Associate Professor Sarah Maddison delivered the 12th annual Juanita Nielsen Lecture on the topic "Boiled frogs? Understanding the state of public debate in Australia today" on 28 August 2012.
Sarah Maddison is an Australian Research Future Fellow in the Schools of Social Sciences, UNSW. Among her many publications is "Silencing Dissent: How the Australian government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate", which she co-edited with Clive Hamilton in 2007. It argued that Australians had gradually become used to attacks on individuals and institutions resulting in the gradual erosion of robust public debate and a dramatic decline in the health of Australian democracy.
Thank you everyone for coming along tonight. Before I begin I would like to first acknowledge that we meet tonight on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and I pay my respect to elders past and present. I would also like to acknowledge Senator Lee Rhiannon, who initiated this lecture series in memory of Juanita Nielsen, and I would like to thanks the Greens' Political Education Trust for the great honour of being invited to give this year's lecture. Thank you also to Debbie Gibson for her reminder of Juanita Nielsen's life and struggle.
I would like to think that Juanita Nielsen would have appreciated the themes in tonight's lecture. She was, after all, a dissenter. Tragically, Nielsen was silenced in the worst possible way, paying with her life for having the courage to speak out against thugs and bullies. We should remember and be grateful that such acts are not a regular feature of political debate in Australia - Nielsen's death should be a reminder of how precious our democracy is.
Which brings me to the lecture itself. I want to start tonight by doing a bit of a time warp - mostly a step to the right rather than a jump to the left I'm afraid.
But come with me ladies and gentlemen as I take you back to early 2007. John Howard has been prime minister for almost eleven years. After four election wins by the once un-electable Member for Bennelong, the Australian political landscape has been profoundly, and I would suggest permanently, changed.
For those of us keen to revitalise a more progressive Australia, Howard's continued electoral success was both troubling and puzzling. How had this dull, deeply conservative little man managed to capture the hearts, minds, and voting intentions of so many Australians for so long? Why were so few voices being heard speaking out against some of his worst excesses? Why was dissent so muted? What was going on with Australian democracy?
In 2007, in response to these questions, Clive Hamilton and I edited the book Silencing Dissent: How the Australian government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate. Contributors to Silencing Dissent described the tactics used by John Howard and his colleagues to undermine dissenting and independent opinion, through their attempts to control non-government organisations, universities, public servants, the media and even parliament itself. The authors argued that, just as the proverbial frog in a pot of water does not notice the rising temperature until it has boiled to death, so Australians had gradually become used to attacks on dissenting individuals and institutions resulting in the gradual erosion of robust public debate and a dramatic decline in the health of Australian democracy.
This lecture revisits these concerns, asking what has changed since 2007, why public debate in Australia remains so muted and what we can do to make a difference.
But first, let me take a few minutes to recall the patterns, and underlying attitudes, that were documented in Silencing Dissent.
The chapters in Silencing Disssent documented how the Howard Government had been progressively dismantling the democratic processes that create the capacity for public debate and accommodate dissenting opinion. The book was both an attack on the silencing strategies of the Howard Government and a passionate defence of a different kind of politics, a more democratic politics in which participation and dissent are essential components.
The contributing authors in the book argued that the apparently unconnected phenomena of attacks on non-government organisations, the politicisation of the public service, the stacking of statutory authorities, increasing restrictions on academic freedom and control over universities, the gagging or manipulation of some sections of the media, and the politicisation of the military and intelligence services formed a pattern that posed a grave threat to the state of democracy in Australia. As editors, Clive and I argued that these phenomena were not accidental or coincidental
We were not suggesting that there was any sort of written strategy or unit designed to coordinate this silencing process Rather we saw them as the product of the intolerant and anti-democratic sentiment that pervaded the Howard Government, one that was at times given an ideological justification and that resulted in a consistent compulsion to mute opposition to government policy and control public opinion.
