Freedom of the Media: A Threat to Democratic Institutions?

6a00e5502a95078833015392e0def3970b-500wiIf you’ve ever played Democracy, a game that simulates a democratic government, you would know about political capital. Each turn, you receive a certain number of points, which you can spend implementing policies. A tax hike costs more than a tax break, and introducing new policies cost more than adjusting pre­existing ones. The more popular your government is, the more points you have at the beginning of each turn. An unpopular government is eventually unable to implement any policies at all.

The Australian government is suffering from historically low amounts of political capital. The coalition is floundering in the polls, partially due to relentless haranguing by journalists at every turn. The Prime Minister is an especially easy target for media hawks; he is prone to poor word choice, he has a reputation for pugilism, and his government has poorly sold unpopular policies.

A media that seeks to tear down the government is becoming a staple in Australian politics. This has also lead to extreme instability in the political landscape. The ALP suffered a pyrrhic victory in 2010, followed by a landslide defeat in 2013. Yet recent polls suggest the coalition would suffer a defeat if an election were called today.

The consequences of this run deep. For the current government, such low polling cripples lawmakers’ ability to deliver on their policy agenda. Anything remotely controversial is hounded by the media, while good policy and legitimate achievements are ignored. The electorate is left distrustful and angry.

Short lived governments are unable to fully implement their agenda over successive terms. Subsequent governments are left strangled by a lack of political capital, and terrified by their fickle electorates. This climate of uncertainty is detrimental to businesses, to foreign investors, and to the economy at large.

There is no obvious solution to this problem. A democratic country must afford freedom to its media institutions. However, it would be unfortunate if disruptive behavior and sensationalism on the part of journalists resulted in a permanent loss of trust, and restricted the ability of politicians to ever earn political capital.

Only time will tell whether Australia is cursed to endure a string of short-lived and allegedly impotent governments.

The author is a member of the ANU Liberal Club.