By Ad astra
It was twelve years ago, on July 10, 2008, before The Political Sword was inaugurated, that I wrote Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?. It was published on The Possum Box hosted by Possum Comitatus, who gave me my start at political blogging, for which I continue to be grateful. Some of that piece is reproduced below because recent political events demonstrate that its messages are as relevant today as they were then.
While most readers will have their own ideas about the meaning of ‘adversarial politics’, so that we’re all on the same page, let’s use the following definitions: “Adversarial politics exists when the proposals put forward by government are routinely criticised by opposition parties. Any stance taken by government is automatically opposed, whatever its merits,” and “Adversarial politics takes place when one party (usually not in Government) takes the opposite (or at least a different) opinion to that of the other (usually the Government) even when they may personally agree with what the Government is trying to do.” It is a characteristic of the Westminster system, and if one can judge from its most flagrant manifestation, Question Time, most parliamentarians seem to revel in it. They enjoy the contest, which at times takes on gladiatorial proportions.
Because it provides a rich source of sensational copy, the media thrive on adversarial politics, and contribute powerfully to it through the press, TV and radio. Without it, life for journalists would be less lively and the preparation of material that might interest the public more demanding.
But to some who closely follow events in the political arena, it is a source of irritation because inherently it involves dishonesty and at times downright deceit. The main game seems to be winning or scoring political points even if that requires taking an opposing position that is inconsistent with previous positions or policy, and in the process demeaning or humiliating the other person or party. All observers of the political process applaud informed and vigorous debate that teases out the issues and ensures that sound decisions are made. But is an adversarial approach required to achieve this? Some might argue that it is; most would disagree.
The COVID-19 disaster
We are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. No one is certain about how to manage it; it is unique. Medical experts and epidemiologists have guided political decision making. A piece on TPS titled Listen to the experts showed how effective this strategy was.
Victoria’s Premier, Dan Andrews has been at the forefront of this wildly spreading infection, giving stark updates and offering predictions and advice every day for the people of Victoria and beyond. He is exhausted. He, like everyone else, is operating in an environment in which no one knows what to do with certainty. He takes the advice of the medical experts. Nobody should doubt his sincerity, his earnestness, his integrity. He wants to do the right thing for the people of Victoria. Does anyone seriously doubt that?
Yet we have State Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien out every day miserably bellyaching about what Andrews has said, done, or advised. He thinks he knows better. He is sure of his position despite working on the same data. His carping criticism is as irritating as his words: ‘bungling’, ‘inept’, ‘hopeless’, ‘dictator’, ‘Chairman Andrews’ or ‘Chairman Dan’. How depressing it must be for Andrews to have to endure such talk!
And it’s not just O’Brien. If you can stomach it, tune into Peta Credlin on Sky News, or Andrew Bolt on The Bolt Report where he brings on assorted right wing stooges who embellish his sarcasm. Or listen to so-called ‘Sky after Dark’ where you can hear Chris Kenny, Paul Murray and other luminaries ridicule Labor at every opportunity. Then read the assessment of it on The New Daily.
Question Time shenanigans
Because adversarial positions are more often taken by parties in opposition, many examples are seen in Question Time, where acerbic questions are aimed at the PM and his ministers. The Government too uses Question Time to score political points via ‘Dorothy Dixers’ where backbenchers read a question written elsewhere and designed to give the responder an opening to attack the Opposition.
It’s not just at Question Time that we see adversarial politics. It’s seen at press conferences, doorstops, and radio and TV interviews where journalists are at times downright aggressive and rude in interviewing politicians. While we all want probing interviewers, with the courage to challenge politicians, their stated policies and their utterances, why do journalists persist ad nauseam in asking questions that no prudent politician would or should answer?
Perhaps as a reaction to adversarial probing, there are two words that are seldom used by politicians: ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Some politicians manage to avoid ever using them, instead preferring “let me make this point”. Frustrated interviewers yearn for those blessed, unequivocal words, yet seldom hear them. Instead they so often get a long and convoluted response that doesn’t answer the question, and when it occasionally does, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would have saved everyone a lot of time and irritation.
Some interviewers on TV or at doorstops are devotees of the ‘will you guarantee’ or ‘will you rule out’ syndromes, hoping for a ‘Gotcha’ moment. Sometimes it’s justified, but at times it’s sheer harassment in an effort to get a scoop.
The language of adversarial politics
Language creates perceptions. In adversarial politics exaggerated language is used to embarrass, put down, demean or diminish. It is designed to give the user a ‘win’ or an advantage over the other. There are many examples: ‘Back-flip’ and its colourful variants, ‘back flip with double pike’, ‘back-down’, ‘about-face’, or the more benign ‘about turn’ or ‘U-turn’ are terms used to indicate a change of mind or a different approach. Politicians are entitled to change their minds in the face of new evidence, different thinking or changed circumstances; the opposite, sticking stubbornly to an outdated or untenable position, is foolish. So why not use terms such as ‘change of mind’ or ‘different approach’, or ‘new tactic’ or ‘changed attitude’ or ‘revised position’?
Columnists enjoy describing ideas, proposals or political structures with which they disagree as being in ‘tatters’, in ‘disarray’, even ‘a shambles’, or in ‘chaos’. These terms imply a disastrous turn of events, yet usually nothing catastrophic has occurred. Parliamentarians making submissions to cabinet are sometimes unsuccessful – the proposal is declined or deferred. The individual is then described by journalists as having been ‘rolled’ or ‘humiliated’, or has ‘rolled over’, and is therefore painted as a loser.
Slogans and mantras
Slogans are part and parcel of the language of adversarial politics. ‘Stunts’, ‘gimmicks’, ‘symbolism’, ‘all style and no substance’, are frequently used. ‘Control freak’ is another used by opponents. Yet what evidence is ever offered to support the ‘control freak’ mantra? It seems this phrase often refers to the clearing of written statements for distribution to the public through the leader’s office. Is that unreasonable, is it a serious restriction? Or is it a sensible approach to transmitting consistent messages to the public? Alternatives to ‘control freak’ could have been ‘having a finger on the pulse’, or ‘aware of everything that is going on’, or ‘directing traffic’, but they would not have had the desired affect that pejorative labelling achieves. Slogans and mantras are used because they work. Start a catchy slogan and soon many will be mindlessly repeating it. It doesn’t have to have much or even any substance, so long as it sounds believable.
Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?
Those who despise adversarial politics find it to be contemptible, a damaging affliction on our political system. They resent the stifling impediments it places on governing, on governments carrying out what they promised the electorate they would do. They see it as focused on ‘winning’, on gaining a political advantage, rather than telling or establishing the truth, or contributing usefully to the discourse. It sets the teeth of the electorate on edge, which ‘turns off’ in despair. Voters would prefer politicians to be open and upfront, more focussed on the good of the nation, less willing to corrupt the usually-worthy principles that brought them into politics in the first place. At least our PM and Opposition leader are now cooperating well during the COVID-19 crisis.
What can we ordinary citizens do?
We might be able to bring about change if we, who pay our politicians’ wages via taxes, raise our voices against the use of exaggerated, depreciatory, derogatory and dishonest language by politicians, commentators and columnists. While the media might miss the theatre and the ‘newsworthy’ copy adversarial politics provides, the public would applaud a more measured approach, free from adversarial behaviour – so wasteful, so unproductive, so distasteful. We could write to our parliamentarians individually. Responders to this piece may have other suggestions. Sadly though, if history tells us anything, any change for the better is probably a vain hope.
This article was originally published on The Political Sword
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