Policy debates – celebrities should know better

By Andrew L. Urban

It is generally desirable to have everyone participate in democracy in some way, to maker it truly deliberative, whether by direct contact with local members, letters to the media, active membership in parties and organisations, election volunteering, etc. There is great value for a democracy in the participation factor, which dispels cynicism and encourages engagement, and helps to propagate informed voters.

Those with low or no profiles seldom have access to mass media. Celebrities have easier access and generate more media coverage. Cate Blanchett and Michael Caton were invited to participate in a public campaign by a pro-carbon tax grouping of trade unions and GetUp, in early June 2011, well before any details had been finalised on the proposed carbon tax.

There are three disadvantages to their involvement in the campaign:

1 – the backlash: instead of surfing the goodwill and respect of the public, the actors were criticised for taking a public stand on the issue which was portrayed as hypocritical. They were better off than the average voter, with a bigger carbon footprint and immune to the pain of rising costs that would ensue from a carbon tax.

2 – the lock-in: having publicly supported the carbon tax in principle, they are locked in to supporting it, even if they don’t agree with some or all the details of the legislation – details of which will be many and complex and potentially troublesome.

3 – credibility: the higher the profile, the greater the responsibility (the ‘power & responsibility’ equation) to be informed in debate on policies. Actors generally have little or no credibility in other areas of public life; that’s just how it is. To gain credibility, the public needs to feel confident that their point of view is an informed one. That was not the case here. Were they familiar with the persuasive arguments of Bjorn Lomborg, for example, about alternative and economically rational responses to global warming? Were they aware that no comparable country has introduced an economy-wide carbon tax or ETS? (Probably not, as the Productivity Commission report on the matter which articulated that was not published until June 9, 2011, some time after the campaign went to air.) Many other questions could – and perhaps should have been – asked of them to support their very high profile position on the subject.

Could the public feel confident that they were lending their ‘high popularity factor’ to this policy position not simply because they support Labour politics but because they know what they are talking about?

It’s totally appropriate in a democracy to mobilise voices in support – as distinct from mobilising guns and violence. Blanchett and Caton (and many others with easy access to media) should be encouraged to make their (informed) views known as part of the debate. It would be welcome if high profile members of the electorate were more informed and thoughtfully involved about other substantial issues in our democracy, such as the quality of governance, waste management of Government programs, the standard of political debate, drug laws, child care, refugee management policies, as well as global issues such as oppressive and misogynistic governments and so on.

Perhaps that’s all too hard when there is so much on the celebrity plate. Active participation on the current hot button topic is likely to be seen as gesture politics, empty of meaning but full of partisan posturing.

But then newDemocracy* takes the view that “We need to move away from celebrity campaigning and populist politics; we need to reinvent our parliaments, so that trust and deliberation are the norm, rather than the exception.”

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