John Keane | ‘Supermarket’ Election
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‘Supermarket’ Election

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One of the world’s foremost experts on the history of democratic government has delivered a scathing verdict on the Australian election campaign.

John Keane is himself an Australian, but over the last three decades has been teaching overseas, with professorships in London and Berlin. His most recent book was the monumental The Life and Death of Democracy.

PM’s ABC Australia

Now John Keane is back in Australia as Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. He gave me his impressions this afternoon.

JOHN KEANE: It feels to me like an election from my earlier years; pretty dull, boring, issue-less.

I have the feeling that the two principal parties resemble large supermarkets, supermarket chains. It’s a sort of K-Mart election; offering a whole variety of goods, claiming discounted prices, appealing to voters who are treated as consumers, with a heavy inter-dependency, very difficult to recognise, the two brands. They feel very, very similar.

MARK COLVIN: So it’s Coles versus Woolworths?

JOHN KEANE: It is that. And it’s driven by, as far as I can tell, by a whole set of techniques. The heavy reliance on focus groups, which is common in many democracies of course. The constant references to – oblique references – to consensus. I mean Julia Gillard speaking about the republic and saying in mid-July that there wasn’t yet a consensus about this and would only move on this when there was a consensus.

A lot of fudge; a lot of dog whistling politics – almost a week of talk of armadas and boat people – quiet deals to take toxic deals off the agenda, for example, the deals with the miners with BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, XStrata. And a phenomena of growing importance in all democracies, you can see it very acutely in Australia in this election campaign, the concentration on the marginals – about 20 of them.

MARK COLVIN: Is essentially what’s happening that politics is replacing policy?

JOHN KEANE: I would say worse than that. It’s apolitical politics replacing policy and politics.

The controversial matters are not slugged out and I think Australians, all Australians know from recent years of elections that were cliff-hangers, where there were substantive differences and issues mattered: the Obama campaign, or the Blair victory, or the Kevin Rudd defeat of John Howard. I mean these were elections that had dynamism and some sense of rough and tumble.

To this point, this feels like a rather poor theatrical performance and not surprisingly, I have not yet come across in my first couple of weeks in Australia, back in Australia, back home, I haven’t come across anybody who waxes eloquent about “the great choosing day” – Walt Whitman’s wonderful phrase – “where the heart pants”, as he put it and where people live in large numbers in suspended animation. That’s not happening in this election campaign.

MARK COLVIN: You’re just back from the UK and they had an election in May of course. Is it very different from that?

JOHN KEANE: Even that had much more substance to it. A clear sense, as I’ve written in a few places, a clear sense among a majority of voters that they were not prepared to hand a clear working majority, a thumping victory to any one party.

MARK COLVIN: And this even seems to be there, there’s a sense of relief that it’s out of the hands of the bipolar, the two-sided party system. Do you think that we should take lessons from that?

JOHN KEANE: I think in practically every democracy we are seeing, certainly in the Atlantic region and I think it’s happening here, I think a black swan moment is developing. But I think we’re seeing the end of the road of this catch-all centre-less, heavily bipartisan politics. Voters see through this.

In a system of representative democracy we elect representatives to make the tough decisions, to shift ground, to set agendas. I don’t see this happening at this point in this election campaign.

MARK COLVIN: And something else you mentioned was the obsessive focus on maybe 20 seats.

JOHN KEANE: Yes.

MARK COLVIN: I think a lot of people are feeling that and feeling very frustrated by it, because they’re not in those 20 seats, or they’re not in the right demographic as they say. What can people do about that?

JOHN KEANE: Well lucky as you say if you live in Bass or Parramatta or Boothby. If you live in Sydney I haven’t seen sight of either a Liberal or a Labor campaigner. No door-knocking, no leaflets yet. Greens are active, but not Labor or Liberal.

Not much can be done about that I think by ordinary citizens except attune their antennae to competitors and perhaps using the preference system to try to oust one of the two main parties. The Greens will surely win seats, inner-urban seats at some point in the coming period. Probably not in this election, we’ll see.

MARK COLVIN: And that’s a consequence of that?

JOHN KEANE: Yes. The National Audit Office has already, following the 2007 election, when the Regional Partnership Program, RAP as it’s called, where funds were used by the Howard government to dispersing those funds into marginals. I mean it’s 19th century pork-barrel politics.

The audit office expressed objections to this and I think that one of the areas in which there can be a clean-up and an injection of excitement into future elections in Australia is that this use of regional funds to oil the machinery in marginals, I mean a stop should be put to that.

MARK COLVIN: John Keane the recently returned Professor of Politics and the University of Sydney.