Here in Australia, it is difficult to argue with the proposition that we have an increasing problem with political discourse. It is widely perceived that the language of politics is becoming increasingly toxic. There seems to be a fundamental lack of compassion and respect in the way politicians and political leaders speak to each other, and an inability to focus on issues. One of the disturbing results of this toxic political environment is a widespread alienation and disengagement from active involvement in politics, especially amongst the young. This is particularly disturbing, given that an active democracy relies upon participation. It is therefore useful to ask why political discourse and debate has in this country become so toxic and so acrimonious.
One answer is that the current situation has always been the case, and that a level of acrimony is indeed the natural result of an adversarial parliamentary system. Accordingly, it is hubris to imagine that our own era is any different. And we need to recognize that there is some value in such an adversarial system. It was Peter of Abelard who, in the twelfth century, articulated the idea that truth came through asking questions. Moreover it is no good asking soft questions. The questions we need to ask of our politicians, and questions politicians need to ask of each other, need to be tough, robust, and uncompromising. Yet there are those will argue that the level of acrimony and the lack of respect at the current time differs from previous eras.
A second explanation may lie in the role of the news media. The reality is that news media thrive on the theatre of conflict. A politician is unlikely to be cited by the media if he/she merely agrees with what an opposing politician asserts. Moreover, the more inflammatory a response or remark, and the more aggressive the politician, the more likely that politician will be cited by the news media. Being nice is not newsworthy. Strangely, in this regard, as a population, we need to bear some responsibility for what is happening. Through our viewing, listening and reading habits, we are encouraging the virtues or traits we see in our politicians. Moderation is not seen as a virtue. If we don't happen to like what we see, then to some extent we have only ourselves to blame.
A third explanation may be the nature of the 24 hour news cycle. Here we can say with some assurance that this is a recent phenomenon. It used to be the case that there was a "down-time" for politicians, wherein they could relax the need to be newsworthy and maybe even concentrate upon policy. The down-time also provided politicians an opportunity for reflection, and even an opportunity for civility towards opponents. The 24 hour news cycle has put an end to this. There is now a constant pressure to come up with a withering put-down of one's opponent. And again this is an area where we as a population must bear some responsibility for what is happening, as through our reading, listening and viewing habits we are supporting the 24 hour news cycle.
Another explanation, related to the above, is the instantaneous nature of electronic communication. My Solicitor tells me that, despite the allure of convenience, he never communicates via email. The reason is that the time it takes to write a conventional letter provides a time for reflection over what one has written. The dangers of instant communication are clear with the emergence of social media, where there is the temptation to communicate in the heat of the moment, without sober reflection. Moreover, with the advent of social media, politicians and would-be politicians are constantly in campaign mode, with the resultant pressure to score points from opponents.
The final possible explanation is that what is happening in Australian politics is a reflection of what is happening in wider Australian society, where a new form of hyper-individualism rules, and where who we are is increasingly defined by how well we compete against others. Consequently the value of virtues such as compassion, co-operation and moderation are all de-emphasized, except when they can be used for rhetorical effect to advance private interests. It is thus no wonder that politicians increasingly see the value in denigrating their opponents, as in our society our value is determined by how much better we are than others. Politicians, it can be argued, are merely reflecting social values, wherein we like winners, and those who can triumph over their opponents.
Is the toxic and acrimonious nature of Australian politics inevitable? I contend not necessarily so. Some thirty years ago, Don Chipp founded a new political party, the Australian Democrats, which would approach issues on a non-partisan basis, with the express intention of examining issues on their merits. Policies rather than individual personalities would be the focus. Did the Australian Democrats always live up to their ideals? Clearly not always, but this does not mean that the ideal itself was flawed. And it is difficult to contest the proposition that the ideals of the Australian Democrats, namely, those of honesty, tolerance and compassion, are now needed more than ever in Australian society and politics.
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