Degrading political discourse

I remember when we crossed the Simpson Desert back in 2014 how wonderful it was not to hear anything about politics for days at a time, and then turn on the TV news in Birdsville to have Tony Abbott talking to camera. He looked like a plastic man, and it was hard to re-establish that what he had to say may have consequences for our lives.

I think Tony Abbott has made a significant contribution to degrading the tone and content of political speech in Australia.

In the US people have spoken of the “Trump effect” – a shift in norms since Donald Trump entered politics. Now Rishab Nithyanand at Data & Society, a research institute in New York, and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts have undertaken a study to see whether discourse has actually worsened.

Their results are reported in the New Scientist Politics chat on Reddit reads like it was written by 6-year-olds (pay-walled), an earlier article in Vox by the authors As politicians become less civil, so does the internet and their published paper Online Political Discourse in the Trump Era.

The titles of the first two reflect some of the main findings.

The authors decided to use Reddit for several reasons. Firstly, there is a database that goes back to 2005, or 2007 in the case of the politics category. Secondly, unlike Twitter, it allows extended writing. Third, unlike Facebook, writers and commenters do not have to be identify themselves, so can say what the really think without fear of their reputations. Fourth, editing is democratised, so there is no Reddit house policy on what goes. Finally, it is much used, the whole database contains a total of 3.5 billion comments from 25.3 million authors made on 398 million posts. They analysed 30 million comments in 3 million posts in the political category.

To do this they developed an algorithm which they verified manually on a sample.

Probably they most stunning conclusion is that between 2007 and 2017 the linguistic complexity of the online writing fell from on average seventh grade (age 12) to around first grade (age six). For complexity they used the Flesch-Kincaid readability grade-level as a metric.

One of the reasons for this seems that new groups are now joining the fray. Fringe groups and extremists have now infiltrated mainstream political discourse in the real world. And some of the comments now come from bots.

They differentiated between Democratic, Libertarian, and Republican comments:

    We find several interesting long-term trends – until 2015 the comments on Democratic subreddits were on average 23% and 15% more likely to be offensive than comments on Republican and Libertarian subreddits, respectively. However, since 2015, comments on Republican subreddits were on average 46% and 7% more offensive than Democratic and Libertarian subreddits.


    We see a large spike in the incidence of offensive comments starting from Donald Trump’s candidacy announcement in June 2015 (5.1% of comments and 12% of authors) to Trump’s victory of the Republican nomination in May 2016 (12.8% of comments and 35% of authors). Further, in spite of a drop in incidence of offensiveness in comments to 11.6% after the elections, the fraction of offensive comment authors has continued to grow to 38% as of May 2017.

So the behaviour of political leaders does have an effect. However, commenting is an act of volition on the part of the commenter, so they have to take responsibility. Partisanship has increased and Americans are displaying how angry they are becoming.

I’m not aware of similar studies in the Australian context, but you don’t have to look far to find politicians who debase political discourse. It is usual on the ABC to blame “both sides”, but the difference was starkly on display on RN Drive on 6 December when Patricia Karvelas first interviewed Tony Burke, and then Barnaby Joyce.

Burke was calm, rational and logical. Joyce let fly with a mindless rant, marking his return to politics after being sent to the naughty corner for being a dual citizen.

If you want to see someone really mess it up, try Malcolm Turnbull on Q&A. In general he was condescending and patronising, but met his match when he locked horns with Teela Reid, I understand an Aboriginal lawyer who was part of the Uluru dialogue process. In the end she cut him off at the knees.

Part of the reason Ken Wyatt and Linda Burney cannot represent Aboriginal people generally is that they are members of political parties, as well as representing electorates.

There’s more about the whole episode by Charis Ghang at

I liked the tweet along the lines “Typical ABC, stacking the audience with intelligent people!”

In part Turnbull was the lawyer with a brief of defending the indefensible after, for example cabinet had summarily dismissed the Uluru Statement from the Heart without detailed consideration or discussion with its authors, presumably because Barnaby Joyce didn’t like it.

I think Tony Abbott did much to lower the tone of political discourse in a consistent and general sense, although there may be a structural cause in the two-party system, where all discourse tends to become related to winning politically. It will be interesting to see with Nick Xenophon presumably holding the balance of power in the South Australian election whether parliament there becomes a genuine deliberative chamber addressing issues on their merits.

