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Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?

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.

Some of the rubbish served up to Daniel Andrews (Image from Twitter)

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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  1. Anthony Judge

    I am not sure I fully understand. Is this a strong case for a one-party system — unchallenged by any alternative perspective? There is no alternative (TINA)? What is the role of any “opposition” — if everyone should be singing from the same hymn sheet? Is there ever a case when that hymn is itself problematic and should be challenged by critical thinking? How to distinguish between critical and adversarial if any critics is framed as an adversary?

  2. andy56

    Adversorial politics definition, Tony Abbott.

    The two party system we have now just enables us to plod along. Sure third parties and all but they are still fringe players. If it was a true democracy, 10% of ” swinging voters” wouldnt control who wins or loses.

    True democracy wouldnt have spent $160m on a plebesite. True democracy would put liars , rorters and pugilists out of business, yet we keep electing the arseholes.

    While politicians behave dishonestly, it opens the door for shits like Abbott. While politicians behave like mini tyrants we need adversarial politics. The best way to rein in these shit wits, is to make it hard to get away with bullshit. ICAC now and imprisonment for the shits that gave us fraudband. Reduce their salary to the average salary and watch them change their tune.
    Lying on election ads needs to stop, NOW. If its borderline, cut it. We dont want it testing the waters. If they cant be honest with their ads, what else are they keeping from us?

  3. RosemaryJ36

    Many governments are formed by a coalition of several parties. Each has its own philosophy and policies are developed through using critical thinking skills, discussion and debate. Essentially policy formation involves assessing priorities, balancing cost and benefits And a win/win is much better than a win/lose. At least that is the ideal situation.
    The role of an opposition is to critique the policies developed by the ruling coalition, and introduce amendments which might improve legislation – to be accepted, rejected or further amended.

  4. Andrew Smith

    Think adversarial politics is the objective to preclude the introduction of good policy and to deflect from the sub-optimal policies catering to special interests.

    Fact is since Howard, the Liberal Party and hence the Nationals too, have not developed informed organic policy for all Australians but catered to special interests by importing, almost to the word, ideology, policy and models bills from the US; Kochs refined this years ago via ALEC etc (whom inform IPA etc.). with multilevel sales or marketing to, through, or lobbying of media, MPs, parties, academia, think tanks and then, organic word of mouth emerges…. the people’s voice.

  5. Susan

    Absolutely adversarial politics is damaging democracy – opposing ideas for the sake of opposing them is the opposite of the intention of democracy. There is no longer a sharing of ideas and working together to achieve the best outcome. And this then confuses the voters – if you support one policy by one party you are bound to vote for them regardless of the other policies they have which you may abhor. Otherwise why do we keep getting LNP governments? It is particularly noticeable currently in the USA, whereby republicans who may not necessarily like everything Trump does will keep voting to support him because better a republican than a democrat. And conversely democrats who aren’t keen on Biden will “vote blue no matter who” in order to remove Trump from office. Trump has used the divide and conquer technique to great effect – ‘you are either with me or against me (and thus against the USA)’ is a feature of many of his messages. We should be electing our best and brightest to work together to produce policy that benefits the majority of us, instead everything is narrowed down to us versus them. I certainly don’t have an answer or solution but I most definitely agree with the premise.

  6. New England Cocky


  7. New England Cocky

    Test 2 Why are my comments excluded?

  8. Terence Mills

    Has anybody noticed that we don’t actually have a parliament at the moment and the only political decision making is being handled by the National Cabinet from which the Opposition were excluded.

    Welcome to our one party system !

  9. Ill fares the land

    Of course adversarial politics damages our democracy – but that is King Morrison’s aim. He is far more dangerous that any of his conservative predecessors because his politics is the politics of division, but division to achieve his own aims – an Australia in his own uncultured, unintellectual image. An Australia where all manner of institutions and people keep their grievances to themselves for fear of being punished by the King if they speak out against King Morrison’s rule by decree. Covid-19 has not only allowed Morrison to promote himself, it has provided a mechanism that will only make it easier for King Morrison to tighten his grip on absolute power. He simply can’t abide an Australia which is not wholly subservient to his myopic vision of what this country should look like – no ABC, no latte-sipping lefties, no humanities graduates taking the trouble to look at the real King Morrison and the damage his ideology is doing and speaking out to try and retain the last vestiges of democracy – what is happening here has already happened in Turkey and it looks like democracy, but only on the leader’s terms. King Morrison’s aim is that his cult, who fall for his dual-cab ute driving, beer swilling, average joe, rugby/footy loving, “tradies are the true elites”, let’s all mythologise the ANZAC spirit, schtick, will, like their leader, despise those who aren’t like them. It will take us back over 100 years, when people like my Italian-migrant grandfather came to an Australia that hated or at least was suspicious of him because he was different, even though he didn’t look different. Closing the Gap – it will prove to be what it i. A bunch of weasel words designed to take away another avenue that progressives can use to damage the King. Nothing will happen, because King Morrison’s Australia (which is only an extension of Howard’s Australia) flat out rejects the notion of indigenous equality. An Australia where people are lifted out of poverty – no way, they are not Howard’s or Morrison’s “battlers”, so they are cast aside.