The Howard Government's efforts at silencing dissenting voices were strengthened by their cabal of supporters in the media who consistently disparaged critics of the Government as hysterical 'Howard haters'. This inner circle of ideological warriors including Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen and Christopher Pearson formed a kind of right-wing syndicate that helped to set the climate of public debate, working in 'ideological lockstep' with the Government, and often narrowing the terms of the debate itself by pouring scorn on anyone who still dared to articulate views associated with the now unfashionable values of social justice and human rights, or concern about climate change. This group has continued to wield disproportionate influence in our public debate, as I will discuss further shortly.
In sum, the central argument in Silencing Dissent was that Australians deserve a democracy in which dissent is considered part of a robust democratic process. We deserve universities and research communities that are free of ideological intervention; a public service and statutory authorities that are free to provide frank and fearless advice without worrying about retribution; a media that is committed to, and enabled in, its work of communicating political decisions to the general public without bias or interference; a non-government sector that is properly resourced and unafraid to provide a critical voice in public policy debates; military and intelligence services that are able to place national security above political loyalty at all times; and parliamentary institutions like the Senate that provide an effective check on executive power.
Each and every one of these institutions was diminished during the Howard years, in ways that would have a lasting impact on the health of our democracy.
Kevin07 and the real Julia
But by 2007 the Australian public had had enough.
In many ways, Howard's undoing was ultimately of his own making. On top of growing public anger about brutal asylum seeker policy and persistent climate change denialism, Howard simply pushed his ideological agenda too far with his industrial relations policies. The Your Rights at Work Campaign, combined with efforts from GetUp and other progressive organizations helped Labor, and Kevin Rudd, into power - a landslide win for Labor after eleven and a half years in the political wilderness.
Phew, we all thought. Thank god that's over. Like many others I was optimistic that we would now see some progressive change from a government given an overwhelming mandate for just that.
And the early signs were good. The long overdue apology to the Stolen Generations during the first sitting of the new parliament was another moment to exhale. And I was at I was at the 2020 Summit where I shared the widespread feeling of excitement that here was a government attempting through an event (more symbolic than it could ever be meaningful), to convey to the Australian public the view that their voices mattered, that the era of silencing dissent was over.
This hope was nurtured by a speech from Julia Gillard some months after the 2020 Summit, when she was still Rudd's loyal deputy, in which she announced a review of all NGO contracts with government, seeking to eliminate any trace of the Howard era 'gag clauses'. In an interview at the time, Gillard claimed that the Rudd Government did not want to 'stifle debate', but rather wanted to 'ensure that this country ends up with the best possible policy.' Gillard contended that this 'requires us to get the gag off and listen to those who know what's going on' (Franklin & Lunn, 2008).
Changes like these were real and meaningful, and I would not want to argue that the creeping authoritarianism of the Howard years has simply persisted under Labor. Plainly it has not. To give credit where it is due I think there were some genuinely good intentions within the newly elected Labor government to undo some of Howard's anti-democratic excesses.
But I vividly remember that, as Clive and I travelled around Australia speaking about the book before the 2007 election, we were asked time and time again what needed to happen to reverse the pattern of silencing that our contributors had so chillingly documented. Time and time again we responded by emphasising that a change of government would be a good start, but it would not be enough. Democratic institutions that had been stifled, suppressed, undermined, and threatened, would not magically rebuild themselves just because a different party now held government.
This assessment has most certainly proved to be true.
And so, sadly, our larger hopes for democratic revitalisation and reform have not been realised. Instead, today we find ourselves at the lowest ebb of political debate I can remember. I have asked friends 20 or 30 years older than me to give me their assessment, and, sadly, they concur. Australian politics seems to never have been quite this turgid. Quality debate has never been quite so drowned out by the shouting, carping competition....for, what? The ambitions of both parties seem to be only about retaining or attaining government. There is no vision, no aspiration, and thus no connection with the Australian people.
This sense of disappointment has been reflected in plummeting opinion polls for the governments led by both Rudd and Gillard, and a more widespread sense of dissatisfaction with politicians on all sides of politics. Indeed, one survey conducted by the ANU showed that the level of satisfaction with politicians had fallen 13 percent since the 2010 federal election, the lowest level since the GST was introduced in 1998. (Nick Bryant global mail 2012)
So what went wrong? How did a change of government so fundamentally fail to revitalize our democracy?
