Politics is no game

By JOHN HEWSON

On the first day of the new Parliament in 1993, Paul Keating took me aside, ostensibly to "apologise" for all the "nasty names" he had called me over the years, and to record that he actually "quite respected" me, and that he could have accepted "losing to me".

However, he went on to say that I needed to understand that, to him, "politics is just a game, and I will say or do whatever I have to, to win."

As naïve as I obviously was, I had never thought of politics as a game.

I'd thought of government as a business; perhaps the biggest business in Australia.

I clearly should have read HL Menken, often regarded as one of the most influential American writers on politics of the early 20th century.

According to Menken, "the whole aim of politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary".

More fool me for not believing in the monsters under the bed.

Politics has progressively become even more of a game over the last couple of decades.

Indeed, now almost an end in itself, the contest is to win the 24-hour media cycle, at all costs.

Policy substance and debate has been almost totally eschewed.

The focus has become increasingly short-term, opportunistic and pragmatic.

Political positions and daily messages are driven mostly by polling, especially focus group responses, rather than by evidence-based policy, or even ideology.

The game moves almost daily, from one issue to the next, from one location to the next.

As it does, the media and other independent commentators mostly get swept along, with little time or incentive to dig into the substance of an issue, or to attempt to insist on transparency and accountability.

They are left to focus on the 'colour and movement' of it all.

The game has become very tribal, bitter, personal and mostly negative.

The whole process has been an attempt to 'dumb down' the electorate, as the key tribes produce their own evidence and accounting, and then chant it, or spin it, almost incessantly, as if it's fact.