By Ad Astra
I’m using the term ‘slow learners’ not to demean those who suffer intellectual difficulties, but to categorize those with sound intellect who nonetheless seem unable to grasp the meaning of the events that are occurring about them every day, unable to learn from them, and unable to make any change to their behaviour.
I am referring particularly to politicians, utterly ensnared as they are in the game of adversarial politics, who seem unable to grasp its iniquity, and even less willing to do anything about what they accept as the norm for the Westminster system of government.
It came as a surprise to me to read in PerthNow that Julie Bishop, recoiling in the wake of the bullying of female Coalition members by Dutton forces during the recent leadership upheavals, had vehemently criticized ’the relentlessly competitive and adversarial nature of Federal politics.’ She went on to blast ’parliamentary question time as an “embarrassing circus”’.
Bishop has been a member of parliament since 1998, and a Minister since 2003. Yet it is just now that we hear her calling out adversarial politics. She herself has indulged in it enthusiastically, notably after Julia Gillard’s ‘misogyny speech’. We all know that adversarial behaviour has been a curse for eons. But it seems that she needed the outrage of the bullying of her female colleagues to loosen her tongue.
It was almost ten years ago that I wrote The curse of adversarial politics on The Political Sword. The piece spelt out its nature, its methods, its malevolence, and the curse it wreaks on our politics. I draw on this piece to make my case that nothing has changed – adversarial politics continues unabated – our politicians are ‘slow learners’.
We see adversarial politics every day when the proposals put forward by one party are routinely criticised by other parties. Any stance taken by the proposer is automatically opposed, whatever its merits.
While it is a part of routine parliamentary debate, its most brazen form is seen in Question Time. There, the opposition tries to embarrass or demean the government with malicious questions delivered with a sneer, or the government tries to upend the opposition with Dorothy Dixers that always have a twist in the tail. There is no subtlety to the questions, only barefaced antagonism.
Not only is it unedifying to witness this behaviour among our lawmakers, its awfulness is compounded by the sheer delight our politicians exhibit while playing this puerile game.
They see it as a sport and play it just as do schoolyard bullies fighting for dominance. Although it’s disgusting, sickening, even repellent to voters, politicians seem not to realize how revolting their behaviour appears to the electorate. They have Tin Ears, deaf to the feelings of the people, just as they were to the bullying behaviour we all saw during the recent leadership struggle when the rude response to the complaints of female colleagues was: ‘toughen up’. Get used to it girls summed up this appalling conduct.
Language fashions and changes perceptions.
Adversarial language is used to embarrass, put down, demean or diminish. It is designed to give the user a ‘win’. Far from condemning it, journalists and the media revel in the ‘great copy’ it gives them.
They enjoy using well-worn words to signify a change of mind: ‘back-flip’ or a ‘humiliating back-down’. They revel in describing opponents’ ideas as being in ‘tatters’, in ‘disarray’, ‘a shambles’, or ‘chaotic’.
Slogans are central to adversarial politics. They work. Start a catchy slogan and soon many will be mindlessly repeating it. A slogan doesn’t have to have any substance, so long as it sounds believable. Favourites include: ‘stunt’, ‘all style and no substance’, ‘all talk and no action’. ‘Tax’ is a pet subject. Remember how Abbott flailed Labor with his ‘carbon tax’ and ‘mining tax’. Reflect on Morrison’s current slogan about how Labor will ‘increase taxes on everything’.
Those who despise adversarial politics find it to be contemptible. It is why the public has turned away from politics and become cynical about politicians. Voters would prefer politicians to be open and upfront, more focussed on the good of the nation, less willing to corrupt the principles that brought them into politics in the first place. They would prefer that political discourse be more collaborative, more mutually cooperative, more accommodating, based more on consensus.
What can we ordinary citizens do? We might be able to bring about change if we 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 good copy adversarial politics provides, the public would applaud a more measured approach, free from the burden of this behaviour – so wasteful, so unproductive, so distasteful. We could and should write to our parliamentarians, again and again. Sadly though, if history tells us anything, any change for the better is probably a slim hope.
Which brings me back to the title of this piece: ‘Slow learners’. It was ten years ago that I wrote about the curse of adversarial politics, but what has changed? Nothing.
Politicians are not unintelligent. They need not be slow learners. Yet their Tin Ears seem unable to hear the public’s loathing of adversarial politics and the anger it generates among voters. So they continue with it anyway.
They are indeed slow learners, very slow learners. It may take a strong electoral backlash to ‘learn them’!
This article by Ad Astra was originally published on The Political Sword.
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