This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco… The meaning of #ACTvotes for #AusPol

Cast your minds back, gentle reader, to the year of 2008.  Cyprus and Malta had just adopted the Euro.  Medvedev succeeds Putin as President of Russia.  And the Large Hadron Collider is inaugurated.

There was also an election in the Australian Capital Territory.

Not too many people were shocked with the result.  Out of the seventeen seats up for grabs, the ALP candidates won seven of them, the Liberal Party won six, and the remaining four were filled by the Greens.  ALP formed government with the support of the Greens.

This election, remember, was before the horror Federal election of 2010.  In that election, both major parties struggled to communicate effectively with the electorate.  The ALP was repeatedly bogged down by Kevin Rudd issues, while the LNP struggled to produce any policies.  The result was a confused electorate.  How do you choose between two groups which are, by all accounts, equally inept?

You could vote for the Greens, of course, but that would mean voting for the Greens.

The result was a 50-50 split between the LNP and the ALP.  This showed that, when it comes down to it, the LNP and ALP together do a good job of representing the electorate.  When political parties discuss big issues, it draws all but the rusted on voters to one side.

In recent State elections, the ALP has struggled to retain power.  Unlike other commentators, I don’t think that this is due to a ‘toxic’ ALP brand; there appear to have been clear local issues — big, meaty, important issues — at play.

Yesterday’s ACT election provides a bit more evidence in support of that analysis.

The ACT really doesn’t have much in the way of local issues.  One of the key differences between the ALP and the LNP was how many new beds were going to be funded in the hospital system (1,500 to 1,700, if I remember correctly).  As a Canberran, here’s the quick list of issues:

1. Health.  It’s a bit crap here.  If I’m extremely ill, I’ll go to Victoria.

2. Transport.  Just about everybody wants light rail.  We want it so much that most of us don’t really care that we can’t afford it anymore.  We hip young things go drinking in Civic and then…  hope to hell we’ve been partying with somebody who lives near Civic and we can sleep on their couch.  I moved to the Inner North because I had a gut full of trying to get taxis back home after an evening out.  Also, getting anywhere by taxi is ludicrously expensive.  Everywhere in Canberra is basically ten minutes from the airport.  Thirty bucks.  Screw that.  It’s usually cheaper to drive and leave your car at the airport for three days (sixty smackaroos for taxis as opposed to forty for parking).

And that’s pretty much it.  Canberrans, mind, didn’t actually want their own government but the Commonwealth eventually refused to administer us on our behalf.

In this election, something very weird happened: none of the parties bothered to campaign very much.

As a wonk, I am drenched in media.  I spent two weekends out in rural Victoria where the wireless reception was a bit crappy and almost went into media withdrawal.  If you’ve got a political campaign going on, I am probably the easiest person in the known universe to engage.  One of my eleventy billion RSS feeds will pick up your message and keep me well informed.

A week out from the election, I still didn’t know what the differences between the parties were.  All I knew was that Katy Gallagher was somehow responsible for crazy amounts of corruption at Canberra hospital, that Zed Seselja never seems to be looking at anybody in his local area (seriously, even when talking to people face to face, he looks like he’s staring into the middle distance), and that the Greens wanted free wifi in Civic.

How is this campaigning?

Over on Facesbook, meanwhile, the Bullet Train for Canberra Party kept popping up on my screen even though I hadn’t known anything about them.  Their platform was simple: they wanted a Bullet Train.  Their policies were even simpler: to promote the development of a Bullet Train.

I didn’t know what any of their other policies were or what they’d do if they were given power.  For all I knew, their other platforms were kicking babies and poisoning the magpies in Barton (both policies, on reflexion, I’d probably support) but, at the very least, I knew who they were and for what they stood.  They had made the effort to get my vote.  And it was on that basis that I voted for them.

It occurred to me after I voted that this would be an excellent way for a particularly noxious group to get power.  For all I know, they’re a front for some nutter religious group, like the Christian Democratic Party or the Greens.

So in a low-information election campaign, what happens?  The same thing as in 2010: a 50-50 split between the parties.

This tells us three things.  First, it tells us that the political elite has struggled to learn much from the 2010 experience.  Low-information elections advantage neither party in the long term.  Second, it tells us that the ‘ALP is a toxic brand’ meme is little more than propaganda.  As the ACT doesn’t have major issues, it works as a control group for the States.  If the ALP were a toxic brand, it would have lost seats here in the ACT: it retained all of them.  Third, political parties have lost the ability to communicate effectively with the electorate.  For the past few years, at the very least, we’ve had politicians ride in on the coattails of popular movements.  Kevin Rudd, for example, just had to avoid screwing up in order to sail in on the back of anti-WorkChoices sentiment.  Hell, he was even able to say ‘I’ll turn back the boats’ when it came to asylum seeker policy and he was still elected by a Ruddslide.

This third point is important.  It means that politicians are occupying a space in public conversation rather than leading or engaging it.  Tony Abbott, for example, just needs to embody resentment towards the Gillard Government in order to get elected.  In the ACT election, there was no engagement with the electorate, so the electorate had to pin their intuitions and aspirations on to the person.

My prediction is that we’ll see a repeat of the ACT election at next year’s Federal election: politicians failing to engage the electorate, and low-information campaigns resulting in the default neutral 50-50 split.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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