Has our political system become so adversarial that it is cannibalising our democracy?
It’s a tempting conclusion when we think of the recent and current bitter tone in federal politics and look at how the leaders rate in polling. In Tuesday’s Essential poll, only 25% had trust in the federal parliament.
Often the politicians seem unable to rise to any occasion, whether to concede their opponents sometimes have a good idea or even to be civil in the chamber.
In a speech on “The State of Australian Politics” opposition leader Bill Shorten has juggled the perceptions and problems with a reality check – and, between the lines, a defence of the “say no” approach Labor is taking.
Referring to criticism of United States politics, Shorten said there was no doubt Australians, like Americans, “are frustrated when they perceive our politics falling hostage to deal making and obstructionism”.
“And if they see only 30 short seconds of Parliament a day on the news, it will always contain more Question Time nastiness and brutishness than earnest policy conversation,” he told a conference at the Australian National University on Tuesday.
But it was wrong to think the quality of debate would be improved by both sides flicking to mutual admiration, or an acquiescent parliament.
“Ours is an adversarial system, by default – and by design.
"Its purpose is to counter extremism, zealotry, the hubris of brief, high-strutting Bonapartes, and government by executive decree.
"In our democracy, a government’s policies are meant to be tested in the community, sharpened, reworked and improved by amendments and by Senate negotiations,” with the people determining at elections if the parties’ words match their deeds.
But, he admitted, “it doesn’t take much for rational scepticism to spill over into debilitating cynicism.
"People are quick to say that: ‘The fate of policies now is decided in secret conclaves, which contain representatives bound hand and foot to vote as a majority decides’”. Well actually, that was George Reid on the Deakin government in 1906.
“Nostalgia for a lost ‘golden age’ of politics is as old as Federation, and so are predictions of irretrievable decline.”
What was needed for a more engaged community was not both sides offering identical policies but “a consensus on the challenges facing our country”.
“Without it, we end up with parties talking at cross purposes in an unrewarding definitional debate. And we risk falling further into the empty politics of division and resentment – typified by the budget,” Shorten said.
His comments come as federal politics enters yet another testing phase, with the untried Palmer United Party having immense clout in the new Senate, whose term started on Tuesday.
Just at the moment, the embattled government is sending out what positive vibes it can muster. Government Senate leader Eric Abetz described the Senate crossbenchers as “all God’s children as far as I’m concerned”.
Tony Abbott (after getting satisfaction from Clive Palmer last week) said at cabinet: “We do want to work constructively and respectfully with the new Senate.
"I am reasonably optimistic that we can do good things together for our country and for the benefit of our people.” His qualification – “reasonably” – was notable.
On the ABC he pointed to the rough time the government had been getting from Labor and the Greens in the old Senate.
The dynamics of such a powerful Senate can lead to some fascinating alliances and manoeuvres, as we’re seeing with the carbon issue.
Clive Palmer has agreed to repeal the tax, but lobbying from the climate movement and the intervention of Al Gore has meant PUP is insisting on much of the Labor government’s climate architecture being retained.
Shorten told his audience that “amidst the hoopla and showmanship of last week, significant points of climate consensus emerged. The Palmer United Party has now declared its support for three key pillars of Labor’s climate change policy”. These are retaining the renewable energy target, keeping the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (the “green bank”) and maintaining the Climate Change Authority.
Attention is turning to whether there might be compromise (though not from Palmer) on the government’s “direct action” legislation.
Alienated voters tend to split between those who see the main parties as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and others who think the parties won’t put aside differences for the sake of getting outcomes.
National politics is currently highly polarised. Now that Labor in the new Senate won’t have the almost automatic blocking power that the Greens’ numbers and political positioning afforded it since September, the opposition will have to decide whether it wants to be the one to do some deals with the government, or whether it is going to let Palmer be the deal maker. Because deals there are likely to be, once politics moves beyond the outright rejection of contentious budget measures.
Labor must judge what sort of opposition the swinging voters – many of them jaundiced – will be looking for in the next two years.
There is the Abbott model of negativity, the one that Labor is successfully following now. Or there is a model that is on occasion more constructive, which could, as the election approaches, appeal to people who are fed up with excessive confrontation.