  10. leefe

    f course it does. The whole “us and them” mentality damages everything it touches. This is classic Abbott, Morriscum, Trump etc: “If you’re for it, I’m agin it” without any interest in examining whether the ideas in question may or may not be valuable.

    Even worse is the politicisation of the public service.

  11. Jack Cade


    The problem with western ‘democracies’ is that their governments only take notice of the electorate at election time. As my current guru – George Galloway – has it, in the UK and USA both political parties are just cheeks of the same arse. We are not much better placed.

  12. Matters Not

    The adversarial politics we have is simply a reflection of the society in which we live – characterized by different groups and interests competing for power and resources. Putting it another way. It’s a capitalist society and therefore it’s a society riven by conflict – with different classes having different aims and objectives and prepared to pursue same on an ongoing basis.

    If politics were non-adversarial, then false consciousness would reign supreme. And it does. Look around. And you don’t have to go too far.

  13. Linda Wilkinson'

    I don’t believe they are both cheeks of the same arse. I listened to Bill Shorten and hewanted at the last election clearly it would have improved the average person’s life style not this crap anyway that is what we’re stuck with. Don’t think voting should becompulsory many voters haven’t got a clue or give fig

  14. Ad Astra

    Once again I thank you all for your contribution to this piece, which adds so much to it.

    I appreciate the effort you put into your responses.

  15. Matters Not

    Linda Wilkinson – making voting optional would be welcomed by Conservatives (not only in Australia but across the world) because the poorer groups (lower SES) are more likely to vote in their class interests (not Conservative) if its compulsory voting. Look at the United States and the efforts made by the Republicans (GOP), including Trump, to limit the numbers who actually vote. Those efforts include :- denying enrollment: limiting the number of polling booths; denying absentee or even voting by mail; etc. In reality the hurdles erected to prevent minorities from voting are truly remarkable.

    In Australia, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure people can (and do) vote. In the US, which doesn’t have the equivalent of an AEC, voting arrangements (which are optional) are in the hands of the State Governors and because the majority of the Governors are in the GOP, it’s in their interest to limit or even deny the right to vote. And they do.

    So be careful what you wish for. The LNP would welcome what you want with open arms.

  16. Andrew Smith

    Agree Matters Not. In the US non compulsory voting is one of the reasons elections, primaries, media and social narratives have become so poisonous (manipulated by partisan ‘dark money’) as many citizens need to be inflamed to go out and vote, or not, aka demonising of Hillary Clinton to impair the Democratic vote then benefiting Trump and the GOP.

    Careful what you wish for and maybe more civic, economic, social and science education is needed for all, including older demographics.

  17. wam

    ‘Perhaps, routinely’ is the key to your argument.
    When ‘opposition’ parties put amendments based on ideology that is the westminster system.
    When the lying rodent opposed bills with the express purpose of causing concern to aid him politically rabbott opposed without even reading the text that set the scene for the conservative destruction of the system and incited the autocue journalists to daily sedition. Effectively running the opposition running the opposition from outside parliament.
    Scummo has taken executive government one step further by running the government outside parliament.
    These two party leaders emasculate any adversarial aspects. A task made easier because labor leaders have been colleagial a long way from adverarial????

  18. andy56

    wam, your last comment says it all really. We need at times for labor to show the same ferocity. Its not good enough to sit down and take it cause we are better people. Sometimes return serve reminds the other side two can play that game. You want adversarial, well here is your return punch in the face. Why am i advocating this? The system aint gonna change in my lifetime. While the LIberals are in charge, nothing will change.

    The liberals have been hanging on by the skin of their teeth, lying and and manipulating. But cometh the day, i will be pissing on their graves.( metaphorically)

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