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The decadence of our times

John Keane, Professor of Politics, is so easy to listen to and right across so many issues. He is despairing of the K-Mart vs KK-Mart style of the Australian election contenders. He recently returned to Australia after many years spent predominantly in the UK. His most recent book is The Life And Death Of Democracy, an epic written with the intention of being a lasting work. It has been shortlisted for the Prime Ministers Literary Prize. I made jottings from John Keane’s festival appearance:
There is a maturing sense not only in Australia but in Europe and America that the representative system is not working, especially in addressing climate change. We see a new wave of calling out for parliament and politics to act differently and a recognition that institutions even those as revered as democracy can rot.
Keane identifies a decadent trend in the falling away of public sympathies for parties – there’s still an affection for parliament but disaffection for politics that has become a dirty word about what goes on in Canberra. Until World War 1 tremendous energies went into the campaign to win the voting franchises. We were the first to win the vote for women – remarkable victory. Our times defined for remarkable affection for clean, free and fair elections. You can see this in the Obama election. However, there’s a hollowing out of the process that’s all hanging on the right to vote – and the question has become where else and in what other ways can we vote?
It’s a long-term shift since 1945. There is no longer a representative democracy. Look at what Get Up did – with launching the case for people to register – a public scrutiny body addressed a serious issue and now 100,000 more people will have the opportunity to vote.
There are a lot of decadent elements to the election. It’s like – K-Mart v KK-Mart. Leaders are frightened of moments where they meet real people. It causes panic such as when the Vietnamese fruit seller in Melbourne declares proudly to Tony Abbott that he was a boat person.
There is a transition to a new style of democracy – monitory democracy. And we’ve seen the growth of the first of the guide dog institutions – human rights, online monitory groups, truth and reconciliation bodies, public memory commissions – all are new in history of democracy. Many of these are not western inventions.
Public rough and tumble scrutiny of politics is likely to be permanent – a permanent attempt to humble power and recognition of the belief that no one should sit on thrones on power, that no one should be a monarch – that it brings injustice and bad decisions, destructive hubris.
“Tony Blair, one of my favourite politicians,’ says Keane confirming he was being sarcastic about the former UK PM, spoke of the reality of government as dealing with ‘an issue in the morning, an issue in the afternoon so that within a short time we (UK government) were firefighting so we put our pants and gloves on – we repelled them’. That’s what going on in democracy. Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell – would ‘throw out dead bodies [other announcements, spin and stories] to deflect attention from real issues. It’s a defensive view of the transformation of democracy that’s going on, says Keane.
Other way to handle things is not to repel as Blair did but to work in tandem with this monitoring process as Obama did. He got it because he had the background with Chicago community organizing.
Australia’s two potential prime ministers don’t get it – they put their armour on and only meet people on their own terms.
Media was principle monitoring agency but now there are much more viral contestations of power.
Keane describes an afternoon when Gordon Brown was fielding PM questions and meanwhile a group of demonstrators called Plane Stupid – scaled to the top of Palace of Westminster to protest the extension of Heathrow Airport on environmental grounds. They alerted bloggers and tweeters and even conducted their own press conference from the roof. Brown was informed of some ruckus on the room and sought to remind the honest members of the house – that policy is made under the roof of this house and not on the roof
But increasingly, says Keane, there will be much more viral contestation of power putting politicians and parties on the back foot. Due to the changing ecology of reportage – it’s possible to cause controversy with handheld phone.

To be continued ….
Marian Edmunds

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