The Public Has an Appetite for Policy Debate. Do Politicians?
As the world experiences the radical transformation of the way the media reports and delivers news, through both social media and the 24-hour news cycle, a growing view is forming that the punishing cycle is crippling the chance for genuine economic and policy reform.
There is no doubt that the new and constantly-changing-media world order is having a profound impact on the way politics is reported, and accelerates the pace and pressures on politicians, policy makers and stakeholders. But this is the crucial question that must be asked: Is this detrimental to outcomes? Is it acting as a roadblock to big, controversial, but perhaps necessary reforms?
The public has an appetite for policy debate .. Rather than seeing the cycle as an impediment for reform, [social media] should be seen for what it is – a radical transformation that allows the public to participate in public discourse
Former Prime Minister John Howard powerfully entered this escalating debate last year to make the most compelling case yet, debunking the view that reform is all too hard in the contemporary environment because of the epic scrutiny placed on politicians arguing for brave new ideas.
Howard argued it is too bleak to claim that economic and political reform is no longer possible in the culture of the 24-hour news cycle.
He used the compelling example of re-elected New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, arguing that Mr Key had landed major reforms – including a rise in the GST – and still went on to deliver an increased majority for his reformist party.
"I regard that (blaming the 24-hour media cycle] as a too-pessimistic view of the modern political environment. Last weekend, you saw in New Zealand a Prime Minister who has had a very strong reformist agenda returned with an increased majority, a remarkable result," he said. (Reported in Fairfax newspapers.)
"John Key has been a reformist, activist Prime Minister and he won in this alleged environment of difficulty and concern about cutting through in a 24-hour news cycle. I am unconvinced of that explanation."
Howard is dead right. His view is different, however, to that of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who writes in her autobiography, My Story, that the new cycle means journalists are more interested in quick and easy leadership stories than policy reform.
"With today's frantic media pace, leadership stories can play a role akin to Christmas-stocking fillers – you can always pop in another one with little expense or effort," she writes.
Gillard is partially right: leadership stories do dominate when journalists witness instability. When Tony Abbott faced his own leadership chaos earlier this year – he too – just like Gillard, found it impossible to get “clear air” to argue his government’s case for reform. But it is the job of politicians to get their house in order and provide stable government in order to create the space to make the case for bigger and bolder change. Leadership stories have existed where there are politicians backgrounding against their leaders. Good leadership is the only way to avoid them.
The public has an appetite for policy debate. Never have we seen such high levels of engagement through social media. Rather than seeing the cycle as an impediment for reform, it should be seen for what it is – a radical transformation that allows the public to participate in public discourse like never before.
Our new and confronting system is a game changer. Democracy is exciting, once again
Political leaders making the case for hard reforms now have a plethora of opportunities to hammer and articulate their case. Instead of being seen through the prism of potential defeat, the faster pace gives a capable politician or policy maker the chance to campaign for reform like never before. It unlocks the possibility to create better policy outcomes, as unintended consequences are picked up along the way while the rigorous debate intensifies.
This is not to say that a toxic ‘gotcha’ culture which unpicks every part of a policy or a media performance doesn’t carry risks and challenges. But a well-designed, necessary and well-argued idea can succeed in the new environment. The principles have always been the same – the idea must be well designed, well planned, well modelled, and then it must be articulated with precision, repetition and passion. Politicians must not be afraid to alter a plan to reflect public concern, but this is vastly different to responding in knee-jerk ways. Our new and confronting system is a game changer. Democracy is exciting, once again.
Thumbnail image source: Andy Langager/Flickr