37 days of campaign content: Do we actually read it?

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Australia is one of about a dozen democracies globally that enforces compulsory voting, a loose collection of nations that makes up about 5 per cent of the UN and includes Belgium, Nauru and Ecuador amongst its number.

We are, globally speaking, an electoral anomaly. 

In her book From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, Judith Brett suggests that more than 100 years of compulsory voting has created an environment where Australians cannot help but take at least a cursory interest in politics, given almost everyone will eventually have to turn up to the polls*.

More than 96 per cent of Australians are enrolled to vote, a figure bolstered by newly-minted of-age voters who signed up for the 2017 Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey.

For a WA teen who enrolled for that survey, by the time they turn 25 they’ll have been expected to vote in five elections – three Commonwealth and two State – and endured something like 200 days of election campaigning.

With this in mind, it begs the question: Do Australians actually consume much political news, given some of us probably vote more often than we go to the doctor? Is it worth the countless man-hours every outlet from the ABC to Buzzfeed dedicates to recount blow-by-blow election coverage?

There’s no easy answer. The final leader’s debate clocked 882,000 viewers on the ABC - a long way behind the 3 million who watched Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard back in 2010, but  many more than the pay TV-only 2016 debate between Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull.

It would seem the days of an audience count in the million for a leaders’ debates has gone the way of the worm, which so infuriated John Howard he banned it in 2007.

Now more than ever, political coverage spans more than the policy content. Campaign muckrakers have 10 years-worth of cringeworthy social media content from ballot paper seat-warmers to trawl through and strategically release, which results in headlines like “Just 29 Absurd Things That Happened This Week On The Election Campaign” (forgive the caps, it came from Buzzfeed.)

And there’s interactivity: there is gamification, the ABC’s excellent Vote Compass and any number of other data-driven tools to while away an extended coffee break, perhaps matching political quotes with the relevant prime minister.

That said, rarely does election coverage rate in the top five – or even top 10 – most read articles for news websites.

So. In the absence of hard evidence, I will go with the anecdotal. An American friend commented to me that politics in Australia garners the same level of interest as college sports in the US. Perhaps an exaggeration but I do wonder if the ABC’s Q&A is a national past-time - even for those who don’t tune in, the fall-out from each episode reverberates around office water coolers and lunchrooms, talk-back radio and social media posts.

Perhaps it’s because in the next 10 years, all registered voters in Western Australia will  be legally obligated to attend at least seven elections.

So we might as well pay attention and look forward to our democracy sausage.

*(Brett’s book also points out that Australia invented the secret ballot and was second to give women the vote so if you’re feeling a bit despondent about the electoral system, I do recommend reading it - or listen to her discussion on the ABC Big Ideas podcast if you prefer a truncated version).