Opinion: Election 2022: a chance for something better?

Photo by Anna Tarazevich from Pexels
Sunday 2 January 2022

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

What good are news media if they always endorse power, gloss over pork-barrelling, and hasten democratic decline?

In the lead-up to the most important election since the 1970s, wise old editors will patronise readers with alkaline dirges about the false allure of the "Voices for ..." independents, and the heartburn of a hung parliament.

Betraying their own work-a-day readership, tabloids will defend power by undermining independent candidates - usually by trying to prove they had once supported this party or that, or worse, might have succeeded in business.

The broadsheets will intone more haughtily of course, but the guts of all their coverage will be the same - terrestrial, visionless, and gendered.

"Don't trust them," they will counsel, "you don't know who these women would side with in a minority parliament, or how they'd vote on budget repair, AUKUS, China, or strong borders."

Readers will be gently scolded to stop flirting and to come back to the majors.

But really, what is to be feared? That they might actually look to their electorates, or weigh the evidence on a policy-by-policy basis? Perhaps they might even question major-party toadying to Washington, or Australia's embarrassingly uncritical support for Israel.

We've seen this movie before. Spooked and deflated, many voters will opt to reinstall a government which skites about its (largely absent) record even as it wades nostril-deep in sleaze and scandal.

Editorial and opinion pages already trumpet this antidote to Australian ambition. The powerful and their charmless ground-crew in the fourth estate are busy mansplaining that hopes of something better constitute a dangerous fantasy. And in any event, it's all just politics.

"They are a party. They're backed by some big money at the end of the day, and they're about trying to attack the Liberal Party," said Scott Morrison in tellingly overwrought terms.

Similar attack lines will be dutifully replicated 1000 times in broadcast and print in the lead-up to the election.

Pipe-smoking political commentators will pontificate, depicting reformist (mostly) female indies as flibbertigibbets.

This depressing spectacle is what the political establishment - the major parties and their servile media - looks like in full survival mode.

Its collective instinct is to conflate itself unashamedly with the idyll of high-functioning democracy. Ergo, independents running against the Liberal Party are somehow running against the system itself.

It is true that political parties lend a degree of "good inertia" to governing, by reducing the amplitude of parliamentary competition. Through their internal discipline, party blocs stabilise a parliamentary contest that might be otherwise suffer turbulent mid-term realignments over issues and personalities.

But when the vulnerabilities of the governing elite become the primary concern for journalists and their employers, the effect of party domination becomes destructive - not so much the stabilisation of democracy as its paralysis.

The Coalition's decade-long sabotage of climate policy evinces just this kind of unhealthy collusion. And one with intergenerational implications. Dazzled by the privilege of access, political journalists tend to overvalue the internal manoeuvring and undervalue the policy outcome - the bit that really matters to voters.

In his perceptive book about Morrison, Sean Kelly correctly diagnoses this as an undue focus on how cleverly the game is played, rather that what gets done.

Reporters end up praising a PM for successfully appeasing party-room opponents instead of focusing on the policy failure his self-serving manoeuvres deliver.

It is a superficial frame of analysis in which everything is rendered equally political in character, policy included.

And so when Morrison accuses independent candidates of "trying to attack the Liberal Party" this is reported as (a) a claim that stacks up, and (b) one that matters beyond the Liberal Party - which, of course, it doesn't.

In this media mindset, any assault on independents needs to clear only the lowest of hurdles.

Under the headline "Much unknown about independents", a recently departed government staffer, Luke Nayna, penned a genre-piece for The Sydney Morning Herald last month in which, inter alia, he called the Voices independents "populists".

In fact, these candidates are anti-populists.

In targeting corruption, wanting more women in politics, and meaningful action on climate change, they offer a substantial alternative to the current sickness of preferencing political brinkmanship over rigorous policy reform.

Typically, Nayna not only overstates the risks of independents but construes them as ipso facto bad.

"... They're not telling the Australian people who they would back to be our prime minister in the event of a hung parliament," he warned. "This should be of concern to every Australian."

The assumption here is hollow. Did the electors of Cook know who Morrison was when he stood in 2007? Or even when he ran as PM in 2019?

What about a certain notorious Wednesday in 2018, when then-treasurer Morrison, his arm around Malcolm Turnbull, said, "This is my leader and I'm ambitious for him"? By Friday of the same week, Turnbull wasn't PM. Morrison was.

And who agreed to Barnaby Joyce coming back as Deputy PM earlier this year? Voters weren't asked.

Besides, it is not "what is unknown about independent candidates", but what is already known about the existing lot. With them, failure is no mere possibility, it's their record.

The online version of Nayna's op-ed was titled "Independents don't deserve a free pass into Parliament". Again, is that what we call elections now? A free pass?

There's no great difference between "Voices" independents and Clive Palmer's right-wing populism, argued the Herald's CBD columnist, Stephen Brook, in another apologia for the status quo. Brook concluded that choosing an independent was merely "outsourcing" the decision as to which party governs.

Media should speak more forcefully to the decay in our democratic systems, instead of running interference for ossified and self-serving political cartels.

Unsurprisingly, representative democracy will only be rescued by itself - which is to say, by voters overwhelming the vested interests who have proved so adept at gaming it.

The emergence of quality independents in 2022 might just be how that rescue begins.

Mark Kenny is a political analyst for The Canberra Times. He is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast. 

    Updated:  4 January 2022/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager