October 01, 2010

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | Why Politics Sucks

Political debate is so shallow and devoid of nuance that it is stifling the momentous decisions we may need to make this century.

By Wilson da Silva 

POLITICS GETS A VERY bad rap in Australia. The last federal election didn’t help: Australians saw both major parties obfuscating on policy, playing to the masses and sugar-coating every inititiave. The only firm stand taken was that the nation faced calamity should their opponents win.

Weekending on the Victorian coast during the election, a friend made an interesting observation: why do the major parties treat voters like idiots?

Simple, I suggested: change is often only achieved by gaining consensus over the business and intellectual elites, who eventually carry the population grudgingly with them. Or they ride roughshod over the elites with populist and emotive rhethoric, however absurd or flaky it might be.

“But people are smarter these days,” he said. “Never have so many people gone to university, trained as postgrads or got PhDs. Australians are better educated than they’ve ever been. So why do political parties increasingly treat them like imbeciles?”

There’s some truth there.

We can, I think, partly blame the media for running a 24/7 news cycle that’s riddled with pointless trivia and fosters a crisis du jour mentality. One can also note that while we are better educated, we have less time to think, deliberate or read: modern life is a hurly-burly of work and home responsibilities, hectic sport or hobby schedules, and often little time to ponder or even daydream.

In such a world, even the best meaning politician quickly learns that, to get the message out, they need to “keep it simple, stupid” (as one political insider described it to me). This generates what in psychology is known as the ‘observer-expectancy effect’: newspaper columnists delight in the pithy quote, and the nightly TV news reward the punchy soundbites – so that’s what politicians do more of.

Soon, all politics is just a parade of vacuous (if at times amusing) soundbites.

But at what cost? Complex ideas – like climate change, genetically modified food, stem cells, biodiversity, nanotechnology – require timely consideration, an exposition of the evidence and an effort to understand. It’s not that these issues are necessarily complex: it’s just that they can’t be reduced to a soundbite.

But soundbites should not masquerade as policy, nor supplant a careful consideration of the facts. Yet we accept it in politics with little complaint. Would you accept a clever soundbite from your doctor, mechanic or accountant? No; what you expect is a considered explanation of the issues at hand so you can make a decision based on the best available information.

Anyone with a skerrick of scientific understanding comprehends the climate is changing for the worse (whether we’ve caused it or not) and that we need to reduce on our reliance on carbon intensive activities. That we desperately need the startling medical advances stem cells will bring us, and that we will not be able to feed the world without GM food. Nor can we function as a species without the biodiversity of the natural world that not only makes our lives possible – but even makes them worth living.

So we need discussion, we need debate. We need that debate to be considered, and we need it to be based on evidence; not driven by clever rejoinders or dismissive commentary, debating flourishes or witty soundbites.

And we need to encourage our political and business leaders – when they step outside of the soundbite bubble and actually say something – encourage them to say more. To expound on a problem or explain a proposed solution.

Because, when you get close to a politician, you may be surprised to find that they’re intelligent, well informed about the challenges we face as a society and keen to tackle the solutions.

Elizabeth Finkel, our Melbourne contributing editor, was a finalist at the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in Brisbane earlier this year. Afterwards, I got to talking to the state’s premier, Anna Bligh.

I was delighted to discover that she not only knew a lot about climate change – where the uncertainties were in the science, and where the roadblocks existed in society to implementing a low-carbon future – she even had an overview of our species and the juncture it faced, and the philosophical/political paradigms we needed to overcome.

I was impressed. But perhaps more of us would be, if we demanded more than soundbites from our media and expected and encouraged more considered discussion from our political leaders.