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The Lame Campaigns of Pathetic Politics

It's nothing new for an election campaign to be met with groaning, an eye-roll or two, and a general sense of apathy. Such a response is more or less the norm, wherever in the world you may be.

It's not that people don't realise the importance of elections, or of governments. Even the most politically apathetic of people would recognise that whether you have a good government or a bad one, a wise leader or a foolish one, is going to have an effect on their lives, and the lives of their family and friends.

It's also not that we necessarily mind the idea of cash being splashed in our personal direction, whether it be through a tax cut, or funding being given for a community group we're involved in, or whatever the promise of this or that wannabe government is. It's always nice to receive a gift.

So what's the issue? If we recognise that our leaders are important, and we also appreciate when the government chooses to do things that benefit us, why do the vast majority of voters, in country after country, actively despise their government, their politicians, and the entire election cycle?

It took all of a few days for France to protest their re-elected president. (Image: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty)

Great expectations

It's true enough that people in all times and places expect their governments to do things for them, and to do them well. But it has not always been the case that governments do so many things, and yet even more is asked of them. The weight of expectation placed on a modern, western government is astronomical, continually expanding in parallel with the size of government bureaucracy.

Where once governments could only be expected to be noticeable in select parts of our lives (like the military), they are now ever-present. They are the main providers of education, health services, social security, mass transit, and, indeed, employment in the western world, and the bigger their role in every sphere of our lives is, the more we expect them to do, and the better we expect them to do it. One only needs look back over the past few years to see how the public demands of governments have expanded into directing our whole existence.

What's more, governments everywhere seem unable to resist their own growth. The lure of further control seems to be too much for the gaping maws of the fishes in power, and so they clamp their jaws around the bait we dangle in front of them, time and again. When was the last time you heard of a government taking steps to reduce their own power?

For that matter, when was the last time you heard a party's political campaign emphasise that, if elected, they would not be able to solve any and every issue bought before them?

Political messiahs cannot fulfil the tasks - or hopes - laden on their shoulders. (Image: Rolling Stone)

Political parties are all too happy to promise the world, even though both we and they know that they cannot and will not fulfil their promises. They've even managed to create a whole new class of workers - politicians and political staffers - with the sole purpose of creating and promoting new policies and legislation, which then gets filtered into the work of the ever-expanding public service; more government to do more things for more people more often.

Even knowing that, we still expect more and more from these people. We expect that they will lead us to a promised land, a utopia that is just over the horizon, if only the right people controlled the government and used even more power than they would currently have access to.

This is an impossible weight to carry. No government can be perfect, and no government can solve all our problems, especially not in the long-term. The great arc of human history shows us the opposite: when excessive power is given to (or, more accurately, taken by) a government, it becomes ever more likely that it will tear itself or its people apart. But because we expect our leaders to be perfect problem-solvers, and we then analyse their performance accordingly, governments have largely settled upon the best solution they can find: create solutions for the short-term.

No risky business

Democratic governments are more susceptible to the passing of time than other types of government are. Every few years - somewhere between two and seven, though usually three to five - the general public will either approve of them and give them another handful of years in charge, or kick them out. The jobs - careers, really - of the political class are on the line every election, and with them their vast array of policies, along with their personal reputations.

This is inherently a risky situation for any politician or staffer, made all the more so by the aforementioned expectations placed on them in government. We rate them on the progress they make in reaching our great expectations, even though they cannot complete all we ask of them.

Even if they could complete their herculean tasks, democratic systems put another brake on their efforts, as three to five years is too small of a timespan for generational projects, whether they be societal or infrastructural, to be completed. A government which dedicates itself to something that will take a decade to complete, and another decade to see the benefits of, may well be kicked out of office halfway through the project and long before the benefits can be fully realised.

Why, then, would any prospective government run a campaign around nation-building, or long-term transformational projects that it would probably not be able to see out? Even if it won an election on that promise, there would be a significant risk that they would have nothing to show for it at the next election, other than perhaps a large amount of debt, thereby giving their opponents easy fodder to work with.

The next election is always just around the corner, which means that democratic systems necessarily force governments to shorten their thinking. It's all well and good to say that their enormous infrastructure project will improve quality of life for generations through the economic change it brings, but without something to point to in the short-term, a government will not reach the great expectations people have for them.

