There seem to be a lot of people who are, despite never being involved in politics, apparently experts in what went wrong for Bill Shorten. It was barely 8pm when the hot takes started up. People knew with extreme certainty what the ALP had done wrong.
Worse, by 9pm, it seemed as if it was compulsory for people to get in first with their accurate diagnosis of what went wrong. Journos, especially, had this compulsion to give definitive takes as early as they could.
I’m not one of those people. I have no idea what went wrong. If anything, it justifies a whole lot more expenditure on social sciences research.
But I do know what the election loss means to me personally. As a conservative, I hoped that the Liberal Party would lose, spend a few years in opposition trying to digest what it was going to do about the hard right elements in its midst, and then approach the next election with a policy platform. Instead, Australia showed that you could win an election with next to nothing. Worse, it feels like the Liberal Party has won the election not knowing what it would do if it won. Most of its experienced elements had departed prior to the election, not expecting to be reelected, and the policy platform appeared to be made up on the spot.
Then again, when was the last time somebody won an election with a solid policy platform? Rudd won on ‘I’m not Howard. Vote against WorkChoices and vote against Howard.’ By the time the ALP had a policy platform together, they barely scraped through ahead of Abbott’s ‘I’m not Rudd or Gillard. Vote against the carbon tax and vote against the ALP.’ That message won the second time through, and then Turnbull won on ‘I’m probably the least worst option.’
Do we really know what people vote for? If you grab the random voter just as they cast their vote, do they know what they voted for? I know members of my family voted for the Coalition, but when I asked them what they would prefer of two policy options, they consistently picked the ALP policy. The policy issues were secondary in their mind when it came to the ballot box — perhaps it was simply that they did not know (or care) what the policy issues were, and they were voting on more personal aspects: trust, impression, identity. I don’t know. I think that whatever caused my family to vote for the Coalition was probably the same thing that made most ALP voters vote for the ALP, and most Greens voters vote for the Greens: bellyfeel. Nobody really knows enough about all the policy issues to make an informed judgement.
Then there was the catastrophic failure of the polls. Although some brane jeniouses knew that the polls were wrong because opinion polling is a lot like flipping a coin five times, the vast majority of sensible people had the reasonable expectation that they were in the ballpark of being accurate. It appears that something has systemically underrepresented the conservative response to polls, and we need quality research into how to handle this.
Besides people arranging their affairs based on what the best evidence was suggesting, the failure of the polls is a further blow to the campaign to get the public to engage with expert evidence. Why read mainstream news when they get it so entirely wrong? Or, framed differently, if experts can predict what will happen next week, why believe experts when they tell us what will happen in ten years, like they do with global heating? We already know that most people are no longer getting a regular intake of news content. Events like this justify to the ordinary person that they just shouldn’t believe what they see in the news and, therefore, should not bother to consume any news/current affair content. While the premise is correct (journos from both sides of politics are consistently getting major stories wildly wrong), I’m not convinced that ‘uninformed’ is better than ‘misinformed’.
And then there’s the Queensland question. There is a temptation to treat rural and regional Australia as an unchangeable fact: if you want to win an election, you need to engage with rural and regional Australia. It’s as if people think they’re aliens, or some sort of eldritch monster from one of the less inspired Lovecraft short stories. It exists, rural and regional Australia, dark and unchanging, not alive but not dead, unfathomable in its silent might. If parties want to win, they need to appease rural and regional Australia.
This view is complete garbage. Frankly, rural and regional Australia needs to start getting in touch with the rest of the world. I hear it whenever I go home, that resentment that people seem to have towards ‘the City’, or towards the ‘latte drinkers’ from Melbourne and Sydney (reminiscent of the same resentment that Melbourne and Sydney appear to have for ‘the Canberra Bubble’, as if most two of the three categories of political elite here in Canberra aren’t FIFOs). It’s a pathological resentment which prevents them from seeing that most people in Australia are in the same boat: the Australian economy is ensuring most of us are doing okay, but the gaps in inequality are growing and the way that inequality manifests itself across the country varies.
