Is this The Conversation we should be having?

Here’s a barbecue topic for Australia Day: What is happening to the quality of public discourse? Over the holidays, I read The Conversation’s 2015 yearbook, “Politics, policy & the chance of change”. It’s a collection of individual articles from the past 12 months, grouped into broad themes, covering key issues of the day, at least among the academic and chattering classes. As a summary of the year in Australian political, economic, cultural and social reportage, it’s not a bad effort. With “news” increasingly bifurcated between a dominant commercial duopoly and a disintermediated social media maelstrom, The Conversation can offer a calm rational voice and an objective alternative.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 6.43.50 PMThe title promises a new direction in political debate, and I went to the book’s Melbourne launch at the start of the summer, where Michelle Grattan, The Conversation’s Chief Political Correspondent held court in an audience Q&A. I was looking forward to the event, because part of The Conversation’s remit is to foster informed debate that is more than tabloid headlines, news soundbites and party room gossip. It has also positioned itself as a non-partisan, independent and authoritative source of news analysis.

I was hoping the Q&A would provide a considered discussion on some of the key policy issues facing the country – long-term tax reform, addressing climate change, updating Federation, dealing with the post-mining boom economy, improving the quality and efficiency of our education, health and infrastructure systems, etc.

Instead, the first three questions from the audience concerned Mal Brough, Ian Macfarlane and Tony Abbot. How demoralising. Haven’t we moved on from this cult of personality? Haven’t we learnt anything from the past 10 years or so? If the same event had been held during Julia Gillard’s term as PM, the names would have been different (Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, Kevin Rudd?) – and for quite separate reasons, I hasten to add – but the context and implication would have been very similar: “Never mind policies, what’s the chance of (another) leadership spill? How are the numbers stacking up in Parliament? When’s the court case?”

Although I admire the aims of The Conversation, and I understand why it exists, I have some concerns about the type of discourse that The Conversation is actually fostering among its audience. As with many public institutions, I appreciate that it’s there (even though I am not a frequent reader), but like other news media, it risks confirming the bias and prejudices of its audience. It can also feel as if it is serving only the vested interests of its contributors, partners and sponsors.

So much of Australia’s recent political history has been dominated by self-delusional egos, nefarious party factions, insidious vested interests and character assassination (which I blame for giving us five prime ministers in as many years).

When it was my turn to ask a question, it concerned the recent bipartisan compromise between the Coalition and The Greens to publish the tax records of companies generating more than $200m in revenue (as a step towards tackling corporate tax avoidance). I asked, “Should we expect to see more of this seemingly new approach to politics?” Although Ms Grattan gave a detailed (and somewhat technical) explanation for this particular Parliamentary outcome and its likely implications, I felt that most of the audience were not interested. They would probably have preferred to be talking about the ins and outs of the party rooms. For me, this does not bode well for the level and quality of public debate we are having on (non-party) political issues that really matter.

I also have a few other niggles about The Conversation and the 2015 Yearbook:

  1. By only sourcing content from “recognised” academic experts and policy wonks, I think this overlooks contributions from commercial and industry experts which are just as valid. As long as such authors also declare any interests, it should ensure balanced commentary – but to exclude them from the debate just because they don’t have academic, public or research tenure is self-limiting.
  2. The site as a whole (and the book in particular) is rather thin on actual data references, and when research data is included in articles, there are rarely any charts, tables or infographics. I think this is a shame and a missed opportunity.
  3. The book hardly mentions the critical issue of tax reform (which barely merits half a dozen pages). Whereas, reform of the education system (including academic research funding) gets around 40 pages – which rather smacks of self-interest (and bias?) on the part of the academic authors

Finally, The Conversation provides a valuable (and from what I have seen, an impartial) service via its factcheck section, which in tandem with the ABC’s Fact Check is doing a sterling job of trying to keep our pollies honest (at least in Parliament…). More power to it.

Next week: David Bowie Was – “It’s a god-awful small affair”


Winter blues

I think I may be suffering the early onset of SAD (seasonally adjusted disorder). Even though the Australian winter only started at the beginning of June, I am already feeling the cold and the despondency. My condition is not helped by the knowledge we don’t have another public holiday until early November. Or maybe it’s a symptom of the current national mood, which suggests that although we are highly likely to vote for a change of government in the forthcoming federal election, we don’t exactly relish the prospect.

According to the latest opinion poll, most of us would actually prefer to see a former leader of both the two main political parties lead their respective sides into the election, rather than the present incumbents. Given our compulsory voting law, the preferential voting methodology, and the parliamentary system for choosing party leaders, the electorate is basically denied the opportunity to vote for its preferred Prime Ministerial candidate.

The general election campaign is taking place against the backdrop of an extraordinary period of critical self-analysis about the type of society we live in. For various reasons, our politicians, the media and the chattering classes have been debating the notion of whether or not Australia is a classless society, a racist society, or a sexist society. (To which questions the answer would probably be: “Possibly, but not all the time, and not everywhere.”)

Much of the surface debate has been prompted by behaviour and language generally deemed offensive, and by arguments about whether people actually meant (or understood) what they said or did, whether they appreciated the impact of their deeds, or whether they simply didn’t know any better. While everyone should be held accountable for their individual behaviour, this is not just about semantics, or different moral standards or conflicting social attitudes; after all, Australia is ostensibly an egalitarian, pluralistic and secular country, founded on the notion of “a fair go for all”.

I think this national malaise stems from a collective failure of leadership, which in turn leads to disrespect for our leaders and disregard for the institutions they represent. This failure of leadership is especially acute among institutions that were primarily designed to promote, serve, protect and cater to the interests of the working population. Too often in recent years have leaders, office holders and key figures within political parties, trade unions, religious orders, the armed forces, the media and even major sporting codes been found wanting in upholding a culture of robust ethical behaviour and acceptable moral standards. Quite rightly, people feel angry, demoralised and almost disenfranchised because they have been let down by the very establishments they believe were designed to be there to support and represent them.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that much of the population is tuning out of the election debate (such as it is) because they have little faith in our political leaders in particular, and in public institutions as a whole. Cynicism, even despair, prevails. Hence the mid-winter chill….