Tribune. brett hetherington

When government becomes sport

I don't often think about Australia. I was born there, grew up there and, until 15 years ago, I lived there. It's almost become a (very) foreign country to me but recently it has crept into my thoughts again. This remaining ember of interest in a place, which many people here in Europe tell me is “very far away,” hasn't been prompted by anything in particular. I've just noticed that some of the reasons that made me want to leave it are still very much alive.

In Australia, there is compulsory voting in “federal” elections, and you are even likely to be fined if you don't go to vote. Twelve months ago this island continent of almost 22 million people elected a new government with a leader named Tony Abbott. Abbott is without any doubt the most conservative individual to ever take up the office of Prime Minister in the history of the nation.

The odd thing about this is that Australians themselves have not typically been thought of as conservative. Historically, the best of the traits that generally marked the average “Aussie” were tolerance and fair-mindedness with an anti-establishment streak. If the men and women of any area of the world can accurately be said to have particular characteristics (and I often doubt that) it is probably in Australia where it is less likely to be the case, given that it is a country that has always been populated from immigrants. Aside from that, you'd expect that in a nominally democratic country, the national government would reflect both the wishes of the people and the broad values of its people. From a distance, it seems to me that in the last few decades many Australians have in fact become more money and property obsessed, more dismissive of the “unproductive” arts industries, more inward-looking and more easily manipulated by politicians' scare campaigns. In other words, they are now more conservative than ever before.

In this, Australians are not unusual though. The same accusation could be made against many other societies. I think that a big part of the change in Australia is that interest in social and political causes is now terribly low across the populace. This partly comes from being a “new” country with only a century or so of homegrown history but, even more so, it comes from the way politics is reported in the mainstream media. Whenever I visit Australia I am struck by how much the governing of the country is portrayed as merely a battle between the two leaders of the two major parties – a kind of boxing match or two-horse race. Sport in almost all its forms is easily the biggest element of culture across the land.

There is nothing that comes close to it for prime time attention or public discussion, so it is probably not surprising that Australians are drip fed poll-driven, ultra short-term “issues” that all turn on how they affect the leaders' popularity or approval ratings.

In a former life (for a few months) I worked for a local Canberra politician – that rare creature, the principled and independently-minded one – and it was clear to me even back then that in the months of actual election campaigning the only figure who really mattered was the party's chief candidate for the highest office.

When newspapers, TV and radio are all in the hands of only two major companies this problem is made worse. This has been the situation in Australia for more than two generations and the dominant, apathetic attitude towards any public concern that does not affect the hip-pocket nerve means that minor parties stay minor. Combine all this with the fact that, just like the USA and UK for example, both the two major parties are as conservative as the majority of their voters.

It seems we have ended up with a situation in which politics has become something of a game. The name of the game is getting your hands on the levers of power and then keeping them there, at any cost.

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