I regret something I did recently. I rang talkback radio. Granted it was Jon Faine on the ABC, so a refined kind of talkback, not the grubby 3AW or 2GB kind, but I still felt slightly used. The prime minister was taking questions, and I wanted to ask him about WorkChoices.
To my surprise I was on the air quickly. I asked Mr Howard what options my partner had after being sacked just before Christmas. She had quarrelled with a bullying employer and been summarily sacked. After a few sympathetic pleasantries, the prime minister made the response I'd expected - unless he knew the details of the case he couldn’t comment, there are a few bad employers and plenty of good ones ... all the usual platitudes. I was pleased he’d given this predictable response, because I’d prepared my retort in advance.
Yes Mr Howard, I said, there are some bad employers and some good ones. The point of good industrial relations legislation, surely, is not to allow the bad employers to do what they want. WorkChoices does allow bad employers to do what they want because it gives them a free hand to dismiss workers. Whatever you suggest otherwise, Mr Howard, there are no protections from unfair dismissal for any worker in a business employing under 100 staff (and precious few for bigger companies if managers are smart enough to invoke the “operational reasons” defence).
That was going to be my response, and it is a good one. But I didn’t get to say it. Vainly I tried to interject, but Mr Howard is a master of talking over people he doesn’t want to hear from, and as soon as he’d finished it was on to the next caller. I could have smashed the phone!
This case illustrates precisely why politicians like talkback radio. By going on talkback they can appear to be available in an open and unstructured forum, reaching out over the heads of the media to constituents. But far from being open and unmediated, talkback is a highly controlled and contrived forum. Guests like John Howard have the last word, and talkback hosts, Jon Faine included, make sure they get it. As quantity always seems to win out over quality in mainstream radio, and brevity over depth, the emphasis is on giving as many callers as possible the chance to ask a question.
The result is a few rushed seconds of questioning from the caller and a couple of minutes of spin in return from the politician, with no chance for the caller to push the issue further. If the politician likes the question (and this kind of question is often asked by party members organised in advance to ring in) he or she can provide an answer that is little more than a political advertisement. If not, the politician simply gives the answer he or she wants to give, whether it is relevant to the question or not.
The result is a vacuous orgy of platitudes, simplistic arguments and spin that contributes little or nothing to real debate over serious issues.
The previous sentence could just about sum up current political discourse in Australia. The greatest problems in contemporary Australian politics are the absence of debate over ideas and policy, and the lack of evidence provided to support arguments. Both the Coalition and the ALP respond to each other’s policies in a calculated fashion that tries to avoid proper discussion of substantial issues. These methods include the targeting of the messenger rather than debating the message; avoiding the issue; and repetition of a pre-determined message with minimal or no supporting evidence.
Unfortunately, the press gallery actively encourages this avoiding of real debate. All too often, in both the “tabloid” and “quality” media, journalists reporting on political jousting seek to identify a winner in the interplay of political spin, rather than reporting on the merits of ideas and policies.
The measure of a healthy democracy is not whether every person can make his or her voice heard, but whether people have access to information in order to participate in the democratic process in an informed way. What is desperately needed in our political discourse is quality, not quantity.
The next time I hear the prime minister on the radio - or the opposition leader, for that matter - I would like to hear a panel of experts asking questions about policies. I do not want to hear more spin.
Of course I know that the chances of this happening are minimal. Why would any politician open him or herself to real scrutiny when talkback hosts provide an easy forum for trite spruiking? The fact that we desperately need such analysis and debate won’t, unfortunately, stop talkback radio being little more than sound and fury signifying nothing.
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