Dawe, Morrow and Gessen – Satire and The Rise Of Populism

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Satirist Bryan Dawe (left) and comedian Julian Morrow at Integrity 20. Photo by Frances Harper

Actor/satirist Bryan Dawe has such a low-key, laconic approach to ‘giving a talk’ that the journalistic instinct to take notes deserted me. Dawe is the surviving half of the satirical act Clarke & Dawe, but he is much more than that. He told the audience at Griffith University’s Integrity 20 Summit that when it came to political satire, he and John Clarke had never been short of material over 25 years of producing their weekly TV show.

Dawe introduced one of his best-known satirical characters, boozy retired judge Sir Murray Rivers QC; Dawe as interviewer/straight man to Sir Murray’s confused bigot. His presentation was funny; funny and sad, as he often referenced his late partner in satire John Clarke, who died in April this year. Dawe’s ‘talk’ would have been illuminating for the year 11 and 12 students attending Integrity 20, as Dawe summarised his unhappy days at school where he left early after being told by a careers adviser he would not amount to anything because he came from the ‘wrong postcode’.

Dawe joined Julian Morrow of The Chaser and The Checkout for a discussion on satire, comedy and how to know when you’ve gone too far. When asked that question by panel chair Rebecca Levingston, both agreed that nothing was off limits.

While agreeing that one could satirise and make jokes about anything, Morrow conceded that The Chaser’s skits post-9/11 were “too soon”. Levingston prompted Morrow to revisit the time The Chaser (a TV satire show), penetrated security at the 2007 APEC conference in Sydney with a fake motorcade transporting a ‘Mr bin laden of Canada’. As Morrow recalled “We never expected to succeed.”

Both satirists agreed that there are powerful people who always try to have good satire shut down, probably because nothing is funnier than the truth, greatly exaggerated. The trick, said Dawe, was not to engage with critics, trolls and others whose power base was being diminished by The Chaser’s sharp sketches or by John Clarke’s familiar introduction: “Thanks for having me, Bryan.”

Bryan Dawe’s presentation was the ideal tone for Integrity 20’s afternoon session, which followed serious and at times contrary debate about hate speech, free speech, censorship, the global rise of populism and how to destroy democracy.

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Masha Gessen, photo by Bengt Oberger, Wikipedia CC

You may have heard Richard Fidler on Conversations interviewing Masha Gessen, an exiled Russian American journalist and author. Her speech ‘How to Destroy Democracy’ and later contribution to a panel discussion on populism was a highlight of Integrity 20.

New York-based Gessen outlined the seven lessons in ‘imagining the worse’, in which the rise of populism destroys democracy. These include destroying the sense of participation, conspiracy myth-making, and engaging in the ‘forever war’, (which in the US means a 16-year war against ‘terrorism’, an unidentifiable foe, with no end point in sight).

Gessen, an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, also referred to the way democracy could be destroyed simply by degrading language.

“Trump is a master at that. He lies and lies to convince you that something that’s not true is true. There’s no way for a journalist not to quote his lies.

“Trump says he’s the subject of a witch hunt when that’s the opposite of what he means. He creates word salad and makes it difficult to work out what it all means. It’s a direct assault on how we all live because language is the main tool we use to co-exist.”

Even while Gessen was articulating this I was thinking about former PM Tony Abbott’s ludicrous comments about goats, volcanoes and climate change. However daft the comments seemed, journalists had no option but to quote what he actually said at a climate conference in London.

As Ricky Gervais said this week in a thought-provoking tweet:

Some opinions are so stupid they hurt my feelings. But that’s my problem. It’s a person’s right to hold as stupid an opinion as they like. (@rickygervais):

A panel discussion followed on the global rise of populism. Panel chair Luke Stegemann summarised the rise of populism in countries including Italy, Poland, the UK, France and Germany. “Australia is not immune by any means,” he added, citing the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and how it taps into the frustrations, racism and bigotry of people who are angry about immigration and furious about globalisation and the perceived impact these issues have on their jobs.

One ought to keep in mind that populism − a movement for the people and against a privileged elite − can occur across a broad political spectrum. It is possible, as panellist Geoffrey Robertson QC observed, to have left-wing populism.

