Sarah Maddison’s elitist message to the Greens

STONE the crows! It is the worst of times, it is the worst of times!

At least, according to Sarah Maddison. The political activist, who was once a spokesperson for the Women’s Electoral Lobby and is now an academic, is appalled by the crook quality of political debate.[i]

And she should know, what with her being a self-announced scholar of many, many important issues: “Her areas of research expertise include social movements, feminism and the Australian women’s movement, democratic participation, dialogue and reconciliation, and Indigenous political culture.” [ii]

In the Herald on Friday, Maddison let fly about the way important issues are ignored by the politicians and how “Australians hungering for some vision in their politics” need to do the debating for themselves.[iii]

But which Australians, what with the way we come in all shapes and sizes? Here’s a hint; Ms, sorry, Associate Professor Maddison’s op ed was extracted from a lecture for the Greens:

I am tired of being drowned out by Alan Jones. I want to join my voice with others who are talking about a more progressive vision for Australia. … We are citizens not just consumers. We must be dissenters, not passive bystanders. And now is the time for us to be heard.

Perhaps the Crows are a feather short of flight but this sounds less like a call for a debate than a demand for a chorus where everybody agrees they are right and all those who don’t are dumb or deluded.

As Clive Hamilton explains, the masses miss the importance of acting on climate change because they are gulled; “politically driven climate deniers have adroitly used the instruments of democratic practice to erode the authority of professional expertise.” [iv]

Ms, sorry, Associate Professor Maddison adds that governments often make problems worse by ducking difficult issues:

… the public response – our response – when authority fails or when the problem worsens, is to look even more earnestly to authority for a new solution, often switching our support to someone who promises new and better answers. [v]

To which the Crows caw.

Another way of interpreting the way the electorate decides who to support is that voters look at politicians and what they are promising and decide who is the most credible and convincing.

It is the way democracies work. This inevitably upsets elitists and authoritarians because it means everybody with a complex case expressed in abstract terms must convince enough not especially educated or engaged voters if they are to get their ideas adopted.

Ordinary Australians have a habit of not trusting what they don’t understand – on the entirely reasonable basis that ideas not easily explained are either uninformed or are designed to impose outcomes that large numbers of electors do not want.

And if they are dubious about policies not adequately outlined they distrust politicians who cannot or will not explain themselves or, worse, lie.

The only way to change the country is to explain a case and keep on explaining it – as Paul Keating did for a decade on the need for microeconomic reform and John Howard did over expanding the tax base. And the only way to win elections is to keep advancing ideas – both men lost office when they had nothing to offer than the status quo.

Be it economics or climate science, Australian voters may not be educated but they aren’t stupid. In fact they are perceptive. As another commentator pointed out on Friday:

…the mob will always work you out. No matter how clever, masterful or slippery you think you may be, the public never gets you wrong. Collectively they are so much smarter than any individual pollie.[vi]

Or a commentator like Maddison convinced there is a crisis.

The challenge for Associate Professor Maddison and her green friends is to do what she suggests and sell their ideas – but nobody is to blame but themselves if the electorate is not interested.


[i] , recovered on September 1,

[ii] “On the highwire profile: Sarah Maddison, The Hoopla @ recovered on September

[iii] Sarah Maddison, “Gags gone but public debate is still a joke,” Sydney Morning Herald, August 31

[iv] Clive Hamilton, “Democracy is failing the planet,” The Conversation, October 13 2011 @ recovered on September 1

[v] Maddison, ibid

[vi] Graham Richardson, “Frontrunners hard-fought advantage slips away,” The Australian, August 31