The West Wingification of Australian Politics – Real Life Imitating a Television Show in Canberra

“The static rises when the volume of the ideas is turned down” – Paul Keating

Of all the things Paul Keating said during his nationwide tour to flog his book of speeches last year, the quote above was the one I remember most. I think the reason for that is because it sums up the way most of our politics is played at the moment.

Over the last two months the federal opposition have been relentlessly pursuing the Prime Minister over a story from her past surrounding the establishment of an Australian Workers Union “slush fund” because they think they can hurt her image by insinuating she’s apart of a criminal conspiracy and linking her to some dodgy people from the trade union movement even though this issue was resolved nearly 20 years ago and it’s clear to anyone who understands the issues that the Prime Minister has done nothing wrong.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister seems to believe whenever she stands her ground and fights from the back foot, the voting public view it positively because they apparently identify with the underdog narrative. The term AFL commentators repeatedly use during matches for this kind of behaviour is “desperation!” albeit in a positive sense i.e the player’s desperation is the difference between their side winning and losing the match.

The media observe the spectacle like High School kids egging on a fight, mostly because they think they can and need to sell more newspapers.

All sides seem to believe there are political gains to be made from this trivial pursuit.

From where I’m sitting this all looks like a very bad Australian version of The West Wing. After watching four episodes of the show (I could tolerate only four) and observing the behaviour of the political staffers in it I’ve begun to understand a bit about why the Australian political debate is so disconnected from the way most normal people live their lives and why the participants play the game the way they play it and I think it comes from wanting to live life like it’s an episode from this television show.

This brings me to part of the point of this post: not everyone watches or likes The West Wing. Most people don’t even know the show exists let alone find it entertaining. Yet Australian politics is conducted in a way where life imitates art and we, the voting public, get left with a hollow feeling that no one stands for anything. To emphasise my point watch an interview with Bob Carr. Nothing but hot air for people inside the cycleway of Canberra.

Sure, he’s the Foreign Minister, but the good people of New South Wales had to put up with this kind of talk on domestic policy issues day after day for 10 years while their infrastructure and public transport systems rotted away from lack of investment under his management.

This AWU “slush fund” issue shows no connection or reciprocation with the electorate in regards to the way normal people live their lives day by day from either side of politics. It’s all drivel and it just adds to the rest of the baggage that drags the national debate down into the depressing abyss of meaningless.

The Coalition could lose their Deputy Leader and Shadow Foreign Minister over this issue (they might think that’s no big loss) and the ALP will continue to blame the media and Tony Abbott for constantly bringing it up instead of recognising that a majority of these people are idiots who have no influence over the government’s decisions or communication methods.

In the end, the reason this stuff continues to come up in the debate even though it’s redundant is because the volume of the ideas behind the policy agenda has been turned down by this government. They have let the Opposition take control of the national debate and frame arguments using their language without defining and narrowing the national debate on their own terms and choosing their own battlefields.

Over the last two house sitting weeks legislation regarding making the Murray Darling Basin sustainable, aspirational education system reform based on the Gonski Review recommendations (I’ll leave the fact they’ve legislated aspirational policy to one side) and the beginnings of the National Disability Insurance Scheme have gone through the parliament.

The problem is these policies are framed by the government as policies on their own. We’ve got a water plan here and an aspirational education plan there and the beginning of a plan to help disabled people with insurance payments here and a mining tax there and a carbon tax here and an asylum seeker policy there and so on. These are mostly very important, complex policies but they have not been connected together into a well framed, motivational storyline which normal people can relate to and it all ends up disconnected and trivial.

This need to keep fighting the battle for and against the smear and silliness is West Wingitis at it’s worst. An addiction to struggle and the stroking of the back room players egos instead of focusing on the needs of the public who desperately want some reassurance and reaffirmation. Instead we have a bunch of small people on all sides of politics who view the national debate as a game that doesn’t affect real people’s lives and are intimidated by big ideas and big visions dominating everything and in the end everybody loses from it.

The political winners of the future in Australia will be the leaders who take responsibility for what happens to them and are able to frame a complex and consistent narrative of policy initiatives and communicate it to people in a way that is inclusive, simple and easily digestible. This isn’t easy (that’s why inspiration is a necessary component of leadership) but what’s required to win in today’s world is located at a much higher level than it was in the past. Mediocrity and life imitating a television show is no longer going to cut it with the public who have very high expectations of their elected representatives.

It’s probably too late now for the Prime Minister to construct such a story to overcome this current nonsense as a lot of water has flown under the bridge and people have formed polarised albeit disengaged positions on this issue regardless of the facts but the lesson of switching off The West Wing is an important lesson for the future in regards to why this sort of issue is able to dominate events in Canberra when the accusations against the Prime Minister have no substance to them.

Paul Keating frequently uses another quote I’m quite fond of: “The dog may bark, but the caravan moves on.”

I hope in the end the national debate will move away from this sort of silliness and when it does the nation will be better for it although things right now look very bleak.

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