The origins of populism date back to the 1800s when rural peasants revolted against their robber baron landlords. Today it is more about polarising the electorate and pitting angry poor people against (poor and possibly angry) immigrants and asylum seekers.

The privileged elite seem to survive with wealth intact, whichever way the populist wind is blowing.

Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the common perception was that supporters of populism are racists and bigots.

“There is a racist fringe but the core of populism is about high inequality and why people don’t understand why politicians don’t listen.”

Geoffrey Robertson said young people were disenchanted about the rampant capitalism that democracy encourages. This was in response to Kleinfeld’s comment that only 52% of people aged 18 to 29 think it is preferable to live in a democracy. Robertson said the key threat imposed by populist leaders was the attempt to replace an independent judiciary with their own people.

Kleinfeld made comparisons between Donald Trump and outsider president Andrew Jackson (1828-1834), who enjoyed two terms and put his successor, Martin Van Buren, in place to ensure 12 years of a populist government.

The Atlantic made much of the Trump/Jackson similarities.

“Jackson, like Trump, won over many white working-class voters, who brushed aside critics who warned that he was unstable and a would-be dictator. He maintained their loyalty even though, like Trump, he was of the elite.”

I can’t recall who started it, but it seemed all panellists agreed that Trump, despite being widely reviled, would easily take another term in office. They didn’t say so, but it seems obvious that Trump has a like-minded and seemingly un-impeachable successor in Mike Pence sitting on the bench (wearing a Martin Van Buren t-shirt).

If you were not yet confused about populism and its multiple meanings, Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia, coined the phrase “thin ideology”. This means to merely set up a framework: pure people versus a corrupt elite. Thin ideology can be attached to all sorts of “thick” ideologies such as socialism, nationalism, anti-imperialism or racism.

I will leave it to the reader to decide what type of populism exists in Australia.

Monday I’ve got Friday on my mind

I leave you with a tribute to the late George Young, who co-wrote the song from which this essay takes its name. Young and co-writer Harry Vanda and their band The Easybeats had an international hit with Friday on My Mind in 1967. Here’s a terrific cover from Richard Thompson and band from the album 1000 Years of Popular Music. (Please don’t listen to the Bruce Springsteen version that comes up after that…Ed)

 

The informal donkey voter

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“Eeyore’ in his winter onesie! Photo by Penny Davies

On Saturday, an estimated 2.724 million Australians will either not cast a vote or will vote incorrectly, either by choice or by accident. I say estimate, because it’s my estimate, drawn from official Australian Electoral Commission statistics plus sums based on donkey voter research.

The AEC says there were 15.468 million people on the electoral roll as of March 31, 2016. That’s 94% of eligible voters, which means there are 978,933 people ‘missing’ from the roll. That’s a lower number than in 2013 (1.22 million), but it could still sway a tight election either way.

The second part of the equation is the informal vote, votes which for one reason or another do not get past scrutineers because the ballot papers have been filled out incorrectly or deliberately spoiled.

In 2013, there were 739,872 informal votes or 5.92% of enrolled voters, the highest proportion since 1984 (6.34%), which coincided with the introduction of above-the-line voting in the Senate.

According to Melbourne University’s Election Watch website, the majority of informal voters vote (1) only or fail to fill in all the preference boxes. Others use a tick or a cross instead of numbers. A few write their name on the ballot box (also a no-no). Some informal voters scribble slogans or graffiti on their ballot papers.

After meeting sources in dark corners of underground car parks, I can confirm that drawing penises is a favourite, suggesting (a) the voter thinks all politicians are dicks or (b) likes drawing penises.

The AEC did an analysis of informal voting after the 2013 election. The AEC estimates that just over half of informal voters meant to vote for someone, showing a preference for one or more candidates. But more than a third were disqualified due to incomplete numbering.

One alarming trend is a steady rise in the proportion of informal voters who put blank papers in the ballot box. This rose from 16% in 1987 to 21% in 2001, peaked at 29% in 2010 and dropped to 20% in 2013.

