First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 July 2004

Vote for Me, a segment on Channel Seven’s Sunrise program, is a sort of political Australian Idolwhere viewers can vote to choose a candidate to stand as an independent for the federal upper house.

The Labor icon Barry Jones had to back out of his role as a judge because nervous Labor senators thought the show might stop them from nailing the difficult third position on Labor’s senate ticket, says the journalist Matt Price.

The Dicko, Marcia and Mark of VFM are now the former Howard adviser Grahame Morris, journalist Lisa Wilkinson and the former independent MP Phil Cleary. These three have narrowed the applicants to 18 finalists. Viewers will vote to choose one candidate from each state.

Condemnation of this show is bipartisan and runs from the Prime Minister’s office down, the journalist Glenn Milne told Lateline. Political journalists have been asking whether VFM will distort democracy, affect the balance of power in the Senate or create a senator for Channel Seven. The criticisms of the show from the major political parties and political commentators have been predictable. But do they stack up?

Many have cited the $10,000 in campaign funds Seven is giving to successful candidates. But as the Orange Grove retail centre affair demonstrates, corporate donations to political parties are hardly new (the ALP is claiming they have no bearing on policy). Politicians protesting at Seven’s generosity therefore just sound like hardcore cocaine addicts criticising a teenager for inhaling when the joint is passed around.

The criticism that choosing political representatives via a television game show makes a mockery of democracy seems at first to be fairer. But how are our representatives chosen now? As has been noted recently, a talent for stacking branches and sitting through years of dreary party meetings are too often the key talents required of aspiring politicians.

Isn’t democracy already imperfect when so many of our representatives are the sons (and increasingly daughters, wives or sisters) of former government ministers, deputy PMs or MPs? Are Simon Crean, Larry Anthony, Alexander Downer, George Bush and even Kim Beazley really the best talent we have?

When Laurie Brereton announced his retirement media reports automatically mentioned a son, Anthony, as a potential candidate – his surname seemingly his most salient qualification.

What about the argument that VFM trivialises politics and turns it into showbiz and entertainment? Again, this is hardly a shocking new development: it’s a safe bet the spin doctors had showbiz and entertainment on their minds when Mark Latham visited the Big Brother house and Peter Costello tangoed with a python and Kerri-Anne Kennerley.

But while professional politicians see virtue in acting the fool or showing their Average Joe side, look out when Average Joe steps into the professional politicians’ domain. When Big Brotherdetainee Merlin protested against detention centres, Amanda Vanstone questioned his facts and his right to enter into the debate. Big Brother‘s host, Gretel Killeen, was outraged because he deviated from the scripted questions and the show’s running order.

When journalists express concerns about VFM, they too seem to be displaying a nervousness about the unpredictable, unruly element the untrained politician introduces into the reporting process. Journalists and politicians rely on each other for a relatively predictable and steady flow of leaks, exclusives, quotable quotes and suppressed angles more or less in time for each day’s deadline.

In her book about her experience on the Pauline Hanson campaign, the Herald journalist Margo Kingston’s frustrations with Hanson were often about her inability to play this political game, rather than the content of her policies.

Although Kingston worried about journalists in modern politics being reduced to theatre reviewers for an uninterested public, she ended up relishing the role of political game show host. She and her sister staged a meeting between Hanson and the then Victorian premier, Jeff Kennett, in a shopping centre; at times she was Hanson’s unofficial media adviser; and she had a sleepover at the Hanson house that she banned her sister from reporting in The Age.

Politicians condemn VFM because it means real people and amateurs intruding on their turf, threatening the factional deals divvying up the seats of power even before an election is held.

Reality TV hosts dislike disobedient and political contestants taking over their turf and interfering with program running orders. Political journalists are wary of VFM because it means unpredictable real people entering their turf, threatening the relatively predictable process of putting together a story.

VFM may be flawed and crucial Senate seats are at stake. But when criticising the show, let’s not pretend our system is perfect. VFM could add a bit of colour and an element of surprise to the mostly established scripts of politics, reality TV and news reports. Worse things have happened.

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