Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Aussies choose from bumbling illusionists

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The sham of 21st-century politics is lit up in a neon-light display Down Under as Australia treads wearily toward its 44th parliament.

Mere cynicism with the process of governing appears to have given way to aggressive contempt as the public turns savagely on those who would govern us.

On Saturday, more than 14 million people will cast their vote but few appear to relish the prospect of a once-in-three-year opportunity to hire or fire their leaders.

Voting in Australia is compulsory and those over 18 face a fine if they refuse to do their democratic duty.

But beyond a sullen sense of being herded toward a ballot box with threat of financial penalty, the electorate has never been more vocal in its anger at the entire political superstructure.

The Internet brings a soapbox to almost every household, and the previously silent majority has climbed upon it to tell the world what they really think.

It's not pretty. The media have been under savage attack by assailants who don't seem to grasp that posting opinions in a forum with a potential circulation of several billion readers makes you part of it.

And politicians, always treated with healthy skepticism, appear to be targets of a fierce, sometimes almost incoherent anger.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was called a "maggot.'' A furious protester yelled at Prime Minister Kevin Rudd: "You're a fool, get out of here."

Barry Jones, a former member for the ruling Labor Party and one of the few figures in Australian public life who might sit comfortably with the label "intellectual," suspects the nation has sunk to new depths.

"I was one of many who thought that the 2010 election would be the worst in our modern history for the debased quality of political discourse,'' he wrote on the website the Conversation. "But all indications are that the 2013 election is on track to be even worse."

Why complex messages must be sawed back to three words ("stop the boats'' was, essentially, the Opposition's immigration policy) when Australia has never boasted higher literacy levels is just one of the puzzles of modern political campaigning.

Why every public appearance must be stage-managed like an afternoon pantomime for wide-eyed children is another.

An increasingly sophisticated electorate is treated as simpletons, yet there is evidence the rising generation not merely understands the political process, but grasps its nuances like no generation before.

Gruen Nation is a popular program aired on the national broadcaster the ABC with a segment critiquing examples of political advertising.

A panel views an advertisement then rates how well it thought the process of manipulation worked.

It's an extraordinarily public display of how deeply entrenched the once-esoteric world of marketing and advertising has become in mainstream culture.

Jaded with "spin,'' Gruen Nation's wide and enthusiastic audience has clearly risen beyond it, dispassionately dissecting the dark arts of propaganda as a form of entertainment.

Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz peeking behind the curtain, the electorate has been backstage at the political theatre and seen the wizards for what they are -- bumbling illusionists.

But, curiouser and curiouser, that won't change things.

One of them -- Tony Abbott -- will be Australia's 28th prime minister come Sunday morning.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 6, 2013 A13

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