Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Reworked “Showing what we stand for” at OLO

Posted by Dave Bath on 2009-11-17

For completeness, below is a major rework of an earlier post that has appeared in On Line Opinion (2009-11-17), and the comments thread at On Line Opinion.

You’ll probably get wider readership of your comments over there… I’ve already put one response up.

If we look at figures for actual engagement with government, making submissions to parliamentary or agency inquiries, we might be able to get a good idea about what Australians really care about.

A recent inquiry, not a high-profile parliamentary inquiry but a departmental one, had an extraordinarily large number of public submissions (323), suggesting the subject of the inquiry could be the philosopher’s stone for politicians, the barbeque-stopper.

What was it?  Climate change?  Economic policy?  Human rights?  No, no, and no.

The thing that gets the electorate engaged is the issue of sport on TV.

The following table compares the number of submissions and submissions per day (between announcement and closing date) for the TV sport review compared to some inquiries at high-profile parliamentary websites on weightier issues that affect us all.  The figures would be even more stark if we only included submissions from ordinary citizens, rather than the usual suspects of academics and companies with a direct commercial interest in the outcomes of the inquiries.

Agency Topic Initiated Closed Days Subs Subs per Day
Senate Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme – Mark 1 2009-03-11 2009-04-08 28 142 5.0
Senate Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme – Mark 2 2009-05-14 2009-06-04 21 49 2.3
Senate Economic Stimulus Measures 2009-09-08 2009-09-18 9 18 2.0
Senate Gene Patents 2008-11-19 2009-03-19 120 72 0.6
Victorian Parliament Melbourne’s Future Water Supply 2007-09-19 2008-08-29 345 110 0.3 Sport on Television Review 2009-08-20 2009-10-16 57 323 5.7

With more submissions in both absolute and per-day terms, the clear winner is TV sport, in this case, the anti-siphoning regulations that limit what sporting events pay-TV can broadcast.

For most issues, submissions to inquiries are far outnumbered by the number of news items, published letters to editors, and blog posts, suggesting that the so-called "nattering classes" are just that, nattering but not officially engaged.  I suspect, however, that on this issue of TV sport, the number of submissions far outnumbered the news items and letters to editors.

Oddly enough, this might suggest that the TV sports buffs are much more efficient than the nattering classes when it comes to official engagement with the political process.  For once, the couch potato is smarter than a self-styled member of the intellectual elite: if only everyone who wrote a letter to a broadsheet about an issue under inquiry made a submission, we might be better governed.  Unless of course, the nattering classes are only nattering, appearing concerned about important issues only if in front of their friends, while in truth, their inner bogans rule.

The data in the above table could be extended, looking at more inquiries homed both in parliamentary and agency websites, correlating against letters to editors, space in the news sections of the mainstream media, number of blog posts in the same time, only including submissions made by "ordinary citizens" rather than academics and organizations, as well as the many other things that sociologists might consider relevant.  However, the take-home message probably wouldn’t change: while the electorate as a whole might sometimes say some things are important, when it comes to actual engagement, engagement that probably reflects the vote-changing issues that politicians will devote their minds to, the electorate is little more than a Homer Simpson with a bogan accent.

Looking through a small sample of the submissions from individuals, it gets even more depressing.  Few show a hint of anything consideration other than the self-interest of those who already pay for cable television, indeed, those who pay extra money on top of basic packages to watch sports channels.  Many could be summarized as "Free-To-Air doesn’t give me live sport, so give it to Pay-TV.  It’s my right as an Australian citizen to watch my favorite footy team live, without delays."

One of the more eloquent apostles of live televised sports, ben sutton (sic), who despite some errors probably caused by rushing the submission, waxes lyrical, showing sentiments that would be shared by many who lacked ben’s vocabulary.

