Ending Political Groundhog Day

August 13 / 116

Although it’s political Groundhog Day out there, we pretend we’re election virgins. Every time is our first time. We are amnesiacs struggling to reinvent the same flawed rules all over again.

I don’t know about you but I am bored with re-runs of debates about poor process rather than about poor political substance. There’s the fluff about whether or not there will be a leaders’ debate, who’ll take part, what it will involve, with how many jousts in the tournament, and which suppository of wisdom – thank you, Tony - had a sheaf of crib notes or not.
We revel in fake shock when parties release their policy costings too late for proper assessment and scrutiny. We indulge in faux outrage over the costs’ limited range or their blatant inaccuracy.
Then there’s the mock theatre, despite the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook, of an incoming government blaming new information about the state of the budget for the need to drop core and non-core promises and redefine its agenda.
As voters, we take these impoverished performances with a straight face while knowing that democracy needs to be based on informed choice and that these practices confound that possibility.
Put the budgetary elements into context. An analogy would be if large companies chose the timing of their annual reporting, released only a selection of favourable self-audited data to the investing public, and then were at liberty to fully revise their costings and promised actions after key public investment decisions and tax-related determinations had been made. Fortunately we have laws that somewhat curb that sort of behavior.
Australia rightly prides itself in its use of compulsory voting to require public political engagement. This formalization of electoral politics should be extended to enhance the potential for informed public choice.
Julia Gillard’s early announcement of the September 12 election date momentarily removed from government one of its unfair advantages in campaigning, choosing the timing of battle. We should go one step further and have fixed terms of office, which encourage stable government and well-prepared elections. These terms could be broken only in well-defined circumstances.

We should also have legislated requirements for the release of policies prior to elections, accompanied by independently audited costings and with significant financial penalties for noncompliance.
Clearly defined and formalised rules for the theatre of political debate between leaders of each major party would also help. As would significant financial penalties for deliberate misreporting of policy content, to reduce the bias inherent in Australia’s loaded media system.
Draconian? Perhaps. But at least these changes would get us away from the dangers of self-harm caused by boring debates about process. They would let us glow instead with informed grumpiness about the major parties’ policy offerings. And they would help us to vote accordingly.

Associate Professor Peter Christoff is a political scientist who teaches in the Melbourne School of Land and Environments

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