Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Chasing Democracy: Dissent, Humour and APEC

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Chasing Democracy: Dissent, Humour and APEC

Article excerpt

Given the recent political climate in which the previous federal government employed various techniques in an attempt to silence dissent, as well as the media's ability to negate or incorporate serious critique, it was incumbent upon would-be-dissenters to find alternative means to engage the public. Humour has long been recognised as an important political strategy. It has been used to belittle the powerful, but also to highlight the absurdity of given political, social and cultural conditions. This article examines The Chaser's now infamous APEC stunts. The Chaser found a novel way of conveying the criticisms that others had made of APEC, concerning the exclusion of the public and the attrition of basic civil rights under the guise of security. We consider the role this might play in addressing a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement. Sharing in the joke enlarges public participation, but also creates an alternative memory of APEC.

After a decade of ideological warfare under the Howard government, there was a growing awareness that the terms of public debate had been corrupted to a point that threatened the healthy functioning of ch/il society. This concern is evident in the publication of three recent books by commentators who have challenged the Howard government's anti-democratic leanings: Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison's 2007 edited collection, Silencing Dissent, David Marr's 2007 Quarterly Essay 26, 'His Master's Voice: The corruption of public debate under Howard', and Robert Manne's 2005 edited collection, Do Not Disturb: Is the media failing Australia.

These books are written in a style designed to alert and alarm Australian citizens about the erosion of civil society. They present disturbing evidence of the attacks by the Howard government on open debate. In addition, they advance a variety of plausible analyses to explain why the nation acquiesced to right-wing bullying: a compliant mainstream media, a complaisant Open for business' approach to neo-liberal globalisation, and an abuse of security fears.

However, when it comes to strategies for restoring democratic space, none of the books go beyond describing the courage of individuals who have stood up to the government - public servants such as Andrew Wilkie and Angus Houston who have exposed government lies, academics who have been personally vilified for voicing their opposition to government policies, or non-government organisations that have refused to buckle under threats of disfunding.

Yet, the more participative democracy based on civic engagement that these books called for requires more than a few courageous voices. Apart from direct instances of silencing critical voices, there has been more generalised sense of alienation by Australian citizens from the mainstream political process (Mackay 2007).

This article examines the satirical program The Chaser and considers the role that humorous provocation might play in addressing this widespread sense of political disenfranchisement. We analyse the popular appeal of The Chaser, which rests as much on the sheer funniness of the jokes as on their political import. We argue that, like all political interventions, humour runs certain risks. It risks mis-conveying the dissenting message, which may become lost in the laugh. Alternatively, pranking might remain at the level of reaction, were it not for the effects it has beyond its own duration. In some instances, capturing the complexity of the situation is less important than securing the last laugh. It may be that our interpretation of the pranks goes well beyond the intentions of The Chaser team. This accords with a recognition that the effects of action are irreducible to the intentions of the actors; it is this that humour highlights well.

Disenfranchisement and APEC

Neo-liberalism erodes the trust on which a vibrant civil society depends, leading to a deepening sense of disenfranchisement within the community and a further retreat to the individualism that neo-liberalism fosters (Edwards 2002, 89). …

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