Flat White

Rebooting democracy

15 February 2017

4:25 PM

15 February 2017

4:25 PM

Like prophets of old, McLuhan’s warnings “the media is the message” has gone as unheeded as the Buggles observation that “video killed the radio star”

The inexorable evolution of the media from print through radio and television to the omniscient and all intrusive hydra that is social media has proved no more stoppable than a tsunami.

With the unmistakable signs of the deluge in which we flounder around us it is timely to contemplate either how we anchor in a watery world, or, if the flood recedes, which of society’s foundations might have been damaged beyond repair.

Current indications are that democracy might well prove one of the earliest casualties.

Winston Churchill’s quip that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” resonates through time because truth is the kernel of the complex ideas, which it both embodies and challenges.

From its genesis in ancient Athens, the flaws in participatory democracy were self-evident. Its worst form finds expression in prejudice, mass hysteria, riot and the lynch mob.

A bizarre, if interesting, example of the pressure and effect of “popularism” was evident in the days after Princess Diana’s death. For hundreds of years the principal masthead at Buckingham Palace has flown no flag other than the Royal Standard and that standard flies only when the sovereign is in residence.

When the Queen’s father died and she returned to the Palace, the sovereign’s personal standard flew from the masthead. It was a tradition, which embodied neither disrespect to the dead nor self-aggrandizement of the living. It was a visual symbol to the world of the stability and continuity of British Democracy; “The King is Dead. Long Live the King.”

Yet in what seemed an almost unseemly competition as to who could exhibit the most grief after Diana’s death, the Queen was forced to concede to populous clamour and to fly a flag at half-mast.

While that is less than a footnote to our times, it is an indicator. As a collective, we seem to possess an aspiration to remould ourselves as a society of bread and circuses.

Most of us live complex and busy lives. Many seek to remain informed and to make intelligent decisions. However, the more decisions we are required to make the less those decisions can be the result of informed opinion. Many of us don’t have the inclination and those that do don’t have the time to be the vox populous featured in the Peter Cook satire of the pollster who becomes prime minister, “The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer”, thanks to his dark arts.

Representative democracy has proven a successful compromise. Each election we choose the representative we think most closely reflects our ideologies, rather than do the work ourselves.

Notwithstanding this, an elected parliamentarian is not simply a cypher for the majority view in his electorate on any issue. He has the privilege, indeed the duty, to inform himself and to exercise his vote as he considers best serves the interests of good governance. Sometimes, such informed choice will require him to cast his vote in direct opposition to his electors’ wishes. It becomes his responsibility then, to convince his electorate that he has served them well or face the consequence at the next election.

Democracies work best when strong leaders dominate their parliaments. Like them or hate them, Churchill and Thatcher, John F Kennedy and closer to home Dunstan, Kennett, Whitlam and Keating were among those who, through talent and/or the power of personality, changed the world in which they lived. The success of at least some of these was, in part, due to their mastery of the media.

There was a time when newsrooms provided a balanced presentation of fact, when opinion was clearly separated and identified, when politicians, despite their wiles had to answer, or not answer questions, when the media reported their work and considered their personal life a private matter unless the one impinged on the other.

JFK’s propensity to “play away” went largely unremarked and closer to home, in South Australia, that the Premier who decriminalised gayness had a personal interest in doing so went un-noted.

Time has moved on; commercials purport to be infomercials, news must now have an entertainment value and the cult of the personality reigns. Add to this the all-pervasiveness of the electronic world and we have 2017.

Politicians have created a problem for themselves, not only by failing to set any standards but also by falling over themselves to outdo each other in controlling their image. It’s ok, even desirable now, to appear “human” on a chat show, to parade on the red carpet or to feature your house and family on some lifestyle program.

However, when the same media snap you in a clandestine liaison or drunk at a private party, it is the cause of self-righteous outrage. It is no accident that in the western world the army of PR and media advisors employed by governments in general and ministers in particular is seen as ever more important to their survival.

We, the people, have also played a part. Greg Lindsay, the head of the Centre for Independent Studies recently remarked that the “me” generation sees government as “some sort of magic pudding that is there to sate the appetites of all” and “that every government in recent times, of every stripe, has behaved exactly in this way.” in saying that it won’t work he concludes “If our leaders have to accede to everything the public wants, the demands will never cease and the dissatisfaction will continue with outcomes that may be more than a little unpalatable” played a part.

Enter Donald Trump; the best way to control your image is not to have it filtered by third parties but to control it yourself. Social media provides that opportunity. What’s more, social media creates space for the existence of alternative facts.

What is an alternative fact? Nothing more than a lie, preferably cleverly packaged but presented and repeated often enough that it becomes accepted as truth.

Across all governments, we have institutions battling to control image in a world where one incorrect word spoken in the urinal by the most obscure politician is, if entertaining enough, likely to go viral.

The image-makers remain but, for the first time, we have a mirror which reflects unvarnished reality. We don’t like what we see.

Does that mean we support a Hanson, Nick Xenophon or a Trump? I don’t think so. Rather we see them as less plastic, more “real” with their laconic rhetoric and their warts and all approach. That said, a vote in their favour is perhaps not so much a vote for them as a vote against mainstream politics and political parties.

Given that major political parties must embrace a broad church and thus trade on consensus and compromise, can they survive the blowtorch of social media?

The alternative is frightening: a parliament composed of people who are just like us. They will have the same limitations, prejudices and possibly even a belief in the same alternative facts.

Like any human, their first concern will be for their re-election, not compromise or good governance. Any concern for the common good will pass into history.

Genius and leadership have marked our progress as a species. Popularism has often held us back and it has never been responsible for seeing the next step in our journey.

A parliament built on popularism is a parliament of lemmings. It can only drive in one direction: towards the abyss.

Luddism is not the answer. If we cannot and should not abandon our electronic world, what can we do?

Maybe in the twenty-first century there is a need for republics. Not the “Let’s have a president then it’s business as usual” style proposed for Australia but a republic in the manner proposed by Plato, someone who lived in a democracy more than 2000 years ago and, seeing its failings, proposed an alternative.

While he saw that every life had the same value and that every person was entitled to equal rights and opportunities, he saw people as individuals; as unique, each possessing strengths and weaknesses. He did not see every person of being the “equal” of every other person.

Through education, his ideal was to develop each to their maximum potential and, having done that, enable them to find that place in society in which they could best contribute and find the most happiness. Education was also to be sifting through which those suited to leadership were rigorously trained to a life committed to public service.

He saw government as from the people and for the people but by those most suited, then trained, to govern. He proposed checks and balances against avarice and the seduction of power. He argued that the best interests of society are served through a fair, equitable and incorruptible meritocracy.

After the revolution, France tried to pursue that ideal. Given the electronic revolution we must question whether it’s time to proclaim “Vive la republique!”

Mark Brindal is a former South Australian Liberal minister, an academic, public policy consultant and commentator.

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