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The 'Four Ps' and disposable politics

My son turned 18 recently, so he was eligible to vote for the first time. Although it is tempting to encourage one’s children to vote as one does, I have hoped he will vote not at my suggestion but as a matter of personal conscience. Yesterday, before he went to the polling booths, I offered him some advice.

Despite the way in which Australian election campaigns are conducted, the most recent being the worst example, I asked my son to consider the ‘Four Ps’; principle, policy, party and personality, in that order. It would be reasonable to argue that the Australian election process, which is now in mopping up stages, was constructed in the opposite order. So, why my advice?

The principles or values upon which one makes decisions provide the ethical foundation for all our activities. If we construct these in a clear and consistent manner to ourselves, we can then draw from them in making decisions about how we behave, wish others to behave and, in this case, wish our representatives to behave.

If our political representatives are to consistently reflect a particular set of principles, these should be reflected in the policies they develop, support and, if elected to government, implement.

Drawing from an internally consistent and coherent set of principle-based policies, it is then possible to gather like-minded people in their support. It is unlikely that many people will agree exactly on the same principles or how they should be interpreted as policies, but there can be enough consistency around key themes, values and ideas for people to work cooperatively in their favour.

From this principle-based, policy driven cooperation we develop political parties. These are then the institutions that have carriage for such ideas and which, broadly attempt to represent sets of policies.

Political parties are organized by groups of people who are, at core, individuals. Each has hopes, ambitions, preferences and positions, some of which may coincide with that of others and some of which may not. Those best able to organise and articulate their positions and who have personalities best suited to the task of bringing people with them tend to be internally chosen to lead.

This is what I communicated to my son. Unfortunately, as he noted, the above ‘Four Ps’ don’t appear to correspond with Australian political reality. What we have in Australia, he has noted, is an inversion of this framework. This is reinforced by the media, which is fixated on personality and ‘charisma’, which sees political parties as vehicles for personal ambition, policies the means by which they can bribe voters and principles the most ephemeral and expendable, quality in the whole political process.

Australian voters have been increasingly disenchanted with Australian politicians for many years. They equate politicians to salespeople flogging shonky products that are often second-hand, function poorly backed by institutions that have little or no belief in their product, with design principles based on what is quick, easy, superficially appealing, too often unreliable and which may not even make it into production.

The problem is, the people who run the business do not appear to understand the disconnect between what they are trying to sell and what people – the voters – actually want. It is the superficiality of political consumerism that the ‘consumers’ – the voters – also often don’t understand what they want, much less what they actually need.

The superficiality of retail politics, the form without much of the function, is difficult to buy. Brand loyalty necessarily goes out the window.

As a result, the Australian federal elections produced a massive swing against a first-term government that had performed well in maintaining a key managerial area, that of the economy, but which failed on just about every other front. 

They say that Oppositions don’t win elections in Australia, but that governments lose them. The result of the election was, however, a clear endorsement of neither major political party. It was, functionally, a rejection of both, much like being required to buy a product but liking neither of the main options being presented.

Many Australians felt like this when they voted, none more so than the generation that has only ever experienced the cheapest form of retail politics.

It is telling that the electoral seat my son voted in, once understood to be the heartland of principles, policy development and hence a political party, for the first time in its history changed hands, with neither of the two major parties winning.

My son voted for the first time yesterday. I don’t know how he voted, but I suspect his vote was informed first by principles, then by policies. If this is correct, then more power to him, and those who voted likewise.

As for our generation, on both major sides of the political divide, we have allowed our most valuable asset – our freedom to decide – to be turned into a disposable commodity. However it works out, we do deserve the government we get.

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