What ever shape or form the new scheme takes, several cultural and historical points need to be weighed in during the creative process. Australians live, breath and digest sports like no other nation. Our sense of pride, togetherness and community are all intrinsicly linked to the corresponding paths and efforts of those sports individuals and teams that represent us. Bonds; both family and friendship are strengthened and maintained through sharing a common desire to see those that we respect and admire achieve. Sons and Daughters around the country for decades now have watched their idols on television and with the gentle nudging and guidance of their parents, thus dared to dream. Without a no cost readily available forum for this essential ingredient to be transferred, I fear that social networks, family unity and in some cases a sense of worth and aspriation in individuals will detiriarate. Be removing the protective barries that prevent the bidding wars of corporations channeling media on a basis of which audience will pay the most/afford the most, aren’t we then condoning a society in which childrens upbringings and foundation knowledge will differ greatly. I couldn’t imagine an Australia in 5 or 10 years time where half the kids in the playground don’t know who’s captaining our next tilt at the ashes.

After reading that, afraid I might actually be very un-Australian, lose my voting rights, never again be invited to a barbeque, I took solace from my loyalty to the Cats as a born-and-bred Son of Geelong.

It’s rather sad that live video broadcasting is considered essential to social unity, and one must wonder if "ben" thought about including comments about those who died for our country and way of life during various wars, then realized that then, social cohesion was maintained with merely radio broadcasts, while as recently as the 1960s, our sense of mateship and togetherness could survive by seeing a mere quarter of a football match played later that night, if you were lucky and your team was being taped.

One submission, however, did show the social conscience of the bleeding-heart liberal.  Anne Lynton showed concern for the disadvantaged who might not have cable TV, and raised the possibility of subsidies.

This brings us to how the massive response to a TV sport inquiry will be viewed by politicians and their advisors, and how this might affect the shape and priority of policies.  Policies that appeal to short-term self-interest and could be considered "bread-and-circuses", and subsidized Foxtel may well be the barbeque-stopper of the decade.  Economically is is hardly less responsible than throwing money at middle-managers in medical insurers, or inflating housing costs with housing grants.  Even if subsidizing cable TV fees would cost more than giving the money to the ABC to buy broadcasting rights and run a few extra free-to-air digital channels to show games live, the debate about how much of a subsidy to give, and whether there should be any means testing, could keep all sorts of tricky issues out of the news cycles for at least a year.

Cynical observers may even look at the timing of the inquiry, before the big rollout of new free-to-air digital channels which will probably include more dedicated sports stations.  Senator Conroy, DBCDE’s Minister, might well understand "Bogan Power", with the internet "Clean Feed" controversy reaching the ears of the typical couch potato who needs his fix of live TV sport and X-rated screen-savers for his telephone, so while the distraction might not have been part of the motivation for the inquiry, it was doubtless welcome.

Will the extraordinary engagement by the public on a "bread-and-circus" issue, and the practical disinterest in matters of greater weight, lead politicians to spend time (and our money) on more trivial issues and hold more populist stances, in order to control the news cycle, win the favor of the majority, and be returned at the next election?  The cynic would say there will be a quantitative change, but not a qualitative change, by pointing to voting patterns over the last decade or two.

However, there is a glimmer of hope for those few politicians that truly want more engagement from the population, and on more important issues.  Perhaps the public might take a deeper interest in weightier matters if there was a Big-Brother-like TV show, "Order Out of the House", with a range of policies vying for attention, but gradually pared down, one evicted every week by public SMS and internet voting, and the winner guaranteed to be rushed through parliament, the major parties unwilling to vote against anything that has so obviously become the darling of the square-eyed, sorry, 16:9-eyed public.  Perhaps this method to choose party leaders might give us better outcomes than the faceless machinations in party rooms.

Removing the tongue from the cheek, however, those of us more concerned with good long-term policies on substantial issues such as climate change, economic management, human rights, and governance than the fair distribution of remote controls around the house, must look on these active engagement metrics with mixed feelings: vindication of our opinions about the typical voter and the games politicians play, worry about the quality of long-term and evidence-based policy, and shame at the failures of our best and brightest to officially engage with government when it matters.

Australians will only stand up for their rights to watch things while laying down on the couch.  The only "Light on the Hill" of any interest comes from a flat-screen TV.

And the politicians wouldn’t want that to change a bit… would they?

This article was developed from a substantial reworking of the 2009-11-04 blog post of the same name on Balneus, which includes a more accessible version of the tabulated data.

Referenced Inquiries:


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