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Power, politics, populism and principle

By Bill Calcutt - posted Friday, 19 July 2013

Power is the capacity to act. At the most visceral level it is reflected in the ability of the individual to resort to force to subjugate others or to act in self-defence. Under the social contract the individual forgoes recourse to force in return for the protection of the state, with the state's first duty being the maintenance of law and order (security). In a democracy the state derives its authority and legitimacy by representing the will of the people, with its mandate to govern being regularly renewed through democratic elections.

Politics describes a dynamic process through which power is negotiated, aggregated, shaped and exercised. Between elections representatives seek to maintain community support for policies and actions while mediating between competing interests and responding to emerging national challenges. In a Westminster system there is a deliberate separation of powers between executive government, the legislature and the judiciary that is intended to maintain checks and balances and ensure continuity in governance independent of adversarial day-to-day politics.

Technology has transformed relationships between individuals and with the state since the turn of the millennium. The net effect of the web and a ubiquitous social media is to empower individuals through virtually unlimited access to real-time information and to others. The disaggregation of power to the community has had a number of remarkable consequences, most dramatically illustrated by social uprisings in a number of previously undemocratic developing countries around the world. (Ironically the same technology has also enabled the secret state to undertake extensive and highly intrusive covert surveillance of its citizens, but this is an issue that warrants separate consideration).


This article seeks to explore some of the impacts of this evolving shift in power for governance and political processes in Australia. In this country the internet and the social media have transformed the relationship between a number of key political institutions, altering the political dynamic and challenging the role of the mainstream media. The availability of huge volumes of real-time undifferentiated information from diverse sources feeds into public discourse and the political process, challenging the capacity of both the community and the state to understand and respond in considered ways. For some who are overwhelmed by the information "noise" the most attractive solution can be to turn to community "interpreters" who can shape and simplify an increasingly complex and sometimes perplexing environment.

Struggling desperately to retain and attract customers and compete in an information-rich environment, the mainstream media has increasingly reverted to sensationalist and alarmist headlines focusing on scandals and personalities. Despite the diversification of information sources the power to influence and mobilise public opinion remains with those with the means to shape the contemporary public narrative. The process of creating a growing sense of crisis and drama in order to sell product has become an integral part of the modus operandi of much the Australian media.

Contrary to their traditional conception as the "fourth estate", much of the mainstream media has evolved from objective reporters of the political process to intimate participants. The process of turning public life into a daily "soap opera" is exacerbated by the actions of some elected representatives who seek to delegitimize their opponents through personal invective, in the process creating a corrosive and cynical political environment. The inevitable erosion of community confidence in politicians and the political process is likely to have ongoing adverse consequences for all parties.

These changes in the political process have challenged a number of basic democratic principles. Potentially the most serious is the contention that political authority derived through democratic election is transient, and that ongoing political legitimacy is tied to the weekly polls commissioned by the various media outlets. Some in the media contend that intense scrutiny and constant polling represents a new level of political accountability. In such an environment a government struggling mid-term with confected crises may become obsessed with maintaining or regaining popular support, discarding long-term or difficult social reforms for short-term populist solutions. In such an environment the media pressure on political representatives can become unbearable, with prophesies of drastic action becoming self-fulfilling.

There are strong indications that there are many in the community who are deeply disenchanted with the current political process. Various analyses of the machinations surrounding the treatment and ultimate removal of Julia Gillard have exposed widely divergent community expectations of our political representatives and political process. While levels of community cynicism remain high, there are some who continue to expect that our political representatives demonstrate national leadership, despite the growing (in many respects inevitable) pressures for populism that have been facilitated by technology and the constant media demands for public accountability.

These altruistic expectations seem to ignore the reality that leadership is the antithesis of populism. Leadership seeks to engender respect and build community trust by demonstrating the courage to commit to enduring principles and a shared long-term vision, while populism seeks transient public support through expediency, compromise and rhetoric.

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About the Author

Bill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the National Crime Authority from the early 1970s till the mid 1990s.

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