Many commentators point to a wider change in the style of Australian politics, that is increasingly drawing on American style campaigning in ways that have seen our domestic politics become less about vision and policy and more about marketing a brand. Marketing expert Andrew Hughes has argued that the 2007 Labor campaign was the first fully marketed political campaign, selling the Kevin07 brand rather than ideology or policy. In his view this confirmed that 'brand management' had become 'more important than party ideology.':
Winning the election, and keeping that lead in the polls, mattered more than holding true and firm to a long-held policy position or doing what was best for the national interest of Australia (Hughes 2011).
Labor's style of overly-scripted marketing politics continued after Gillard rolled Rudd in mid 2010. In the election campaign that year, even Gillard herself seemed to realize that this style was just not cutting through. Amid endless leaks and undermining from the man she deposed, Gillard confessed that faceless campaign strategists had had too much say in how her campaign had unfolded, insisting that from that point on the Australian public would see 'a whole lot more of her' being 'the real Julia'. But it was all too late, and, as we all know, a hung parliament was the outcome of what is surely one of the worst election campaigns in living memory. Already suffering a lack of trust following her ousting of Rudd, Gillard has never been able to connect with Australian voters. Her failure to communicate has given far too much air time to her carping negative opponent, on his endless parade of dress ups at factories, shops, mines and farms around Australia. And Gillard herself remains, as Michael Gawenda has opined, 'the most unpopular prime minister in the history of the universe.'
And here we all are-Australian citizens, voters, 'the people' that democracy is supposedly all about-wondering why, if the era of silencing dissent is over, the state of our public debate is so appallingly bad.
The state of debate
So let us consider the state of debate in Australia. I am certainly not alone in observing the parlous state of Australian public debate. Motivated by similar concerns, Antony Lowenstein and Jeff Sparrow put together a recent collection of political essays describing 'a weird inversion' in Australian politics. They observed that 'the more difficult and pressing the challenges facing Australia and the world became, the less discussion ensued about solutions that might be helpful.' They noted that Australian politics is now more polarized than it has been for decades, and yet 'most of the time, the sound and the fury centre on minute points of differentiation between the parties...':
The more you zoom out from the immediate talking points, the less seems at stake. On economics, on foreign policy, on healthcare, on education, on almost all questions of substance, the distinctions are minute: disputes about nuance rather than philosophy.
Our politics has also become far more poll driven. Veteran journalist Michael Gawenda points out that, as membership of the major political parties continues to decline, politicians find they have no base to turn to from which they may get a sense of what is going on in their constituencies. Instead politicians and political parties rely on opinion polls and focus groups for their opinions. The result is that the language of politics has become what Gawenda describes as 'the deadening, life-denying language of empty market-tested slogans.' No room for debate there.
Another consequence of poll-driven politics is that, as another veteran Aussie journo, Jonathan Green, argues, members of our communities who are 'uninformed, angry and blindly polemical' are increasingly directing and dominating political debate. Green suggests we look at the 'endless to and fro over asylum seekers':
...a debate in which the national government happily sets aside its obligations under international law and convention, never mind any reasonable notion of what is moral, in order to placate a vocal core of constituents whose shallow xenophobia and nebulous economic anxieties are amplified by talk back radio and the tabloids of TV and print. Same for climate change. Five years ago we had something near to a national consensus based on unambiguous science, a consensus cynically talked down often through shorthand distortions and misrepresentations pitched at the uninformed.
Today, Green contends, 'few politicians dare confront these tides or take a stand against it. The tail has wagged the dog.'
The political scientist John Keane describes this situation as a kind of 'mediacracy', in which popularly elected governments are 'proactively engaged in clever, cunning struggles to kidnap their clients and citizens mentally through the manipulation of appearances, with the help of accredited journalists and other public relations curators.' This, according to Keane, is the age of 'organised political contrivance' (Keane 2011). David Hetherington and Tim Southphommasane have observed that in Australia today, public debates are 'less about policy, and more about personality.' In their view self-interest has replaced national interest as the currency in our market place of ideas, 'Citizenship has been superseded by consumerism and profit-seeking.'
