Politics and human frailty

Many years ago, way back in the 1970s, for a journalism project at the University of Hawaii, I wanted to spread and track a rumour from the West Coast to the East Coast of USA.

My wise professor told me no… it would be irresponsible and betray the principles of the journalism profession. Although disappointed, I was also a bit chuffed because in telling me ‘no’ I realized  that he, too, believed I could probably achieve what I was proposing.

It was an important lesson in responsible actions that has stayed with me in subsequent years of my life.

Back in those days, the media was still revered and spoken of as The Fourth Estate. It prided itself on its objectivity, intelligence, and integrity and novice reporters were taught to explore, investigate and question their way to the truth.

Fast forward to today and news is no longer a revered commodity in our internet based and device (iphone, tablet, computer) driven culture.  The Fourth Estate has been virtually replaced by a social media that becomes a mockery of objectivity, intelligence and integrity. It has become the tail that wags the media dog to go for the best story that will deliver the most ‘hits’, rather than the truth.

There don’t seem to be many elder statesmen teaching new recruits in the media these days. The new standard of journalism is to write personal impressions, not facts, with little reference to what has gone before… and it shows. It breeds mediocrity and an unfortunate self-centeredness that makes objectivity impossible, because journalists today seem to be writing for and competing with social media and competing with ‘here today gone tomorrow’ deadlines. They are writing what they think they know, rather than having any opportunity for time to report what they discover.

The same mediocrity is happening with our politics.

We have just had an election in my State where neither party achieved the required number of seats to form government. The Labor party would require help from one Independent and the Liberal party would need support from both Independents in order to form Government.  The Liberal Party had achieved a clear first preference voting majority, despite achieving one less seat in this election, but an independent’s frailty has now given government to the Labor Party. To hear Independent MP Geoff Brock interviewed on television the night of the election, and to then witness his submission to the carrots offered him a few days later shows how easily human independence and valor, becomes human frailty and ego.

He is reported as saying he gave minority government to Labor (and accepted a high-paying Ministry in the process) to ensure stability of Government for our State.

Why are there no journalists asking this man about the alternative scenario, i.e. the State’s voters going back to the polls and Geoff Brock possibly  losing his seat in that process? Is he really wanting us to believe that scenario was of no concern and that this was not simply a selfish decision?

Why are there no journalists questioning why this man was so quick to sign up with a minority Labor Government, despite earlier saying he would wait several days. And why  did he not even have the courtesy to speak ‘one on one’ with the other key player in this race, Opposition Leader Steven Marshall, rudely leaving him a voicemail message instead?

His press conference was more important than having this respectful phone call first, yet Geoff Brock tells us he is about saving our Government’s stability!

I was at the pre-polls handing out ‘how to vote cards’ and the mood among Labor and Liberal volunteers, and the majority of voters, was that it would be a resounding victory for the Liberals, it was time for a change, everyone was saying. Curiously, the polls were knife edge on polling day.

We ended up with two elected independent MPs, Bob Such and Geoff Brock, holding the balance of power yet both of these independents were overwhelmingly supported by Liberals as the next highest voters in their respective electorates.

To make matters worse, Bob Such takes emergency leave in the week following the election while votes are still being counted, due to illness. It is then reported that Dr Such had deliberated for over a year whether he should run again, with his health factors as a major consideration.

A journalist wrote a column in a local paper arguing that the Liberal party in my state can never win a clear majority under the current electoral system, and judging the last few elections where the Liberal Party has won the popular vote, we have to begin to believe there is some truth to that theory.

Geoff Brock runs as an independent in a predominantly Liberal electorate and before the election is even declared and you can say ‘Yes Minister’, he has told Labor Premier Jay Weatherill he will give him government.

A local Holdfast Bay councillor, who ran and lost for the Labor Party for the third time in an unwinnable seat, unabashedly declared he ran just to give himself an edge in the local government Council elections later this year. He also refers to the Liberal Opposition Leader as Stephen Marshall, when his name is Steven Marshall.

Maturity, intelligence and fair play  are  missing from our political system.

A few years ago I was at a politics forum to celebrate the history of the first South Australian State election.

People at this forum were remarking about the reluctance of people these days to engage in community politics, whether it be at the local, State or Federal level. It has a stigma about it.

I raised the question with Bob Such, who was a participant in this forum, that we should perhaps be promoting Civics as a subject in our schools. He disagreed, saying he thought it was up to the political parties to teach people about politics!

But civics is not really politics, you see, civics is about systems of government.

This last election proves Bob Such was wrong. We need to objectively teach young people Civics…what a democracy means, how the various levels of government work, and why it is so important for us as a society to choose wisely among the candidates we can elect to represent our points of view.

I was amazed at the number of people at the polls who did not even know what electorate they lived in, many did not even know the names of their candidates.

Democracy is such a precious attribute of our society and it is so sad that the media, candidates and population at large take its existence for granted.

If we started teaching civics in our schools, students might then engage with the systems of government because they were genuinely interested in establishing good governments, not simply because of a steadfast allegiance to a particular party line, or to be different from mum and dad, or because someone else tells them how to vote, or to tick a box because they couldn’t care less.

The challenge, of course, would be finding civics teachers who could be objective and explain systems of government with truth and integrity and intelligence, rather than simply expounding their preferred party line.

Jan Smith

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