Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?

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.

Rate This Post

Current rating: 5 / 5 | Rated 25 times

Stephen Fitzgerald

3/08/2020

I think we need to look at the bland reality. Our adversarial legal system favors those with the most money and the legal profession. Our adversarial political system favors politicians who represent big business and the financial elite. To win government a political party needs 51 of the vote but the rich and powerful only represent about 2 of society so they need to con another 49 of the population to take control of a country.

From the index of the conservative politicians handbook lets have a look at how they manage to achieve that…1 Control public discourse through mainstream media monopoly - Murdoch, 2GB etc 2 Censorship of balanced news reporting - Cut funding and threaten the ABC & SBS 3 Brainwash the population - Shock jock propaganda & false news repetition 4 Defamation - Smear campaigns of opposition parties and target their leaders 5 Lie through your teeth - To achieve a political goal or protect corruption 6 Attack and diversion - To avoid answering embarrassing questions 7 Distract the electorate - Sport, gambling, alcohol and brain dissolving TV 8 Dumb down the workforce - Cut public education funding and increase university fees 9 Divide and conquer - Create social division: Left v right, climate action v fossil fuel etc 10 Create an enemy - Anyone or anything inc. Muslims, refugees, China & activists etc 11 Social oppression - Cut funding to social services and privatize the public sector 12 Vote buying or bribery - Increased religious funding & sports rort grants etc 13 Police State - Expand the police & military with domestic shoot to kill authorization 14 Corruption - Electoral fraud and oppose a federal corruption watchdog or Fed ICAC 15 Strive for authoritarian rule by undermining democracy & displaying the military 16 Channel the wealth of society upward to the rich and powerful, who pay minimal tax, to maintain ongoing support.

This explains a certain behavior that will echo through chambers of parliament. A country ensnared by right-wing ideology is invariably a country divided and becomes a breeding ground for mindless confrontation.

Ad Astra

4/08/2020

Stephen Fitzgerald

Thank you for your comprehensive and insightful comment, which has added so much to this piece.

Do come again to comment on The Political Sword

Bruce Bilney

7/08/2020

Ad astra I was intending to address your article directly but I was derailed by Stephen Fitzgerald's comment, so "comprehensive and insightful" as you say. Stephen you have given extra depth and context to Ad astra's musings, which says a lot for you. Ad astra is the wisest head I have ever met and this latest article is some of his best writing.

Ad you really do blow me away with your insights, your examples and your compass. Reading your article is a bit looking at the wreckage after a tsunami, and Stephen's contribution confirms the unstoppability of it all. Every we see democracy trashed, and society downgraded in every way. Fake news is now as valid as truth, and that means that everything is corrupted. Trump is beyond reason in America and therefore the world, and the Morrison Government is out of control here. Military madness rules as never before, as measured by the money. Universities and institutes of learning are deliberately downgraded by our rulers, because they don’t want no intellectuals round here. Deliberate dumbing-down! How do you fight that?

Beirut has just been smashed. Accident or sabotage? Poor, poor people. Poor world.

Adversarial politics has been the ruination of our nation. It was not always so: in the first and second world wars people co-operated seamlessly, and in the lean years most people had real charity toward those less fortunate. Now it’s 6 /day for meals for folk in aged homes and the owners live in palaces and drive around in Maseratis.

And the politicians on the Right are the most corrupt of all. They facilitate the corruption and in many cases they are personally involved. It's always the bloody Right. It started long ago, things the Petrov Affair under Menzies, who got us involved in Suez and Vietnam. Carried on by Holt – “Run over the bastards..” I was such a bastard .. And made a modus operandi by Jo Bjelke-Petersen, the man who finally changed my father’s mind about the moral supportability of assassination. Divisiveness used as a weapon to wrest power from Gough’s twice-elected Government in Fraser-Kerr’s coup by the born-to-rulers. And then of course set in concrete by the appalling Lying Rodent, John Winston Howard. Then Doctor No himself, Abbott. Oppose everything as “the best Opposition Leader ever”, then as Prime Minister, rort everything! Stack all public positions of power, pay outrageous stipends and permit outrageous abuses of procedure .. Oh it makes me sick to even think about.And most disgusting of all, the pious creep we have now.

The Murdoch Media has during this entire period – Menzies to now – been the facilitator for all the major evil which has befallen our land. His toxic influence has changed the nature of our society beyond all measure. It seems to me impossible to understand why he wanted to do this – Surely, given his start in life and his obvious business acumen he could have made plenty of money, and have just as much influence but for good, by fair reporting and without destroying the decency of societies?

His influence is never clearer than in the juxtaposition of the two greatest adverse economic events of our time: the Global Financial Crisis and this pandemic. Labor was in power in 2008 and guided Australia through the problems better than almost any else. They were bagged mercilessly for their stimulus actions, Pink batts! The DEFICIT!, and never recognised for keeping our economy buoyant. Opposed at every turn. Now with a Liberal Government in power, Scummo is praised and never criticised for taking comparable measures to stave off economic collapse – the same basic strategy as Labor’s in 2008 but far far more expensive and not nearly so targeted and unfairer .. and Albanese can’t reply with the same sort of response as the Liberals because quite rightly he refuses to act against the interests of our society as They do.

It works for Them, this Adversarial Politics. To the World’s great loss. 

Ad Astra

8/08/2020

Good Morning Bruce

What an outstanding contributor you are to The Political Sword. You have been with TPS since the outset and continue to be a regular correspondent. You add to the discourse with your insightful comments. Thank you for your latest contribution, which enriches this piece so much.

I thank you too for your complimentary remarks about my writing. It gives me great encouragement. Writing is a ‘lonely’ endeavour; to read responses such as yours fuels the engine of creativity,

I hope you will have time to continue to contribute to TPS from your knowledge of politics, garnered over many years of personal experience.

What does two plus 1 equal?