Political parties believe that political marketing rather than long term vision is more effective at winning them government. Policy is a product targeted at stakeholder groups or voters in marginal seats; those best able to influence an election outcome. This approach is profoundly anti-democratic, but as long as winning government is more important than values, ideology and vision, then democracy as we might remember it is in very deep trouble (Hughes 2011).
And politicians themselves are perfectly aware of this situation, although many of them profess not to like it. Lindsay Tanner, the former ALP member for Melbourne (now held by the Greens!), who left parliament in 2010, has diagnosed contemporary Australian politics as suffering from what he has dubbed 'the sideshow syndrome', where 'the creation of appearances' is now far more important than 'the generation of outcomes.' In this kind of sideshow politics:
Winning today's micro-argument is all important, and tomorrow can look after itself. This breeds a collective mentality of cynicism and manipulation. Policy initiatives are measured by their media impact, not by their effect (Tanner 2011).
I do not want to suggest that Australia is alone in going down this path. As the writer Nick Bryant (2012) has observed, Australia, like many western democracies, has been undergoing a process of 'political Americanisation, in its style, stagecraft, professionalism and mechanics.' Our prime minister, Julia Gillard, has decried what she calls the 'Americanisation of our debate' even as she has 'failed to admit her own culpability' in changing our political culture.
Yet I would contend that what makes Australia different in this regard is our recent political history. The silencing of dissent that characterized the Howard years has left us, as a nation, ill-equipped for a new era of political marketing in place of policy debate, for mediacracy instead of democracy. As the temperature of the water rose, many frogs in the Australian pot failed to notice, with dire consequences. The health of Australia's democracy continues to decline, and with the likely election of another conservative government next year, I hold grave fears for the longer term.
So the question then is, what is to be done?
Finding our voices
In the final part of this lecture I want to focus on two areas that go to the heart of the Australian capacity for dissent, robust debate, and healthy democracy, and consider what has changed since 2007. First I want to take a brief look at the NGO sector, and then I will turn my attention to the media, particularly the worrying area of media ownership.
As I noted earlier, life has improved for Australian NGOs since the end of the Howard government. Gag clauses have been removed from funding contracts, dissenting organisations have been invited back to the table of governmental advisory committees, and the High Court decision in the landmark case brought by Aid/Watch has challenged the view that an organisation's charitable status should be revoked if they engage in 'political activities.' You may recall that in 2007, Aid/Watch a small, organisation that promotes sustainability in aid, debt and trade policy, had its charitable status revoked by the Australian Taxation Office on the basis that charities cannot engage in 'any activity designed to change Australian Government laws, policies or decisions'. Aid/Watch's successful appeal to the High Court argued that silencing charities was an unwarranted restriction on freedom of political communication. The Court found that freedom of political communication meant the freedom to engage in any form of legal political rhetoric, and that it was not for the High Court to rule on content, but only the freedom to engage in it (High Court of Australia 2010a). This case transformed Australian charity law and created an 'implied' right to political communication for charities.
Changes such as this have reduced the perception that an organisation will be threatened by speaking out. This fear has not altogether disappeared, however, and Jenny Onyx and her colleagues point to evidence suggesting that many NGOs are still anxious that engaging in advocacy work may threaten their funding from government. While their views and expertise may be sought on committees and in response to emerging issues, they feel that they are only able to advocate in areas that 'do not directly challenge government policy.' Any sense of collaborating with government in policy development 'disappears when advocacy organizations seek to challenge existing policy' (Onyx et al 2008: 644). Indeed, not all Gillard's ministers appear to appreciate the attention that charities can bring to contentious issues. The Minister for Resources, Martin Ferguson, for example has criticised charities that 'demonise' the oil and gas industry. He warned that charity campaigns were threatening an economic boom that helped support their tax-free status, and undermining positive developments on the east coast (Crowe, 2012).
