Visual courtesy of Sabena Bhadri
In the past few years in Australia, we’ve seen cardboard effigies of Kevin Rudd brought into parliament, Taylor Swift songs incorporated into parliamentary statements, Opposition Leaders kicked out of Question Time and more screaming matches than you would find in a rap battle.
Currently, the well is running dry of political heroes that step up on the global stage and pervade the social barriers that confine them, with daring drive, empowering visions for the future, and a capability to create a world changing history. History puts leaders like Churchill, Roosevelt, Lincoln and JFK on a pedestal, ultimately because they were on the people’s side and campaigned for human rights. These kind of politicians are non-existent in Australia. Where have all these good men and women gone?
In Australia’s most recent election, 1 in 4 voters cast their first preference for a non-major party. These examples suggest that voters’ trust in mainstream politicians is lower than it has ever been, with people feeling their only option is to choose a ‘lesser evil’.
Election campaigns have become sensationalised, paralleling a soccer match played in front of almost empty stands, with aggressive hooligans the only spectators and "leaders rising before being quickly dumped in the rip tide of a 24-hour media cycle".
A huge portion of responsibility lies at the feet of the media.
Shock-based news is cheaper to make and gets high ratings, but it also contributes to the increasing tendency of politicians to talk in three word slogans and catchphrases, rather than to make speeches that engage with the real issues.
Supposedly the ‘fourth estate’ of democracy, the media is supposed to hold politicians to account, inform the public and foster productive conversation about the issues facing our nation and our world. In the 24 hour news cycle, however, news is increasingly made to create shock value rather than informative discussion.
This means that we’re more likely to turn on the news and see a story about Scott Morrison’s Borat impersonation than we are to see a story about the Liberal’s policy to cut corporate tax. It's more likely that Bill Shorten eating a sausage sizzle the wrong way will go down in history, than we are to recognise Labor’s backing down over refugee rights.
Australia’s history is currently fragile. Can you think of the last time a politician's speech created history and was documented on every TV screen in Australia? Most probably Kevin Rudd’s ‘Sorry Speech’ which was over a decade ago. We’ve had four prime ministers since then and not one has fulfilled the position to create Australia’s ageing history that we desperately need.
But how can we reverse the course of history that we are currently on?
We the People
However, as much as the burden falls on the politicians, it also falls on us, the voting population. In order to allow them to rise up to create history we need to have greater respect, allow our ‘polis’ to be subject to scrutiny but not the subject of sensationalism, ensure a transparent parliament and encourage civil debates with an absence of pettiness.
First, as consumers, we need to demand better quality reporting from our media. The forces of commercial television are determined by which shows get the most ratings and if we refuse to tune into sensationalised, shock-based news programs, the incentive to create them will disappear.
There is an urgent need to reform our political system and lead more towards a deliberative democracy. Giving citizens the chance to be involved in policy making, uniting Australians and allowing significant public input. We need to realise that it doesn’t matter how rigorously our media holds politicians to account, or how effective anti-corruption bodies are, if we, the voting population, do not actively engage in our own democracy.
Under these proposals, political heroes may no longer come from the political class. What may emerge is a different kind of hero – the citizen-politician. They not only promote change like a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but are also put into the driver’s seat to enact important policy and turn their vision of a brave new world into reality.
It’s time that politicians, in conjunction with us, the voters, create a nation where we focus our minds on the next 25 years, not 30 minutes; on ideas, not ideology; on substance, not spin; on policy not politics.