Is navel-gazing our fastest growing industry?

Our economy is doing well. We have none of the endemic problems of Western Europe. We’re not facing a fiscal cliff like the United States.

Yet the Australian response to the Global Financial Crisis – after an initial flurry of policy – has been a collapse into self-reflection.

Navel-gazing is Australia’s fastest growing industry.

Trolling on Twitter, parliamentary standards, criticism of the prime minister: that these are the issues which dominate Australian public discussion surely says something about how self-absorbed we have become.

But what if Australian public debate is getting better, not worse? That the cacophony which greets every political announcement is good? And what if, yes, parliament is full of insults, procedural tricks, and partisan talking points, but this is nothing to worry about?

Put it this way: Australia’s century has seen mass street protests and vicious industrial disputes. Political parties have split. Prime Ministers have been dismissed. Now we are consumed by debates about civility, tone … etiquette. It’s bizarre.

This week Rob Oakeshott is trying to get a parliamentary code of conduct through the House of Representatives.

The draft code says that “members must at all times act honestly, strive to maintain the public trust placed in them, and advance the common good of the people of Australia”. They must “base their conduct on a consideration of the public interest”. They must “exercise due diligence” and perform “to the best of their ability”. It goes on like that.

Codes of conduct are indulgent at the best of times. Yet there’s something deeply surreal about this parliament being asked to confirm they have “due regard for the rights and obligations of all Australians”.

Saying those Australians haven’t warmed to Julia Gillard doesn’t quite capture it. And the opposition leader has had no more success drawing popularity than the prime minister. The idea their disapproval is based on a disrespect for parliamentary procedure, or an un-parliamentary attitude, or treating their office with insufficient solemnity, is ridiculous.

But it’s a classic, concrete example of this weird narcissism. Our little nation has such promise! Yet our politicians are unbecomingly partisan, and we allow Kyle Sandilands to be crude on the radio. Few other Western nations are brooding like us. (Obviously, you can only navel-gaze if everything else is going well enough.) But the causes are universal.

Partly it is a function of the opening up of the public sphere. We shouldn’t underestimate how much the elimination of barriers between the press and its audience has changed the former. Commentators used to speak into a void. They now receive an avalanche of feedback. If public debate is about exchange, we’ve never been richer. If democracy is about participation, we’ve never had it better.

Many people in public life are tricked into believing that what they see on social media is a reflection of Australia as a whole. How could they not be?

Reading the mood of the nation is art not science. Polls are expensive. Receiving harsh feedback from the public used to be like seeing mice: if you saw one you could assume there were hundreds of others the same. That rule of thumb made sense when it took effort to write to a politician. It doesn’t work anymore.

But when journalists and politicians see hundreds of tweets telling them that whatever happened in parliament that day is an embarrassment, it is bound to shape their views. Never mind that Twitter is populated entirely by statistical outliers. Its directness encourages us to see one tweet as indicative of a broader trend.

Social media is not the public but it is rapidly changing what some people imagine the public is. And this “public” is almost uniformly disappointed.

Paul Kelly argued a decade ago that the pseudo-democratic nature of talkback radio had permanently changed Australia’s political culture. Our new changes are much larger than that, and they’re happening more quickly.

It is no surprise then that public debate has collapsed into ceaseless self-reflection. Yet step outside the bubble and everything looks pretty healthy.

Australia’s parliament is as robust as anywhere else in the world. Democratic politics is meant to be about a peaceful clash of interests: we ought be worried if the political parties started working together. And when we are not sulking, the contentious issues are the big issues – immigration and the carbon price.

Australian politics is not prone to conspiracy, unlike the United States.

And we are thankfully free of that combination of ostentatious radicalism and institutional stagnation that infects much of Europe. Yes, Australia has a very middle-class democracy. And there’s nothing the middle-class enjoy more than talking about themselves.