And of course, the AidWatch decision notwithstanding, the ability to strip an organisation of their charitable status is still a genuine threat. Indeed the 2011 federal budget announcement of a new Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (now slated to begin operating in October this year) confirms that NGOs need to remain cautious. The new commission is expected to produce additional tax revenue of $41.0 million over four years as a result of what the ATO describes as 'increased compliance activity to ensure that not-for-profit tax concessions are used only as intended.'
So a threatening climate persists, albeit in less overt and vicious form than under Howard. Onyx and co conclude that 'all is not well in the world of systemic advocacy, and that this situation poses a grave threat to the maintenance of healthy democracy' (Onyx et al 2008: 646).
Part of the problem in the NGO sector is the lingering effect of the Howard years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many organisations changed the make up of their boards and management committees in their efforts to survive in a hostile political climate. Where once such bodies were comprised primarily of activists and community members, today many organisations have sought out professional fundraisers, lawyers, financial managers, and media experts in order to combat shortfalls and threats to their funding, ensure legal and financial compliance, and develop their media profile. Of course the pursuit of each of these goals is a worthy and important activity, and I would never question the commitment or integrity of the people pursuing them, and nor would I undervalue the many thousands of hours of voluntary labour that goes in to managing NGOs. Nevertheless I think it is worth having a conversation about whether the new orientation of NGO boards and committees represents a form of political timidity. If the body in charge of managing the strategic direction of an organisation is primarily focused on fundraising and compliance, what happens to the radical edge of the sector? Could it be that non-government organisations are now silencing their own dissenting voices out of a lingering sense of anxiety and uncertainty that is a hangover from the Howard years?
The other area that I want to focus on concerns the political media in Australia, an issue explored by former Canberra Press Gallery journalist Helen Ester in Silencing Dissent. Back in 2007 Ester pointed to the skilful ways that Howard managed and manipulated the media, doing regular morning interviews with sympathetic, right-wing shock jocks, filmed for the nightly news, and the transcript released for the print media. Total control. This was combined with a witchhunt against our public broadcasting services, particularly the ABC, perpetuating the view that it was a hot bed of left-wing insurrection that never gave the government a fair go. Journalistic 'balance' became the mantra, which sounds reasonable, but in fact produced some disturbing outcomes for one of the most crucial institutions in any democracy. Think about the issue of climate change: it was this obsession with so-called balance that saw climate skeptics given equal airtime with climate scientists, perpetuating the wholly false view that the science on climate change is actually in question.
And Labor learned well from Howard's management of the media. Kevin Rudd was known for the tight control he exerted over both his and his parliamentary colleagues' relationship with the media (see Stuart 2007). Gillard has been less successful in her control of the media but appears no less scripted than her predecessor.
Quite aside from any Howard-era attacks on critical journalism, however, or the Rudd and Gillard-era scripted monotony, there have been significant structural changes to Australian media in recent years that should cause concern. The impact of digital media means that traditional media, and particularly the print media, have taken a hit to their bottom lines. This has produced some radical restructuring and the shedding of staff, which, as journalism academic Alexandra Wake points out, means 'fewer and fewer voices, and fewer things to think about.' Research by Crikey and the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism showed that in one week in 2009 more than half the content in ten Australian newspapers was derived from public relations sources, often without any independent work done by journalists. And as the number of journalists is reduced, publications become ever more reliant on generic content, meaning that 'our Australian newspapers will become a pale imitation of what they are now, which is a pale imitation of what they once were' (Wake 2012: 1).
This alone is very worrying, but it is not the only trend in Australia media that is of concern. It is widely known that Australia has one of the most concentrated corporate media sectors in the world, yet, as Wendy Bacon points out, when the Greens convinced the Gillard government to hold an independent inquiry into the media last year, Labor refused to include an investigation into the concentration of media ownership as a term of reference. I won't revisit the high profile issue of Gina Rinehart's play for Fairfax, except to underscore a more widespread concern about concentrated media ownership in the hands of a few corporate interests.
