Come in Spinner: An elegy on the joys of missing an election campaign

Having left Australia before the election was called, returned on the Saturday after polling booths closed, and hearing about the campaign since, I have come to two conclusions – I was glad I missed it and was very sorry at not being able to vote for Angela Merkel.

On holiday it seems a bit silly to be spending hours each day checking up on news from back home when you could be in an art gallery so, in six weeks in Germany, there were really only two articles in The Economist and three or four in the Financial Times which provided a guide to what was going on. All were despairing, as have most of those people I have talked to since getting back.

The Bush-Dukakis Willie Horton election campaign was often regarded as the nadir in terms of democratic debasement. But in retrospect it was just the beginning of the slide into what Australians witnessed recently.

The obvious people to blame are the political parties, their advisers and the belief that risk minimisation is more important than leadership. But that is only half the story – they wouldn’t behave in the way they do if they weren’t constrained by the culture, practices and weaknesses of the media covering elections. It is the symbiotic relationship between media and politics – and the increasingly shrill and partisan nonsense spewed out by shock jocks and some media outlets – which compound the problem.

This is a partial explanation for how the public can come to believe so much – on debt, refugees, welfare, education, budgets etc etc – which is just wrong. It’s not new, of course. While in Aachen looking at Charlemagne’s monuments I came across a comment by Agrobard, Charlemagne’s 801 appointment as Archbishop of Lyons, who said of a common belief in his day: “This belief was so universal that hardly anyone was conscious of its absurdity … But this wretched world is now so oppressed by idiocy that Christians are willing to believe absurdities that even pagans would not have given credence to.”

More recently J. K. Galbraith defined a newspaper columnist as a person obliged to find significance three times a week in events of absolutely no significance. And the outgoing Bagehot columnist in The Economist remarked (3 July 2010) of his time covering British politics that “Political commentators…have concerned themselves with what will happen; what has happened; and what should happen. Few have addressed what is happening – that is, whether policies work and how the country is changing. The commentariat is mostly too cocooned to ask.” He admitted that he was sometimes guilty of such myopia himself but the observation could be applied in the US and Australia as well as the UK.

Policy convergence also leads to exaggeration of differences to hysterical levels and conservatives here – like their US counterparts – no longer really accept that their opponents ever have any legitimacy even if elected democratically. The machinations which led to new Californian elections and Republican obstructionism in Congress are examples of this.

Voters have settled in to a culture of entitlement – particularly pronounced among the better off – which discourages politicians from ever suggesting any policy which might actually involve some inconvenience or sacrifice to anyone at any time. The ETS debacle was one manifestation of this.

Business leaders who preach the virtues of little or no government are loudest in demanding strong government and certainty.

But ultimately the constraints are not prison bars. Politicians with courage can refuse to play the game. Just thinking about recent years – and forgetting about the Deakins, Curtins, Chifleys of other ages – Keating, Fraser, Hasluck and others have demonstrated that it is possible to be different – even if the only lesson people draw from Hasluck’s failure to play the game was his loss to Gorton in the leadership election, not his principled position on campaigning and his trenchant opinions on the shortcomings of the Gallery.

That’s why Angela Merkel would get my vote. More progressive than the ALP and the Coalition; comfortable in her own skin; determined, efficient and fairly effective; resistant to PR and political gimmicks; able to go to the opening of the Bayreuth Festival without agonising over being seen as elitist; and running a country that works, makes and exports things and has excellent health care and education systems.