How to drive voting & policy debate this election... and how not to

What odds a policy debate this election? And how do we elevate it above more sensationalism and dirty politics? Here are some dos and don'ts

The news cycle sure is quick these days – and getting quicker. We've long known that today's news is tomorrow's fish n' chips wrapping, but these days articles last mere hours, even minutes, on websites before analytics tell the editors what's being read and what needs to disappear. This hardly encourages deep consideration of public policy options as we head into the general election.

In fact, it's the reverse; this diet of superficiality and sensationalism eats away at real debate. That is not just unfortunate from the perspective of those of us interested in public policy; it's seriously sapping of the true lifeblood of democracy.

It is no wonder interest in politics and voting, especially amongst milliennials, wanes. It is no wonder surveys show the general public’s increasingly low respect for politicians, the media and the system.

I think we all would like to see this dis-interest reversed; I sure hope so. The question is how to do it. Listening to The 9th Floor interviews with ex-PMs currently running on Radio New Zealand, two were advocating compulsory voting [Ed: What discerning taste you have. You can listen to that series here].

Yet when it comes to compulsory voting, I couldn't agree less. In a free country, deciding not to vote is as valid a choice as deciding to support one party or another. Forcing people to vote by making non-voting illegal will not solve the problem.
One of the reasons why I personally support and read Pundit is because others who do take a real interest are sharing their thoughts. I sure don't agree with all the views expressed but I think there is a significantly better chance the debate will be elevated in the blogger world relative to the daily press, which to me gets yellower in story selection all the time.

The election debate can swiftly be diverted from philosophical options. The question we should be asking is this: “what policy approach do we collectively want our country to follow?” Last election we spent a couple of weeks intensely following arguments about claimed – but highly disputed – “dirty politics” and “influence peddling”.

I was pleased to see Steve Maharey’s post on tertiary education policy; there is an area of public policy that needs debate. He was prompted by the Productivity Commission report on the subject. Productivity Commission reports are always well thought through, but, let's face it, are a long and a boring read.

Usually they contain some good ideas as to how we should move forward, but because of their heaviness of style their public penetration is low, except – and this is what happens – you can bet the media will highlight a politically charged idea no matter it's importance in the overall scheme of things.

This happened with the tertiary education report; among a raft of proposals the Commission recommended reimposing interest on student loans. This idea has about as much chance politically as a snowball in the very middle of hell, and was scotched brutally and without delay by relevant party spokespersons. But apart from that and Steve’s blog, I saw nothing reported on the rest of the detailed report.

It does not bode well for those interested in the substance of policy rather than the shenanigans and antics of the day-to-day political game. It does not bode well for building interest in politics amongst the increasingly turned-off general public, young and old.

I dread we will get back to slogans like “it's time for a change” and lines of that ilk. The mood of the country matters, and for some citizens a single issue may drive their voting behaviour. But as a general proposition, saying it's time for a change is about as unintelligent a reason as can be offered for changing a government.

This year, it would be great to see a debate about issues.