Australian democracy – boring by design
Steve Bannon thinks Australian politics is boring.
He’s kinda got a point.
Bannon was the strategist behind Donald Trump. He drove Trump’s election campaign. So I’m not sure where Bannon sets the bar for ‘exciting’. My guess is after you’ve worked with Trump, the bar gets set pretty high.
But still, we do seem to be in the middle of one of the most boring election campaigns in recent memory.
“The most interesting thing about the Australian election,” he says, “is the lack of interest. Polling shows that half the country is paying ‘little or no’ attention to the election. Only 20% are giving it a lot of attention. Put that together with the fact that 20 days out from the election they showed the leaders’ debate on the second channel of the Seven Network, and that tells you every thing you need to know.”
True. Just 415,000 tuned in to watch the first debate. That made it the 19th most popular show that evening (how many even are there?), soundly beaten by the moody period drama that is LegoMasters.
So people are more interested in Lego than in who is going to be the Prime Minister?
Maybe they don’t realise there’s a difference. I’ve seen Bill Shorten walk. He’s practically animated Lego.
But then both leaders are doing a pretty good Lego impression right now – looking every bit the part of a politician stereotype, smiling mindlessly, and saying and doing as little as possible.
But that’s the odd thing about our political system. When it comes time to campaign, boring is good.
This is one of the things that makes Australian democracy unique, and wonderful.
Last week I joked that I thought Clive Palmer was going to be Prime Minister. People asked me if I was serious.
I wasn’t. I mean, I do think we need to start taking The Clive seriously. He’s got game.
But with our current political system, it’s very hard to see a Clive making it all the way to the lodge.
He’s just not boring enough.
Because the reality is that compulsory voting makes politics in Australia a very unusual affair.
Australia is one of only 19 democracies in the world that has compulsory voting. And of those, only nine really bother to enforce it.
So to win power in Australia, you have to win the middle. You have to win over those people who haven’t really thought about how they’re going to vote, and don’t care all that much.
Those people are quickly becoming the majority.
Ever wonder why all those vollies hand out how-to-vote cards on election day? Because it works. Many people just rock on up, and then just follow whatever ends up in their hands.
And so an election campaign is not about appealing to your base. It’s about appealing to these swinging voters – it’s about convincing enough of them to weakly flop on over to your side to take power.
This is unique.
In America, for example, voting isn’t compulsory. So the challenge is not to convince the middle swinging voters. It’s about mobilising the people who are inclined to vote for you anyway. It’s about getting them to show up and vote.
And that’s where Donald Trump’s (and Palmer’s) brand of politics works well. It’s polarising. It’s exciting. It’s motivating. It gets their base up off the couch.
But it doesn’t sell to the middle. It’s too extreme. It’s too out-there. The opinions are just too strong.
And so they’ll never win the middle.
It’s why Palmer will never be PM.
And it’s why Scomo and Shorten are doing such sincere impersonations of Lego men right now.
That’s our system: boring by design.