Meanwhile in Brexit

An analysis of the elusive 34% of Brits who did not vote in the 2010 election by Votenone observed that in the 2010 General Election, the UK total of protest and ‘spoilt’ votes was around 295,000, or 1% of voters. However, 34% of registered voters (16 million) just didn’t vote. Votenone advocate these people take direct action by doing just that, ie writing ‘None’ on the ballot paper.

“There have been petitions asking for ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) on the ballot paper for many years.  However, like the demand for votes for women in the early 20th century, success doesn’t come just from asking.”

The UK system is different from ours in several ways, not the least of which is that voting is not compulsory.

Meanwhile, the uniquely Australian phenomenon, the donkey vote, continues to ignore both the carrot and the stick, despite changes to the electoral system post-1984 which should have diminished the influence of the donkey vote. The so-called donkey vote is an anomaly of the preferential voting system. It describes the voter who simply numbers the ballot sheet from the left, or top down, without discernment.

Prior to 1984, the donkey vote was crucial in some seats as candidate names were listed alphabetically and party names did not appear on ballot papers. So numbering your candidates from the left meant that Aaron Aardvark, the Independent candidate for Aarons Pass, collected more votes than he ever thought possible. Some political pundits think the donkey vote is worth as much as 2% of any contest. On that basis, 309,360 votes will be wasted on Saturday.

Mr Shiraz found a 2006 study by the Australian National University which suggests the donkey vote is 1 in 70 or 227,114 votes.

If you want a clear example of how the donkey vote can skew results, look no further than the 2005 by-election for former Labor leader Mark Latham’s seat of Werriwa. There were 16 candidates, listed randomly on the ballot paper. In this instance the donkey vote was reflected in the high vote (4.83%) for Australians Against Further Immigration, a minor party who were placed first on the ballot. (Then again, maybe people meant to vote for them).

To compel or not to compel

The other slab of humanity missing at the polls is the 4.5% or so (696,060) people who are on the roll but don’t bother. A $20 fine applies if you are enrolled but do not vote – a potential $13.92 million windfall.

Australia is one of 22 countries where voting is mandatory, yet our voter turnout has been below 96% every year since 1946. In 2013, the figure was 93.23%; in 2010 93.22% and in the year of Our Kevin it was 94.76%. Nevertheless, we have the largest voter turnout of 34 OECD countries including the US, UK and Canada. In neighbouring New Zealand, where voting is optional, the turnout has only nudged above 80% once since 2002.

But getting back to our specific problem – how to engage the 2.724 million people who are apparently disaffected, uninterested, don’t understand, are too busy mowing lawns, chainsawing storm-tossed trees or having sex on polling day or misguidedly waste their democratic right in voiceless protest.

I heard Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull on radio yesterday urging people not to vote Independent as this could cause “chaos and instability in government”. Fair go Mal (and Bill), we’ve had five different PMs in six years, yet we only voted for two of them.

Meanwhile, a record 1.16 million people had taken advantage of pre-poll voting as of last Saturday (it was 775,000 at the same point in 2013). The speculation is that the increase in pre-poll voting (you qualify if you are going to be away from your electorate on the day, are 8kms or more away from a polling booth or have religious reasons for not voting on a Saturday), is because the government, in its wisdom, picked a date during school and university holidays.

In practical terms, however, nobody is enforcing these rules; you just get asked if you are qualified to vote pre-poll and if you say yes, then in you go. Rod Smith, a professor at the University of Sydney, who specialises in political parties and elections, told the Sydney Morning Herald electoral commissions encourage early voting.

“The categories are out-of-date and it is one of those instances where lawmakers are turning a blind eye to the way the legislation is being implemented.” Smith says.

The latest poll shows the Coalition is ahead of the Opposition 51/49, although other polls suggest 50/50 on a primary vote basis. The bookies have the LNP at $1.08, Labor at 8-1 and odds of a hung parliament at 4-1.

The challenge now is for someone to come up with what language guru Professor Roly Sussex calls a ‘portmanteau’ word (blending the sounds and meanings of two others, for example motel, brunch or Brexit), to describe Australia’s 2016 poll. Here’s a couple to get you started on election night: Texit, Sexit. Let’s hope there is no need to coin a post-election term like the one now widespread in the UK: Bregret.