Symbolism isn’t substance: it’s symbolism

Simon Cowan

06 October 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

SC australian flagOn Tuesday, former acting Liberal Party director, Andrew Bragg tweeted a photo of ABC headquarters in Ultimo that showed both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags — and observed that the Australian flag was missing.

Obviously, flying the Indigenous flags makes a symbolic point. Not flying the Australian flag could also be seen as making a symbolic point — although perhaps less intentionally — about whether the organisation values what the flag represents.

But the substantive issue is not whether the ABC flies the Australian flag. If the bulk of the population feels the national broadcaster adequately reflects the values of Australians, it would matter little whether the ABC flew the Australian flag, Indigenous flags or the Jolly Roger.

It is easy to knock the ABC for not flying the Australian flag; as if that alone proves it doesn’t reflect Australia. It is far harder to demonstrate the ABC is actually overly-representative of the issues of the progressive, urban middle class and — as they increasingly consolidate in cities — is losing the perspective of more socially conservative views in regional areas.

The problem is that on far too many issues, debate focuses entirely on the shallow or symbolic and ignores or obscures the substantive issue. And, as can be seen from the (not) Closing the Gap reports, however important symbolism may be, it is no substitute for substance.

Another good example is the oversimplification of the current debates over the direction of the Coalition in government. There is a real tension on the centre right, in Australia and throughout much of western politics, with a series of potential fault lines running through the compact between the social conservatives and the classical liberals.

A fracturing would have profound economic, social and political consequences — yet instead we see constant speculation on Abbott vs Turnbull Round 3 … as if the issue was limited to the clash of the symbolic leaders of the two camps. On the deeper issues, precious little thought can be found in mainstream political discourse.

There are a number of reasons for this — not the least of which is the hollowing out of the media and political parties. But it may not be a coincidence that as this is occurring, people are steadily losing faith in democracy.

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