10 thoughts on “Degrading political discourse”

  1. Brian thanks for articulating the awful state of politics in the US and Australia. I doubt if any of us here were overwhelmed by surprise. For me it was a sort of declaration/confirmation of where I thought we are at.
    Hopefully Xenophon will succeed in producing a new model that may get copied elsewhere.

  2. Brian,

    You may recall in an earlier thread: Climate change: The end of civilisation as we know it, my comment at DECEMBER 6, 2017 AT 10:56 AM included:

    For instance, Friday week ago I phoned Paul Toole’s office (NSW Member for Bathurst) and Andrew Gee’s office (Federal Member for Calare) to draw their attention to the post The Adani Project: – Is it good for Australia, including my comments about the apparent threat to NSW jobs, and suggesting the Adani Project could threaten jobs in their electorates, and asking what they are doing about that. The office staffers I spoke to seemed to be unaware of this issue, but appeared very interested when made aware of it.

    On Thursday, 28 Dec 2017, I received a letter from Andrew Gee MP, dated 16 Dec 2017, acknowledging my contact with his office regarding my concerns about the proposed operation of the Adani Carmichael Coal Mine. Gee confirms in his letter he has referred my concerns to Minister Josh Frydenberg MP, and Gee states he has asked Frydenberg to “investigate and address” my concerns with the estimated number of permanent jobs to be created by the mine.

    As I said in my earlier comment:

    Don’t assume our leaders (and their advisors/staffers) are well briefed – have a continued respectful dialogue to inform them of the issues that concern you and, if possible, gain an understanding of what they intend doing about it. How else are they going to know?

    It will be interesting to see how Frydenberg responds.

    Here’s an example of a simple phone call that has triggered a response. Time will tell how it will resolve, but the key point of the exercise is highlighting the issues of concern (and where possible, better alternatives) to prompt a rethink/re-evaluation. I suspect my actions represent hundreds of people with similar concerns, but who haven’t bothered to express their views to their parliamentary representatives. Perhaps if more people found the time to respectfully question/challenge our leaders’ actions (or inactions) directly, our society may possibly be in a better condition.

    Nothing ventured – nothing gained.

  3. In the past people got a say in the media by writing letters to the editor. Letter editors would screen out most of the really bad rants. Now the net lets everyone have a say and set up blogs.
    Looking through an Aborigines eyes I would have said the political narrative was more appalling in the past. Ditto through the eyes of those excluded from Aus by “two Wongs don’t make a white thinking.” (Labor immigration minister Calwell.)

  4. John, that would be Arthur Calwell, the first immigration minister we ever had under the Chifley government.

    Geoff M, not sure how it is related, but I’m reminded of a story my son Mark told me when he was researching coal seam gas.

    He met Bob Katter with the cameras present. It was chalk and cheese when the cameras left.

  5. Geoff M

    Yes: nothing ventured, nothing gained.
    And your direct, personal approach is (I think) the most likely to gain an actual, non-scripted response.

    I recall one occasion about 40 years ago when I signed and posted to an MP a printed postcard produced by a campaign group.

    In due course, a printed reply came from the MP. Touche (tooshay) as the French say. “You send me a printed “letter”, cobber; I’ll reply with a printed card.”

    On letters, a friend wrote to the Teasurer, Dr J. F. Cairns in early 1975, about the fact that the Asprey Report on taxation showed that the poorest 20% of Aussies were paying higher total tax as a percentage of income than the next 40% up the income scale.

    The response from his office? “Many argue that welfare payments make up for that.”

    The point the person had tried to make was that the taxation in itself was unfair, regardless of anything else. At least Dr Cairns’ office replied directly to the individual.

    Geoff M, it seems that several people here have approached pollies directly for a chat; who knows to what effect? It seems to me impossible to judge, given the large number of letters, phone calls, and indeed Enquiry submissions, or petitions, that come in.

    But you’re right: nothing ventured, nothing gained!