Indeed, media, and media policy is emerging as a central area of democratic contestation in the coming months. The last few weeks have seen the conservative push back against new moves for media regulation, under the guise of protecting our right to free speech. In a recent speech to the IPA Tony Abbott declared that any form of additional media regulation risked becoming a 'political correctness enforcement agency destined to suppress inconvenient truths and to hound from the media people whose opinions might rattle Phillip Adams' listeners.' To further protect the rights of syndicated, right-wing newspapers columnists like Andrew Bolt, who of course was found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act in a series of articles questioning the authenticity of light-skinned Aboriginal peoples' indigeneity, Abbott would also like to wind back section 18C of this same Act.
The similarities with Howard here are striking. Where Abbott's rhetoric is about 'free speech' Howard's was about 'political correctness.' The same ideological comrades are being brought into the battle. Howard was hand-in-glove with the 'NGO Watch' campaign, Abbott is clearly on board with the IPA's campaign to protect 'press freedom' from any unwarranted threats such as a public interest test for media owners. The implications for the fourth estate, not to mention protection against discrimination for anyone who is not a white, heterosexual man, are very disturbing indeed.
What does the future hold?
So, let us take a minute to consider quite seriously the fact that, before the end of next year, it is most likely that Tony Abbott will become Australia's next prime minister. It is very possible that Federal Labor will suffer the kind of electoral annihilation recently experienced in NSW and Queensland. In that scenario it is also possible that the Coalition could win control of the Senate. Some have even suggested that Bob Katter's Australia Party could control the Senate. No really.
This, to me, very frightening future scenario is made infinitely worse by the kind of politics of vested interests that has become the dominant political force in today's Australia. Of course, there has always been a politics of vested interests at play in Australia-key business and industry lobbies exerting a disproportionate level of influence over our politicians-but the kind of political marketing that now shapes political communication in Australia has had the effect of amplifying these voices. John Keane reminds us that 'Big money disproportionately wins votes' and, even more troublingly, when politicians surround themselves with lobbyists and business interests they lose the trust of the people and diminish the standing of the parliament.
Interestingly, one of the few mainstream political voices speaking out about this has been the current Treasurer, Wayne Swan - in his guise as the working class hero Wayne Swansteen. In an essay and a speech this year Swan has argued that 'a handful of powerful people not only think they have the right to a disproportionate share of the nation's economic success, they think they have the right to manipulate our democracy and our national conversation to gain an even bigger slice of the pie.' For naming some of the most brazen offenders in this regard - Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart, and Twiggy Forrest - Swan should be applauded. But his voice alone is not enough.
One of the biggest challenges we face is the way in which the silencing strategies of the Howard years have become institutionalized. I have looked tonight at some of the effects of this in the NGO sector and in the media, but the depressing state of public debate in Australia goes much wider and deeper than this.
This is, indeed, a depressing moment in Australian politics. But it is one in which we simply cannot afford to wallow or indulge. Lowenstein and Sparrow describe the 'The deep pessimism of this cultural moment' as leading to what they call 'zombie politics' that is 'the sense that even a zombie invasion is more likely than the achievement of any significant reforms.'
In facing the challenges of the next 12 months, and then the years to follow we simply cannot allow ourselves to be zombies, or to let the zombies invade.
One of the more important points we made in Silencing Dissent, in my view, was to point to the ways in which the view of democracy advanced by the Howard Government rested upon a particular belief about human nature. Howard and his colleagues believed that it is normal and natural for people to be the self-interested 'rational maximisers' known as homo economicus in the economics text-books. In this citizens are regarded as having little concern with democratic participation unless it is in their own material interests.
This view of human nature has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is now more acceptable for citizens to see little value in political engagement or participation beyond their own interests. As Tim Southphommasane points out, like other Western societies, we are rapacious consumers, our culture is one of unrestrained material and other desires, our mood is one of constant unrest. Southphommasane suggests that our identities as consumers are supplanting our roles as citizens, as our political judgements are based on 'thinking of our leaders as products and parties as brands.'
