Friday, October 12, 2012

Australian politics gets the British disease

For a long time we worried Australian politics would end up like American politics.  We now know that fear was misplaced.  This week in Canberra proved Australian politics is fast turning into the modern British way of politics — personal, nasty and tawdry.  And obsessed with spin.

The pomposity and primness of the British makes their politics particularly susceptible to scandal.  And the British system of government actually encourages personal attacks between political opponents in a way that doesn't occur in the United States.

Politics in a parliamentary system is centred on the leader of the government and the opposition.  There's an incentive for each party to concentrate their attack on the other party's leader.  When the leader in parliament is personally damaged the party they lead is also damaged.  Personal conflict is embedded in the mechanics of parliament.  At question time the prime minister sits directly across the table from the opposition leader.

A presidential system like that in the US does not have the same sort of focus on conflict.  The president is intended to sit above the daily political fray.  In the US, political conflict at the national level is not centred on just two people.  US presidents don't have just one direct opponent;  they have dozens, which is exactly how the Founding Fathers intended it to be.

Australia modelled its government on what was inherited from Britain.  It's a good model and it has stood the test of time.  But it does mean that politics in Britain and Australia operates in a particular way.

Britain and Australia are not just alike in their systems of government.  The way the media works in the two countries is alike, too.  Britain has basically a single and a national media market, as does Australia.  London, as the nation's commercial and political centre, and 20 per cent of the country's population decides the national media agenda.  Sydney has 20 per cent of Australia's population and probably has less influence on the rest of the country than London has on Britain, but Sydney nonetheless is the home of the nation's news.  Canberra might be the nation's capital, but for all intents and purposes Canberra may as well be a suburb of Sydney.

In Britain the coverage of politics by newspapers is handled by a handful of titles, while the BBC dominates discussion about politics on television and radio.

In Australia, it's similar — except the ABC is even more left-wing than the BBC.  The US, with five times the population of Britain and 14 times the population of Australia, has much more diversity in its mainstream media.

The US has many media markets and it doesn't have a government-funded media company regarding itself as the arbiter of the country's political discourse.

There's group-think in the American media, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.  But the group-think among the media in Britain and Australia is worse.  The degree of conformity in an entity is directly related to its size.  The smaller the entity the more conformity there is.  The smaller the entity the easier it is to impose conformity.

In Australia the pool of political reporters and commentators is small, so inevitably there is a lot of conformity.  If one or two or three leaders in the Canberra press gallery can be won over to a position, the rest of the gallery will follow.

Because most of the journalists who write about politics in Australia agree with each other, it's easy to get media gridlock.  Media gridlock occurs when everyone is talking about the same thing and no one is talking about anything else.

All it took to shut down the Canberra press gallery for a fortnight was a one-sentence comment about the Prime Minister from a radio host at a private function.

For days on end Alan Jones was the only thing any political journalist wanted to write about.

And just prior to the Jones episode there was also gridlock as the media pondered the consequences of a ''he said/she said'' incident involving Tony Abbott when he was a university student 35 years ago.

It might be coincidence that just at the time Julia Gillard hired as her media adviser someone from Scotland, steeped in British political strategy, the Labor Party stopped talking about policy and started attacking Abbott's alleged personal failings.  Or it might not be.

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