NY Conversation September 2010

A new month, a new column. This month’s column discusses the Australian election, and just what the whole sorry business shows about what our politicians think of us. *sigh*

There’s a PDF here:

NY Conversation August 2010

…or you can read the whole thing below.
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This month’s NY Conversation was gonna be about the most excellent Brooklyn-based record label Tri Angle Records, which was founded by the guy who runs the similarly excellent 20 Jazz Funk Greats blog, but I never managed to work out an interview time with him. Maybe next time. But anyway, in light of Saturday’s electoral fiasco, I could really only write about one thing.

I voted in the Federal Election just like everyone else, albeit a couple of days earlier; it was a quaint and somehow touching experience. To cast your ballot here, you go to the Australian Consulate, which is on the 34th floor of an office building in midtown Manhattan. The polling area contains a couple of cardboard ballot boxes – exactly like the ones at the local primary school back home – a desk where they check you off the electoral roll, and a few thongs-and-singlet clad fellow Australians forming a loose queue. There’s a radio that plays FM radio hits by bands like Dragon and Australian Crawl, and the girl behind the desk is friendly and more interested in pointing out the view they’ve got of the Chrysler building than in diligent supervision of the voting process. The view is pretty spectacular, mind.

I took a photo, cast my ballot and headed home. Two days later, I woke up to a deluge of hand-wringing Facebook status updates and the news that we were looking at a hung Parliament. At the time of writing this, that’s still looking like the most likely scenario, although god knows what’ll happen by the time it actually goes to print. Whatever the outcome, the whole manner in which the Rudd Labor government has unravelled has parallels with the travails of the Obama administration, and with the US mid-term Congressional elections imminent, it’s interesting to look at some trends that have relevance on both sides of the Pacific.

In both cases, we have electorates that voted in ostensibly left-wing governments on tickets of  social and economic reform. And in both cases, those electorates have returned very quickly to the security blanket of conservatism. You could write a whole book about why this is – clearly, there’s always a fairly natural loss of enthusiasm for a government once the initial electoral afterglow has faded, and both governments have also faced highly effective campaigns of obstruction by oppositions on key policy points. The almighty shitfight that the Obama administration had getting its healthcare bill through Congress certainly bore a resemblance to the slow death of the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme, although the former eventually at least got passed, albeit in watered-down form.

But for mine, the most dramatic characteristic of the last few years has been their remarkable negativity on all sides. There’s been the Labor leadership fiasco; the Liberals forcing out Malcolm Turnbull for his bipartisan support of the ETS and then wheeling out the “stop the boats” rhetoric with depressing predictability for this election; Democrat Congressmen abandoning the healthcare reform Obama was mandated to introduce for fear of losing their own seats; Republicans spreading rumours about the President’s birthplace and religion. There are no principles at play here, no political ideologies beyond that of rabid self-interest.

Regardless of your political alignment, I submit that you should be alarmed by this. We’ve come to take grubby politics for granted, but I think we’d do well to stop and think about what this all means for what politicians actually think of us, the electorate. The message coming from Washington and Canberra these days is that we are scared, little people, easily bought off with promises and self-serving rhetoric on fundamentally trivial issues.

Because idiot politicians = a ridiculous election

This is a problem, especially when combined with the fact that in both the USA and Australia, the wider general trend towards the right means that both parties are often so similar as to be indistinguishable. For all the rhetoric thrown about – Barack Obama, who’s basically a centrist  with mildly left-wing economic and social tendencies on some issues, is regularly condemned as some sort of raving socialist pinko lunatic by the American right – the distinction between Republican and Democratic policy is often not so much a matter of difference as it is a matter of degree.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – no-one wants parties to be so far removed from one another as to be entirely incompatible – but in reality, the results are depressing and cynical. Shorn of meaningful policy debate, political discourse instead centres on the “issues” that politicians think that we really care about: who’s going to stop the boats? Is Obama really a Christian? Who’s going to be the toughest on drugs? It also leads to artificial debate, oppositions who disagree for the sake of it, even if what they’re “disagreeing” with is a policy they support – witness the population debate at this election, where both parties were effectively saying the exact same thing and yet did so by hurling accusations at one another. How stupid do they think we are?

The result has been plain to see. A relatively large portion of voters in Australia effectively voted “none of the above” this time around, mirroring a long-standing trend in the USA. The 2008 Presidential election enjoyed the highest turnout in years, and still over a third of the population still didn’t vote.

Over the last couple of days, the image that’s kept recurring to me is from the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode where both Bob Dole and Bill Clinton are revealed to have been kidnapped and replaced by the two aliens who cropped up from time to time in the series. “It’s true, we are aliens,” gloat the tentacled interlopers. “But what are you going to do about it? It’s a two-party system; you have to vote for one of us.”

Vote for Kang!

As ever, Groening et al were spot on. When democracy is reduced to a cynical point-scoring exercise on trivial issues, it demeans us all. Regardless of who we vote for, we should be alarmed that our elected representatives think so little of us.

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