It’s hard to think of a time when national politics has been more divisive, venomous and downright nasty. The latest focal point is the scandal engulfing former Labor and now crossbench MP Craig Thomson. This has dominated news coverage for weeks and threatens to derail the Government.
The media interest in the Thomson matter is understandable at one level – after all, in this finely balanced Parliament, the Government is just one seat away from oblivion – but the intensity of this interest and the saturation of coverage is symptomatic of a broader culture that is corroding our politics.
It used to be that Australians interested in blood sport could tune in to boxing or WWE, but pick up a tabloid newspaper and you could form the impression that these days the cut and thrust of politics is the goriest show in town. ‘Heads roll,’ ‘knives are plunged into backs’, and politicians ‘fall on their swords’ as they are caught out, sprung or humiliated.
This more combative political culture is part of the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality that seems to have infected some newsrooms. Political news is increasingly focussed on personality clashes, scandals and sensationalist claims, at the expense of policy ideas and debates.
While scandal and personality conflicts have always been part of the news and no doubt help to sell papers, is it healthy to frame the great contest of ideas that lies at the heart of our democracy in this way?
This political culture is not just created by the media, however, and the trivialisation of our politics perhaps has its roots in the long-term convergence of the two major parties on so many significant policy issues.
The 2010 federal election campaign, for instance, is often derided as the nadir of our politics as we saw two stage-managed leaders in Gillard and Abbott desperately trying to neutralise any potentially contentious policy issues.
The result was a personality-dominated campaign as leaks and the Labor leadership coup’s bitter after-taste took centre stage. It is telling that one of the ‘great debates’ of the election was about whether or not to hold a second debate. Those Australians not yawning were surely groaning.
If the two prime ministerial aspirants were avoiding policy, then the media were going to plug the gaps.
Unfortunately, however, while real differences have since begun to emerge between the Labor agenda and the program of rescission and roll-back proposed by the Coalition, some sections of the media have tuned out.
While of course ultimately politics is about power, this must never be an end in and of itself, and what people do (or wish to do) with this power once they attain it is surely the main game.
Amid all the bluster, some critical policy questions are forgotten. How will the nation fare in any future global financial crisis; what are the implications of overdue reforms in aged care and disability insurance; what is being done to address Indigenous disadvantage; and what is Australia doing to promote the action on climate change needed to save our planet?
If we don’t start to ask these kinds of questions today, future generations will look back in bewilderment and wonder what on earth we were talking about. History will not look kindly on a generation that wasted its time fiddling while Rome burned.
Ultimately our political culture is strengthened by a strong media. We rely on journalists to ask the questions that we can’t. Imagine how our democracy would look if there was the same level of interest in policy as there was in personality. At the moment it’s a pretty disappointing affair, with way too much sizzle and just not enough sausage.
This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 1st of June 2012.