholder value, leadership development, and improved practices, our political system seems moribund and increasingly dysfunctional.  Unfortunately, other than migrating to another country, electors are stuck dealing with a monopoly which is clearly resistant to change.

In our final chapter of this section, we can summarise what the causes of the problem are, before we look at our second section, how could we improve it.

 

 


About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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