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Vote [1] For Personality!

On the narratives told during elections

The politics of personality has dominated Australian newspapers, relegating the politics of policy to the realm of think tanks and technocrats. But how has this domination been constructed? Who wins? Who loses? And can we get ourselves out of this personality frenzy?

The media obsesses over leadership contests between party leaders, their biographies, and their everyday lives right down to their attendance to Easter Sunday church services. Australian citizens often feel as if something is lost in the oft-called soap-opera of Australian politics. Compelled by gossip from Question Time and Q&A, it seems that front-page news is reserved for quips, quotes, and qualities (Dempster 2017, Measham 2013).

From academics to politicians themselves, disenfranchisement is a shared sensation among many that follow the “dumb[ing] down” of politics into “glorified gossip”, as ironically said by none other than Tony Abbott (Dyrenfurth 2015). It comes as no surprise to me now when I tell people i’m studying politics and the answer is a

When saturated to the point that politics is dubbed “show business for ugly people” (Dyrenfurth 2015), personality politics can confuse more than it clarifies. This is especially true this year, leading up to what is no doubt going to be one of the messiest elections yet. Electorates such as Kooyong, Indi and Gilmore are crowded with high-profile candidates from all corners of the political spectrum (Wahlquist 2019, Martin 2019, Maddox 2019). Many voters are trying to learn about their candidates, the federal parties, and their leaders. A focus on personality, off-hand comments, and their sordid pasts does not produce an informed voter.

If everyone is sick of personality politics taking our media coverage hostage, a critical eye must be applied to who is benefitting from it. When taken to the extreme, personality politics is harmful to politicians themselves and policymaking. Yet, it can be an incredibly useful tool to mobilise an otherwise disenfranchised voting base.

A memorable leader often attracts voters, whether that’s Bob Brown from the Greens Party or Pauline Hanson from One Nation (Grattan 2018). This is true not just within the minor parties. Personality-driven campaigns have raised relatively unknown parliamentarians to household names. Rudd’s ascension to prime ministership is often accredited, in part, to the catchy slogan ‘Kevin07’, and his use of social media to connect with voters on a personal level (O’Neill 2016). Memorable leaders and their personalities are used to characterise the rest of the party, making politics more accessible to voters.

Even so, we must acknowledge that while charisma often makes it easier to understand politicians, personality sensationalism in the media is a sideshow that distracts from (and destroys) meaningful political discussions. Most importantly, voters must learn these are two separate phenomena.

In a ‘perfect’ election, citizens in each electorate would hear a civil and rational debate between candidates who would pitch forth their policy ideas and logical citizens would vote according to who they thought had the most sound arguments.

Yet this vision of Australian elections ignores the reality that humans are social beings, meaning that we are responsive to interpersonal connections, and that not every voter is well-versed on the intricacies of franking credit policy or the mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Media coverage is thus the tipping point to when personality politics becomes unbearable for everyone involved.

How do we fix this? How do we remove bias from the media?

Because we cannot remove values, we cannot remove bias entirely. Consider how one journalist might report “The former prime minister stormed out after the opposition’s statements” whereas another may also report “After Mr Abbott’s speech concluded, Mr Rudd left the chambers”. Neither statement is devoid of judgment, even though the latter sentence sounds less emotive.

I am not saying that there is no better future for Australian reporting. But rather than critiquing the individual flourishes of journalism, structural change in the Australian media industry offers a more well-rounded response to creating appropriate parameters for political discourse.

The media is often referred to as the fourth estate of governance. For newcomers to political theory, there are three recognised branches of liberal democracies, such as we have in Australia. These are the Legislative (law-makers), the Executive (law-passers), and the Judicial (law-enforcers), and if high-school legal studies will teach you anything, it is that these branches keep each other in check. By calling media the fourth estate, it is inferred that media is just as important to a functioning democracy as any of these three arms of government.

And it is true. Democracy works best when we are informed and flexible about our politics. While we cannot always leap the psychological hurdle of ignoring personality in politics, we must demand less sensationalism in our media.

In short, fuck you too Murdoch.