But where Howard held a view of human nature as made up of self serving vested interests, today it seems both major parties hold a view of Australian voters as bleeding idiots who expect nothing more than droning monotony on one side of the house, and a vicious negativity on the other. The endless spin, the scripted political dialogue, the stage managed public appearances complete with hard hats and fluro vests, tell us that our politicians think we are vapid, passive consumers, open to being sold their message of the day, unable or not bothered enough to engage, to question, to challenge, or to debate.
But are they right?
We talk a lot about the loss of vision in politics, a lack of focus on the big picture, on the long-term view of how we see ourselves as a nation and our relationship with the planet and the other nations on it. In her recent Quarterly Essay Lara Tingle suggested that Australia is currently struggling 'to find either a politician or a message that can give effective, inspiring voice to our personal or national aspirations' (p. 15). According to Tingle, 'We are fighting so much among ourselves about the personal qualities of our leaders that we cannot rationally discuss the options open to us. And we don't really know where we are headed or, indeed, where we want to go' (p 64).
But is it really our politicians who are responsible for that vision? Can we seriously identify any likely incumbent in the lodge in coming years who we believe can articulate such a vision?
In his influential work on the concept of adaptive leadership, Harvard professor Ronald Heifetz describes the inclination to look to authority for solutions as generating 'inappropriate dependencies.' The response from authorities, such as governments, will often make the situation worse, or at least perpetuate the problem. Authorities are often under pressure to appear decisive, and as a result they are inclined to 'fake the remedy or take action that avoids the issue by skirting it'. Authorities are always more likely to deal with an adaptive challenge by diverting attention from the issue. By applying a technical solution rather than engaging in adaptive work the problem 'appears to be taken care of'. The public response-our response-when authority fails or when the problem in fact worsens in response is to 'perpetuate the vicious cycle by looking even more earnestly to authority' for a new solution, often switching our support to someone new who promises new and better answers (Heifetz 1994 72-3).
In the age of 'mediacracy' the 'sideshow syndrome' can only be understood as what Heifetz would describe as 'work avoidance.' We would be deluded to imagine that our current politicians could deliver the kind of 'fresh democratic thinking' that John Keane suggests we need. Keane argues for 'new democratic imaginaries', which will necessitate 'different methods of saying things, of articulating what cannot easily be said, of exposing silences and taken-for granted presumptions.' The current, dismal state of affairs is not inevitable, and nor is it unavoidable, but neither do I think that it is fixable from on high.
Rather, the responsibility is ours. We must reclaim our political identities as citizens, not consumers of politics. We can use the old fashioned methods of writing to and meeting with our local members. We can use the new opportunities presented by extraordinary organizations like GetUp and the plethora of new web-based organizations that allow us to build petitions and grow campaigns about the issues we care deeply about. We can become 'citizen journalists', investigating the issues that concern us and partnering with progressive media to tell the stories. There are many ways to engage. We are limited only by our imaginations and by our capacity to break with the cynicism and exhaustion that the current mediacracy produces. As Tim Southphommasane reminds us, 'We all have a responsibility to resist the desire for instant gratification.'
The next six to twelve months are a crucial moment in which the tone of our political debate needs to change. Can you imagine the horror - the debasement - of the next election campaign if it does not? Our politicians will not change it. The corporate media will not change it.
Only we can change it. In the spheres of influence in our own lives, in our workplaces, our universities, our schools and our community organizations we need to change the conversation. The question is not, will Julia or Tony be the next prime minister. One of them will and it won't change a damn thing.
Time and time again, I have repeated my mantra - that governments do not do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. They do the right thing when voters demand it of them. So it is time to become more demanding. I am tired of being drowned out by Alan Jones. I want to join my voice with others who are talking about a different, more progressive vision for Australia. This is a conversation that will need to be sustained through some difficult years ahead, but it is a conversation that must be had. I am a citizen, not just a consumer. I am a dissenter, not a boiled frog. And now is the time for us to be heard.