Two men who've mastered the art of short-term politics. (Image: Sam Mooy/Getty)

This is not to say that no party will ever propose large or significant projects, but rather that, over time, parties will inevitably tune their thinking towards the short-term more and more. This has now been happening for so long that many countries now have major parties that are stuck in this way of thinking, and that cannot figure a way out.

Even when parties do propose something 'big,' it's often not attached to a larger vision for their society. In fact, big projects seem to often be just as much about immediate results as smaller ones are: this new healthcare scheme will make your insurance cheaper, that new train line will provide lots of jobs, and so on.

Any abstract thoughts about what kind of society they might want us to have and how they will assist us in working towards it are tossed away, because such things don't have immediate measuring sticks. Major parties are stuck in a world of concrete, because throwing facts and figures at the electorate is the best way to minimise risk by assessing the achievements of government (or hypothetical achievements of their opposition).

Spot the difference

It's not just that major parties, in their fading glories, are increasingly similar because they don't want to take policy risks. It's also that the kinds of people that enter these parties are increasingly similar. Because they often emerge out of the political class, they tend to harbour the same ambitions, perceive the world in similar ways and hang around with the same groups of people, leading them to the same kinds of solutions to the problems they become aware of, and remain unaware or unwilling to deal with the same kinds of problems they have a blind spot for.

Sure, they may not be exactly the same. If you were to examine the breadth of a political landscape by only looking at the policies of a country's major parties, you may spot all these apparent differences between them - but you're only able to do so because you are massively 'zoomed in' on the political picture.

If you take minor parties into your consideration, the picture suddenly becomes much larger, and the gap between the major parties will be seen for what it is - a selection between slightly different shades of grey.

And candidates can often reflect this hue deficiency. Because they tend to come from the same kinds of backgrounds, and have the same sorts of worldview, and they're also keen to avoid taking risks, candidates tend to be as bland as possible. They will always stick to the script, they will always repeat the major talking points that come to them from on high, which detail their party's 'plan' for the next few years of government, which usually revolves around a selection of phrases that appear to have been drawn out of a hat, usually involving some variation of 'jobs', 'safe', 'leadership', 'secure', 'growth', and, of course, '[your location here]'.


The best candidate for major party politics is one free of risk. Unfortunately, that also tends to lead them to be devoid of public thought, which is a shame, as it means that candidates are either a) prevented from speaking their mind and talking about their vision for the country, potentially even throwing some maverick ideas into the mix or b) are legitimately incapable of original thinking, and have been selected as an empty suit - neither of which are palatable to a population crying out for leadership.

In the end, it doesn't even matter?

This, then, is how we are left with an apathetic public - as any Australian will tell you right now.

Australians are going to the polls in their latest federal election today, and whatever the result, it will be the removal of a great burden from the shoulders of the electorate. It is hard to imagine a campaign more dismal, drab and uninspiring than what has been presented to the Australian public over the past six weeks.

Of course, Australians shouldn't be ungrateful to live in the country they're in, which can easily make a case to be the best country in the world to be in. But that doesn't mean they should be happy with what they've been offered by their major parties, which are suffering majorly from everything we've mentioned above.

A deserving result would be that of a hung parliament, but it will ultimately depend on how the minor party votes pans out. It is certain that minor parties will gain a lot of ground with voters at this election, but the questions will be 'how much?' and 'where are they coming from and going to?'

Labor appears to have made little-to-no ground in its primary vote from the last election, but the governing Coalition has definitely lost a significant number of voters to conservative leaning major parties on one hand, and liberal inner-city independents on the other, and those votes will not all come back to them on preferences. The more votes they lose, the less they get back, even if it's an 70/30 split towards them. It is virtually impossible to see the Coalition gaining a majority, which means a hung parliament would be a good day for them. A small Labor majority seems a real possibility, if there are not enough minor parties or independents winning lower house seats.

However, the major parties may even be wary of winning, as they will probably have to deal with an unsympathetic and even hostile Senate. It is entirely possible that every state could end up with two out of their six elected senators coming from minor parties. In fact, it would be rather a disappointment if they didn't achieve a result like that.

Regardless of the result, though, this situation cannot continue forever. Politics that make the public completely and utterly apathetic to who rules can only ever lead to a disaster in the long-term, and that doesn't just go for Australia. The entire western world seems increasingly unconvinced by this whole democracy thing - and woe betide us if our leaders start thinking the same way.


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