03/09/2008 - 22:00

Election campaign shows poor state of democracy

03/09/2008 - 22:00


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This Saturday, Western Australia's 38th parliament will be elected for a four-year term.

This Saturday, Western Australia's 38th parliament will be elected for a four-year term. It is the 38th time since 1890 that the major parties have faced off in a competitive sense with rival public policies to win the hearts and minds of Western Australians.

It is almost unimaginable how dull and utterly predictable campaigns have become.

Whether it is the handiwork of party spin doctors or a compliant media, the election time predictables are being dusted off and applied as an anaesthetic to dumb-down the electorate.

The public face of this campaign, like many before it, is all about process rather than policy. Given their druthers, incumbent governments of all complexions would much prefer a low key, dull and boring backdrop to decision day.

The past few weeks has ticked most of the boxes of political parties' preferred election template.

- We will be told time and time again that, on election night, the counting process will come down to a handful of votes in a handful of seats.

- Repeated references will be made to the practice of spending taxpayers' funds on promoting government programs and achievements. The opposition of the day will condemn the practice...until it forms a government, when it will make a welter of it.

- Following the predictable squabble over the time, place and format of the leaders debate, the opposition of the day will demand more prime time exposure for this confrontation and the government of the day will resist.

- There will be all sorts of horse trading over preferences. There will be allegations of nefarious deals being done and stories written about preferences which the parties do not own in practice and have questionable ability to deliver.

- The act of pork barrelling key constituencies will continue as a price we must pay for the democratic system of government. This happens like clockwork despite the highly questionable effects of this form of local electoral bribery in changing people's voting intention.

- Oppositions will allege and governments will deny vehemently charges of reckless if not profligate spending. It is equally predictable for oppositions to accuse governments of allowing the public service to have become bloated and directionless during the incumbent's time at the helm. After reckless undertakings to slash the jobs of public servants, newly elected governments then find it difficult if not impossible to deliver the promises they so extravagantly made.

- There will be rumours that the incumbent leader of the government will not see out his or her full term. Meaningless guarantees will be sought and given.

- There will be the highly predicable search for the black hole in the bottom line mathematics summing up opposing team arguments and undertakings. Once again, it will be a matter of process over policy.

- One side or the other will inevitably claim underdog status - in search of sympathy - a ploy normally not used until the end of the campaign. We can expect this positioning to be accompanied by claims that one side has been hopelessly outspent.

- There has never been and may never be a completely honest answer to the question that all major party leaders hate at election time - can you guarantee there will be no increases in taxes and charges? If the government has served more than a single term, we can expect allegations that ministers have become arrogant and complacent. That is understandable and has a lot to do with over exposure and familiarity. The vast majority of governments fail miserably to reinvigorate the team and to introduce new talent onto the front bench.

The number of candidates running for office in 2008 is at a record low. The membership and the level of participation in the life of WA's political parties are arguably lower on a per-capita basis than ever before. On both sides of politics we are witnessing an increasing number of family members and spouses of incumbent MPs and power brokers seeking public office. Perhaps this confirms what is increasingly referred to as a consequence of the diminished gene pool of participants in WA politics. The policy formation mechanisms within the parties seem to be a pale imitation of what they once were.

The world, and WA as a part of it, faces a significant number of serious challenges. In global terms we are a well-educated, information hungry and technologically savvy community that is demanding and ambitious.

There are several debates we need to have.

- The impact of rapidly rising oil prices, the need for alternative sources of energy and the dangerous vulnerability of our gas supplies.

- The strategies to drought-poof WA as we come to grips with the limits to growth imposed by available water supplies and the decades-old salinity crisis.

- The serious problems associated with managing affluence, including mindless consumption, a veritable epidemic of substance abuse and a rising culture of violence.

- The woeful inadequacy of WA's telecoms infrastructure.

- The ability of our 130-year-old education system to cope with the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

- The fragmentation of our communities and the virtual collapse of social capital.

- WA's population explosion and the implications of the ageing of that population.

- The consensus that has emerged among the world's leading scientific organisations that man's activity on the planet and his mismanagement of the earth's resources has made a significant contribution to climate change. Handling the implications of this mismanagement will be one of the most complex and costly set of challenges facing all communities during the 21st century.

- The dramatic pace and extent of urbanisation.

- Major changes to the WA workforce and workplace reflected in the great increase in precarious employment and the socially destructive impacts of the fly in, fly out phenomenon.

- The significant increases in the wealth gap and the digital divide.

- Strategies for creative industries and resilient communities.

The silence about these fundamental issues is deafening.

Well may we ask what on earth has happened to our democracy?

- Dr Mal Bryce is a senior fellow of the Australian Centre for Innovation (University of Sydney) and adjunct professor of public policy at Curtin University, and a former deputy premier of WA.


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