by Chris Monnox

Is the election boring? This seems to be a common judgement about 2019’s contest. It’s not the first such verdict, either. The 2010 election was widely panned as boring until the results started coming in. Then the hype about a hung parliament started, and refused to abate for the next three years. A photograph of journalist Laura Tingle looking bored at the leaders’ debate came to be emblematic of the 2016 campaign. Some even deemed it ‘heroically boring.’ The interceding Rudd-Abbott contest wasn’t exactly thrilling, either.

Quite a lot has been made to hang on such observations over the years. Campaign tedium has been cited as evidence for a lack of real differences between the competing parties, wary complacency, a scripted and over-managed style of politics, and a dearth of direct interaction between politicians and the people. Significantly for the last two observations, the advent of Twitter and Q&A-style television formats seems to have provided campaigns with some predictably inflammatory side-lines rather than enlivening the process as a whole.   

The idea that election campaigns should be a time when excitement around politics peaks is deeply embedded in their history. Nineteenth century elections in many countries, including Australia, involved music and colour, free alcohol and food for voters, and the occasional fight. Particularly in America, parades and processions of the supporters of particular parties and candidates were a regular feature. Elections were high-energy affairs, with the potential to become unruly. Voting in the United Kingdom was staggered across several days until 1918 in part because the police did not have the resources to ensure public order in all parts of the country at once.

This was a long time ago. By the early twentieth century a combination of increased regulation of campaigning, the secret ballot, a growing suspicion of disorderly masses, and voters whose party loyalties outweighed their openness to bribery had sent the election-as-carnival in decline. Far from being inherently boring, elections were made that way by a combination of legislative intervention and cultural change. Some countries even made it illegal for candidates to hire musicians. In Australia election day became a chance to experience technological novelties like a ride to the polls in a car supplied by the parties or an electrically-illuminated sign displaying the results outside a newspaper office. Fights were unlikely to break out, not least because the pubs were closed by law.

The main group for whom campaigns have remained high-energy undertakings are politicians and activists. Politicians in the early twentieth century made much of the physical rigours of campaigning. In the country they boasted about how many speeches they had made in far-flung villages; one said that he usually lost six kilograms during the course of a campaign. Today candidates still maintain exhausting schedules, especially in marginal seats. Some still become noticeably thinner during the course of their campaigns. Seen from this perspective Tony Abbott and David Cameron’s decisions to campaign for 36 and 24 hours straight during their respective 2010 campaigns were displays of genuine fortitude, not why-would-you-do-that silliness.

But for all their colourful history and ongoing capacity to excite the most active participants, the idea that modern election campaigns could routinely mark a point at which the passions of politics peak and then subside in an orderly fashion is open to doubt. The campaign that is no more engaging than what many take to be the tedium of day-to-day Australian politics is one case in which elections don’t live up to the festival of democracy ideal. But a more malign variation is found in cases like Brexit, where the passions roused by a campaign conspicuously fail to subside at its conclusion. Nor is this a recent phenomenon. The ill-feelings created by the two conscription referendums and Federal election of 1916-17 continued to mark Australian politics throughout the post-war period.

In some ways, of course, elections do mark a break from the ordinary for voters as well as politicians. Cake stalls, democracy sausages and what has been called the ‘holiday atmosphere’ of Australian polling booths are successors to the novelties of election day in the early twentieth century. The outcomes of elections certainly matter, sometimes in ways that are not obvious at the time. As Benjamin Jones argues in Elections Matter: Ten Federal Elections that Shaped Australia, elections that initially look and feel like non-events can appear pivotal later on. But there is reason to be suspicious when an election campaign diverges too much from everyday politics. As the persistence of Brexit’s demagogic style along with its labyrinthine substance is showing us, when this happens there is a good chance you are looking at a new normal that will linger long after the polls close.

Chris Monnox is a PhD student in Macquarie University’s Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations. He is studying electioneering in early twentieth century Australia, with a focus on country electorates. He is based in Canberra, and has previously written on the ACT Labor Party.