What prevents them from stepping into the real world is the incentive that politicians have to pander to their worst instincts. You’re the food bowl of the nation, and you do real work, and that’s why we need to bail you out for your bizarre farming decisions during the drought (that, in fairness, were incentivised by bizarre agricultural policies). For whatever reason, we are encouraged to think of farmers doing it tough in fundamentally different terms than the way we are to think of Indigenous Australians doing it tough or the urban poor doing it tough. The rhetoric is that farmers have legitimate grievances, while everybody else is sponging off their hard work.
The only thing more pathetic than their irrational resentment is the flaccid cheek flapping of overfed Sydneysiders who think rural and regional Australia is ‘real’ Australia.
Newflash, you hams: each electorate in Australia has roughly the same number of people, give or take 3.5%. That means there are more people in areas that have more electorates. The division of Durack is 1.6 million square kilometres and has 97,000 voters. The area of Sydney is 12 thousand square kilometres and has more electorates than I could easily count. Saying that politicians need to do more to connect with the (spatially) massive electorates at the expense of the (spatially) smaller electorates is demented.
Which gets me rather neatly to my final takeaway from the election: the blaming of regional and rural Australia for the outcome. To establish why that’s a garbage take, let’s look at the House of Reps members of the Cabinet:
- Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. Inner metropolitan division of Cook.
- Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg. Inner metropolitan division of Kooyong.
- Minister for Health, Greg Hunt. Outer metropolitan division of Flinders.
- Minister for Population, Cities, and Urban Infrastructure, Alan Tudge. Outer metropolitan division of Aston.
- Attorney-General, Christian Porter. Outer metropolitan division of Pearce.
And on and on it goes. The ‘You bumpkins cost us the election’ rhetoric from urban lefties really misses the point that most of them live near a tram line that goes through a Coalition electorate. Blame can only be cast at regional and rural Australia if you conveniently forget that a bulk of the Coalition’s leadership comes from the metropolitan Australia.
Does any of this amount to anything? If you are like me and you genuinely think that democracy can get better, does this recent election prompt anything but despair and defeatism? One party clearly had a policy platform and could debate ideas; the other couldn’t. Instead of rewarding the party that showed up, the electorate went the other way.
Briefly, there are three things. The first is that more people should join a political party. I continue to be of the belief that the Liberal Party is currently so obnoxious because only the most obnoxious people would want to be members of it. But that goes for the ALP and the Greens as well. Joining a party means that you’re part of the policy debate early, can influence the direction of parties, and — perhaps the most important bit — have a reason to get informed about the issues. Admittedly, I still can’t bring myself to join the Liberal Party…
Second, we need to find new ways to get information to people. The current model relies on people being responsible for the information that they consume, rather than on institutions being responsible for informing people. We need to flip that model. Crazily enough, we already have the tools needed to achieve this but have never been able to get the funding together to make it work (even getting pilot funding has been like pulling teeth). And that’s a problem: the marketplace of ideas is distorted by who has the funding and the platforms, and we need to ask whether this inhibits the flow of information to where it is needed. I think it says something extremely negative about our media that three ‘leaders debates’ were held with Shorten declared the ‘winner’, but this having no effect at all on the final vote. People just don’t care about political journalism, and the current model which relies on them caring is doomed to failure.
Third, I think the last few elections has shown us the need for leadership. It’s not just having the ideas (indeed, the ideas don’t seem to play any role here) but being able to capture the imagination of people. An election has to be more than a question of whom you hate less. The responsibility for training and cultivating leadership goes back on the parties: select better candidates and build them up into future leaders of the party. But that’s about being constructive, and the current political climate incentivises destructive behaviours (Jim Molan’s campaign to undermine the Liberal Party’s senate vote is a classic example of this).
Anyway, there’s my stale hot take for the outrage machine.