  6. There are a few things that degrade political discourse:
    (1) Ignorance – especially wilful ignorance.
    (2) The unwillingness to listen to a sworn enemy. Just put a label, like Unionist or Rightwinger , onto a speaker and it becomes a licence to ignore whatever is said, whether worthwhile or not.
    (3) So-called Balance and Fairness. Sadly, this is sometimes anything but balanced and fair but a blatant grab for publicity or notoriety by a minority group that could hold its meetings in a phone box.
    (4) Having a large number of speakers coming from a single social group. An example of this would be our parliaments, heavily infested with lawyers, who make up only a tiny proportion of the populace; this gives us eloquence, entertainment and gladiatorial debating aplenty but leaves us bereft of a well-informed and broad political discourse
    (5) A news media that is hell-bent on inventing a story than
    on reporting it. Time and again, they ignore the organizers of a demonstration or its speakers and overpublicize the screeching extremists or the agents-provocateur on the fringes.

    These defects are not insoluble – but curing them will take a lot of time and vigilance.

  7. Thank you, Jumpy and Ambigulous. I shall now spoil it by doing what the Chinese proverb advises against: “Painting a snake and adding feet”.

    (6) Looking only at Australian political discourse or, worse yet, at American political discourse as it is presented to us here. How is political discourse conducted in P.A.P. controlled Singapore? Or in modern Estonia or Slovenia or Malta? Or in Canada under Trudeau Mk.II, or in Chile or in Botswana. Time for us to start broadening our perspectives and being humble enough to learn from others.

  8. Graham Bell (Re: JANUARY 5, 2018 AT 5:04 PM and at JANUARY 6, 2018 AT 9:07 PM):

    All excellent points. Well done.

    Ignorance flourishes when there is a lack of curiosity and an unwillingness to learn – that’s a recipe for decay/regression.

    Enemies can teach us things too. It’s perilous to ignore them.

    Balance and fairness requires a competent assessment and weighing-up of relevancy and credible/factual strengths of the competing arguments. Most reporters and debate moderators don’t have the depth of knowledge required to perform this important task. TV reporting is reluctant to cover events that don’t have accompanying images – no pictures, therefore it seems it didn’t happen.

    …parliaments, heavily infested with lawyers…” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a harmful thing, provided pollies have the foresight and courage to call in credible experts to enhance their knowledge on subjects they may be deficient in an understanding about. The trick is to suss out those ‘experts’ that colour their advice because they have a vested interest or covert agenda to promote. But, I do share your concerns – a broader spectrum of the population represented in parliaments should be encouraged. But most candidates are preselected by the political parties, so the problem predominantly lies with the respective party bureaucracies. Add the 24/7 scrutiny and daily party ‘hymn sheet’ talking points and I think that probably scares/discourages most decent people away from politics.

    Unfortunately, it seems to me that news is becoming more like ‘click-bait’ – the more sensational, the more attention it gets, and that’s what generates revenue. The consumer is partly to blame for this – the mainstream media appears to be only responding to what is perceived to attract the most attention, and what ultimately sells.

    Time for us to start broadening our perspectives and being humble enough to learn from others.

    Your statement is a fine ideal, but not at the expense of ignoring the good things that happen here in Australia. Hybridisation of ideas can potentially lead to better outcomes.

    Perhaps freshly decided Senator-designate Jim Molan (replacing Senator Fiona Nash, who it seems had dual nationality) can add new blood, and better thinking to the federal parliament. Last week The Australian reported this, as well as reported by, Molan advises:

    He has issued a stark warning about Australia’s readiness for war, saying the armed forces could be ineffective within 19 days if current stockpiles of petrol, diesel and aviation fuel run dry.

    “We are almost unique throughout the world in that we don’t have a government-mandated strategic reserve of fuel,” Senator Molan said. adds:

    Defence Strategy and Capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Dr Malcolm Davis said incoming Liberal Senator Jim Molan’s warning that Australian forces would be rendered almost useless in just 19 days was “absolutely true” and warned that Australia is “one of the few countries in the world that does not take our energy security seriously”.

    Who would have thought it? You would think the country would be screaming blue murder and baying for heads to roll at this dire state of affairs. But I see no extended discussion beyond about a day (or one 24-hour media cycle). Governments don’t want to deal with it – too hard. The media seems complicit, and the public are distracted by other shiny unimportant things.

    If the public is not vigilant, we get the governments we deserve, and the standard of media reporting and analysis we allow.

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