National debate slipping down the greasy poll

If our poll crazy politicians were to take a snapshot of the electorate, they would discover how their short-sighted obsession with popularity is turning off voters.

Memo to Tony Abbott: pack better sandwiches. Or throw a party when your parents go away for the weekend. Or use the Christmas holidays to develop some vague claim of proficiency in a popular sport – preferably one that at no point mandates the wearing of Speedos.

This is how popularity is won in high school. And with Canberra so gleefully – and relentlessly – doing its best rendition of an unsupervised schoolyard, flush with disunity and bullying, the opposition leader may be wise to mine the high school experience for whatever gems of wisdom he can.

With parliament preparing to wind down for 2012, the nation can take a collective sigh of relief at the prospect of a summer free of political pandering. It will likely be the calm before the storm though, with the stakes in the greatest popularity contest of them all – the prime ministership of Australia – set to be elevated even more in the year ahead.

Much has been made of the state of national politics in recent months, with the national discussion hijacked by polls, mud-slinging and speculation – all in the name of currying favour. Suddenly, death by opinion poll isn’t just an occupational hazard of political leaders, but a nation drowning in data and ratings that at once say everything and nothing.

This doomed hunt for popularity and the misplaced reverence attached to it, is endemic of the issue at the heart of politics: crippling short-sightedness. More than being leaders or visionaries, it seems all the political establishment wants to be is loved. In the popularity stakes, popularity itself is the new black and all of Canberra is abuzz trying to squeeze, clip and contort anything malleable, just to get a taste.

Of course, popularity comes in all shapes and sizes. Most notably, there is a growing fracture between public popularity – the much-hyped ‘love of the mob’ – and support from within one’s own political party. One can rarely exist without the other and few have the prowess to straddle the line between the pair. This is the precise dilemma facing Abbott and indeed, Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The discourse around the leadership tussles atop both political pyramids buys into belief that inherent to good leadership is popularity. To an extent this is true, leadership is unequivocally a numbers game, but popularity isn’t. Increasingly it is being used as a means of legitimising internal leadership decisions, a statistical seal of approval.

After all, the great irony of the proliferation and impetus of opinion polls in the modern political landscape – particularly those gauging preferred prime minister – is that they are quantifying an outcome for which no Australian will ever directly vote for.

The prime-ministership is not the result of a personal, popular vote, but the right of the privately elected leader of the political party which is bestowed by the Australian people a mandate to govern.

Only an estimated 200,000 Australians will actually have the opportunity to place a tick next to Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard’s names in the next election. In 2010, 110,052 votes were cast in Gillard’s electorate of Lalor in Victoria, while 89,817 total votes were cast in Abbott’s electorate of Warringah. But increasingly, the national political conversation is dominated by a ‘one-or-the-other’ presidential mentality, the Punch and Judy show, as former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has labelled it.

Conversely, there is also great potential for popularity – or a lack thereof – to be harnessed as a force of destruction. The removal of Rudd in the wake of sliding opinion polls in 2009, is the obvious example, though the ongoing cloud over both party’s leadership, fuelled or subdued with each corresponding poll, is equally exemplary.

This, more than anything, is the price of installing popularity as the bellwether of political success. In making it king, the political establishment has placed a glaring spotlight on its overriding shortcoming: its fickleness.

The 24-hours news cycle ensures that what buoys a politician one week, can just as easily drag it down the week after. Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech is a classic example. Largely ignored by mainstream media in Australia as further personal bickering between the nation’s top politicians, it wasn’t until the glare of international press was directed on it, that the now-famous tirade found its polling legs. The speech was subsequently credited with not only Gillard’s ascendancy in her own personal popularity, but a rebound in Labor’s two-party preferred standing.

It was a moment of inspiration, a glimmer of hope, even if it was manufactured for polling glory, after-the-fact. The irony of course is that at a time when the quest for popularity is priority number one, voter disenchantment with the political establishment is historically high. John Scales, managing director of JWS Research recently told ABC TV, Australia is at a turning point in terms of politics.

"Voter disengagement with the federal government is at a critical low point,” he said.

"My particular interpretation on it is that it is to the point of toxicity, that the political process is almost broken.”

The risk of conscious disenchantment becoming active disengagement runs high on both sides of the political aisle. For the one certainty of popularity is that it does not endure. The only thrill bigger than being invited into the glittering inner circle of the cool kids, is watching their self-sustaining bubble of importance pop. It’s as true in Canberra as it was in the schoolyard.

Even prime ministers can find themselves sitting alone at lunch time – and sooner than they think.

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