Breaking the mould


We had a gathering for post-election reflection on Sunday. A rather sombre affair. There was not much enthusiasm for the result, and even less for the way the campaign evolved. It was difficult to accept that an election could apparently be won via such a blatant fear and greed campaign. Where was the high ground, the altruism, the greater good? Some expressed a nostalgic yearning for the days when policies determined elections “ we were an older group.

Up to twenty percent of the electorate seemed to leave their voting decision to the last week of the campaign. For all but one week of a three year period they seem to have disengaged from policy and politics.

Campaigns have become a sequence of presidential promises. Discussions, debates and policies have become less and less relevant. Swinging voters are able to vote for whatever appeals (or against what offends) at the time. If the campaign question is ‘Who do you trust?’ perhaps the answer will always be self-interest.

The Labor Party seems to have two clear options. It can build its coffers and its morale for a more effective fear and greed campaign next time. The quick and superficial option.

Or it can patiently and strategically build a constituency that is engaged in policy and is prepared to make their political choices accordingly. The deep and meaningful option.

History suggests that few have the patience or the tools for genuine citizen engagement. The one night (campaign) stand is much less effort. Cynics and political power brokers tend to hold sway when the long term public interest is raised.

Engagement of any sort requires a long term approach, starting at the local level. It is hard to imagine a significant shift in the political environment without more involvement of local community groups, voluntary associations and citizens in political processes.

There is a practical case that can be made that self-interest is best served by advancing the public interest. That we are each individually better off if we are all collectively better off. That improvements in our quality of life are not sustainable if they are at the expense of the quality of life of others.

There is also a case that can be made that real political power stems from delivering at the local level. There are heaps of examples whereby effective serving of a particular constituency has elevated their leader into realms beyond the issues of that constituency.

An engaged community will clearly articulate its needs and wants and will vote accordingly. A disengaged community has no option but to vote self interest.

Many aspects of our major political parties tend to inhibit rather than facilitate engagement. Their structures and processes reward loyalty more than policy input. Many of the members are attracted for the wrong reasons. Incumbents are rewarded and outspoken critics punished.

The mould is very hard to break. But unless we do, we are in for even more greed and fear in elections, even more short-term self-interested voting. More sidelining of matters of substance. And sombre post-election reflections.

Hawke, R. J. ‘From Deakin to Howard – A Tarnished Vision’, 19th Lionel Murphy Lecture, Sydney, 26 October, 2005 (

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