Google it, Mate.

Written by Neil Levy

There’s just been an election in Australia. In elections nowadays, politicians attempt to portray themselves as one of us, or at least as someone who is in touch with ‘us’ (whoever ‘we’ are). Hence the (apparently disastrous) pictures of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich. Increasingly, journalists see testing politicians to see whether they’re really one of us as part of their jobs, even outside election campaigns. Hence Rishi Sunak being asked on TV about the cost of bread, or Dominic Raab claiming he’s not out of touch because he knows the cost of unleaded petrol.

In the early days of the Australian election, Anthony Albanese (then the opposition leader) stumbled several times, failing to recall the official interest rate and the unemployment rate and, later, details of one his own major policies.  Many commentators thought these ‘gaffes’ would harm him; it’s impossible to tell whether they did but they certainly didn’t wound him fatally: he’s now the prime minister. Despite the narrative around Miliband and the sandwich, it’s impossible to tell whether the electorate really cares about these errors and ‘gotcha’ moments. But when should we care? When is it appropriate to expect politicians to be able to answer detailed questions about policies and everyday life and when is it pointless theatre?

Also during the Australian election campaign, Adam Bandt (the leader of the Australian Greens) was asked by a journalist for the current WPI (wage price index). “Google it, mate”, he replied. Bandt expanded by saying that elections should be contests of ideas, not gotcha moments. Again, the response didn’t do him any harm: the Greens have increased their share of seats in the lower house of parliament.

Is Bandt’s response adequate? Elections should be contests of ideas and the ability to recall details of policies and random facts may be quite irrelevant to those ideas. The journalist who challenged Bandt to name the WPI argued that since the Greens were critical of the low rate of wage growth in Australia, he’d better know the rate of wage growth.  But the WPI is fairly arcane, and someone can know that wage growth has been very slow in Australia for the entire term of the previous government and that it is much lower than inflation without knowing the WPI.

Of course, it’s one thing to know these facts, and quite another to design a policy response to them; for the latter task, you do need to know arcane facts. But policy design should be done by teams of people, not individuals. A serious political party should certainly draw on the expertise of people who know the WPI. Policy design on wages should draw on the expertise of economists (and perhaps people in other disciplines too, such as sociologists). Policy is, ultimately, political, and the goals and the decisions must be made by politicians but in consultation with the experts. Bandt presumably asked his team how best to boost workers’ wages without increasing inflation unacceptably. His team presumably advised him about the costs and benefits of various proposals. Some members of that team had better know the WPI, but it is pure theatre to ask him to recall it.

But some facts are more important than others. The more central a policy is and the more important a fact, the more it is reasonable to expect the leader of a political party to recall it. Albanese should have known the unemployment rate and the official interest rate: these are not arcane facts but absolutely central economic indicators. Moreover, Labor had traditionally been concerned with lowering unemployment, so it’s not a good look for their leader to be unable to recall the unemployment rate. It’s not unreasonable to expect leaders to know facts like that, though slips and brain fades can happen to anyone and one-off gaffes should be forgotten.

‘Google it, mate’ is a reasonable response when facts are at all arcane. Similarly, it’s fine for one politician to be unaware of the details of a policy outside their own portfolio. But Google-recall has its limits. While outsourcing information to Google is fine – or even better – for many purposes, thinking requires the manipulation of information and that information must be actually available for manipulation. Groups of people can deliberate together without replicating the same information across minds, but some facts had better be available to those in leadership positions.

I don’t think asking politicians to name the price of bread or petrol is anything but theatre. No amount of memorized facts will bring Rishi Sunak closer to understanding what it’s really like living on minimum wage or on Universal Credit. It is important to him to understand these things, but random facts won’t help. If anything, they replace empathy with memory tricks.

We’d probably be better off if journalists asked more creative questions, requiring politicians to show they understood not random facts but the ways in which policies might be implemented and the costs and benefits of their proposals. Journalists can google the details as well as anyone else.

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5 Responses to Google it, Mate.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    The final three paragraphs of this thoughtful article summarize well what we have known for some time: people seeking the acclaim and other gains attending political office are every bit as phony as anyone else. Such office seekers and holders stretch truth as far as they can, Throughough whatever means or subterfuge necessary. Old news…

  • Pavel Novak says:

    Well…. the politics is not journalism. The politics is not entertainment.

    But unfortunately we wrongly think it is.

    The journalists make the issues too simple. If some politician wants to examine some topic in more detail way he is immediately stopped by presenter with words like “Enough! … You are too long/difficult/boring for our spectators…” etc.

    It is the problem that the politician is forced to behave like pop star.

    But such politics is just a caricature of itself. Such politics is unable to make correct decisions.

    We, electors, are disguised by this. But we are not aware that it is out own fault….. WE want the politicians to be such “phony” pop stars.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    Thank you, Pavel. You said it differently, but well.

  • Paul D. Van Pelt says:

    A further note. Associates of mine have examined it. At first, we wondered if there is some dark, nefarious conspiracy. Maybe, yes; maybe no. What springs forth is ambition. The U.S. situation is glaring. An indicator. There appears to be catalytic affect. Commenter Novak was getting towards this. Other democracies, and their elected officials may be taking US practices as it exemplary for their own governance. The space of time and experience here, since 2016 has been unprecedented, in our view. For reasons illustrated by friend Novak and others, more or less contingent to democratic process, holes are being rent in the fabric of a system once thought least incorruptible among many. E Pluribus Unum. Figuratively, we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

  • Pavel Novak says:

    Thanks Paul for commenting my comments 🙂

    I think the conspiracy is not the point. No group of people in the “background” is powerful enough to influence all the governments and even the whole nations.

    The point is our MENTAL state.

    The policial scientint Cas Mudde talks in this sense about “Populist Zeitgeist”.

    The essential point is if we prefer freeedom or security.

    The 90’s of 20th century was the era of freedom. We believed in our own abilities.

    The symbolic end of this light-hearted decade was 9/11 attack. Then there was a financial crisis in 2008, migration crisis in 2015 and finally covid and UA crisis in 2020-2022.

    All this unhappy or tragic events caused that we lost believe in freedom and democracy. Instead we again started to believe in political leaders (duces).

    S. P. Huntington talks about “the waves of democratizations”. According to Huntington there was anti-democratization wave during 1922 – 1933.
    On the contrary the period 1974-1989 Huntington calls “The third way of democratizaiton”.

    In these days we think that the democracy is too weak to solve the public problems (the same thesis the fascists or bolsheviks had).
    That is why we re-believe to populists or politcian who pretend that they are one of us. And that is true – by this we are shooting our own foot.

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