The curse of adversarial politics

On the final morning of Federal Parliament for 2008, Kevin Rudd thanked his party members, his staff, and Leader of Government business, Anthony Albanese (Albo), and said nice things about Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey, Leader of Opposition business.  Malcolm Turnbull reciprocated with similarly pleasant remarks and called for less hostility and more agreeable behaviour in Parliament.  Bravo.  Hearing their remarks on a news bulletin was music to my ears.  After a particularly nasty and vicious final few weeks in parliament, complete with cat claw gestures, I asked myself why politics needed to be as malevolent as it so often is, especially that part of parliamentary proceedings most often seen by the public – Question Time.

It took me back to a piece I wrote in July for Possum Box titled Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?   What follows is an update of that piece with contemporary examples.

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 sound decisions are made. But is an adversarial approach required to achieve this?  Some might argue that it is, but many would disagree.  The purpose of this piece is to offer illustrative examples, make a case for a less adversarial approach, and suggest what ordinary citizens might do to effect change.

Because adversarial positions inherently are more often taken by parties in opposition, many of the illustrations offered in this piece are derived from Opposition comments and positions.  However, the Government is not immune, as some examples demonstrate. [more]

Adversarial politics in Federal Parliament

A recent instance is the contrary position on the $28 billion Schools Assistance Bill taken by the Opposition, which was outraged at the intent of the legislation to link funding with adherence to a national curriculum, notwithstanding the fact that the Education Minister in the Howard Government, Julie Bishop, wanted a national curriculum, and when she couldn’t get the States to collaborate, threatened linking it with funding, just as now proposed.   But with the Rudd Government now in power, that notion is anathema to the Coalition, and a lever worthy of being used to try to amend the legislation.  Because Julie Gillard was able to wheel out endorsement of the need for a national curriculum from schools’ representative bodies, and because they are involved in the development of the curriculum, the Opposition was left with very wobbly legs on which to stand, and finally caved in, concerned about a voter backlash if they stymied the Bill’s passage.  Even then, having opposed the Bill until the very end, the Coalition claimed credit for its passing!  But why was the Coalition’s adversarial stance necessary in the first place?  Just to oppose, to make life difficult for the Government, or did they have legitimate concerns backed by similar concerns among the stakeholders they represent?  If it was the latter, the concerns turned out to be conspicuously flimsy.

The PM’s statement on the Government’s new national security policy yesterday was lengthy, detailed and described by him as a coherent plan, but that did not stop the Opposition Leader from criticizing it as lacking detail and coherence.  No particulars were provided showing where it lacked detail or coherence.  Simply saying it was, appeared to be all that was needed.  Turnbull’s response was predictable, no matter how fine a policy it might have been.  So the public is left wondering whether the policy was as bad as Turnbull indicated, or whether his generic criticism was just adversarial politics, as usual.

Question Time is the classic opportunity for adversarial politics.  For example, the time wasted over the Opposition’s recent attempt to wedge the Government on the prospect of it going into deficit, and the Government’s response, was a lamentable example of the fruitlessness of such behaviour.  It got nowhere.

The Government too uses Question Time to score adversarial political points, via ‘Dorothy Dixers’.  As backbenchers read, often in a stumbling manner, a question written elsewhere and designed to give the responder an opening to attack the Opposition, the object is transparently clear. 

Adversarial press conferences and doorstops

It’s not just Question Time that provides an opportunity for adversarial politics.  Media doorstops are opportunities for members on both sides to sing in unison from the song sheet provided by their spin-meisters.  The media have fun piecing these together into an amusing collage of repetition for TV viewers.  The substance of the spin does not have to be true, so long as it sounds superficially plausible and can be used by the media as a sound bite or quotable quote.  

Recent press conferences by Steve Fielding and Christopher Pyne on the Schools Assistance Bill to press their adversarial positions did not go as planned, especially for Fielding, who was peppered by the media with probing questions that starkly exposed his adversarial intent, causing him to ‘retire hurt’.

Always being contrary, consistently taking the opposite position no matter what, brings politicians into disrepute.   Voters are smart enough to see the hypocrisy of this sort of behaviour, yet politicians persist with it as if they somehow live in a bubble into which ordinary folk cannot critically gaze.  No wonder the electorate has become so cynical.

Adversarial probing

Journalists at doorstops and press conferences, and particularly radio talkback hosts and TV interviewers, have become patently combative and 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?  How many times have we seen the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien and Tony Jones try to bully politicians into answering questions that no sensible politician should?  For example, what point is there asking Government politicians to comment about what the Reserve Bank might do, or reveal in advance their preferred strategies when they’re still under discussion?   It would be more to the point to ask politicians to justify the statements they’ve already made, yet often outrageous comments are left unchallenged. 

These TV journalists are devotees of the ‘will you guarantee’ or ‘will you rule out’ syndromes, hoping for a ‘gotcha’ moment.  Tony Jones was at it again on Lateline last night repeatedly asking Julia Gillard would she ‘rule out’ an infrastructure bank to fund infrastructure development.  She replied that she could only echo what the Treasurer had said in the House, namely that many options to fund infrastructure were ‘on the table’, which the Government were considering, and that some of the Opposition’s propositions were absurd.  She would not be drawn, but that didn’t stop Jones from persisting with his ‘rule out’ demand, until the interview became a sick comedy, with Julia sweetly smiling him down.   Sometimes such interviewer persistence is justified, but at times it is sheer harassment in an effort to get a scoop.  While this approach may appeal to viewers when a politician of their ‘non-preferred party’ is being besieged, it is still adversarial politics media-style, does our political discourse no favours, and unnecessarily belittles our politicians.  That they put up with such verbal assaults is to their enduring credit.  The ABC’s Leigh Sales is an exemplar of sensible, courteous, yet persistent questioning, as illustrated by her interview with Julie Bishop this week on Lateline, which although probing, enabled Bishop to give one of her better interviews.

Perhaps as a reaction to adversarial probing, there are two words that are seldom used by politicians: ‘yes’ and ‘no’.  Peter Costello managed to avoid using them for years, instead preferring “let me make this point”.  Several prominent parliamentarians, on both sides, are now almost Costello’s equal.  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.  Less adversarial probing might evoke a more forthcoming response.

Adversarial journalism

News bulletins can subtly engage in adversarial journalism with the words they choose.  An instance followed ABC’s Lateline on 27 June where pollster and political commentator Rod Cameron said that given the current popularity of Kevin Rudd and his high level of public support, he had about a year to promote his vision of an emissions trading scheme, after which it would be much more difficult.  It was reported the next day on ABC 774 morning news as “Time is running out for PM Rudd to introduce an emissions trading scheme.”  This impression of urgency is not what Cameron portrayed.  A news-writer’s inaccurate take on the Lateline piece cast Cameron’s comment in a different and erroneous light.  Is this just careless reporting, or does it reflect adversarial journalism? 

The language of adversarial politics

Language fashions and changes 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’?  I expect journalists would see that as too wimpy.

Adversarial columnists enjoy describing ideas, proposals or political structures with which they disagree as being in ‘tatters’, in ‘disarray’, even ‘a shambles’, or in ‘chaos’.  Dennis Shanahan and Glenn Milne often use such terms to portray Rudd initiatives that they considers faulty or failures.  These terms imply a disastrous turn of events, yet usually nothing catastrophic has occurred.  So why not use less confronting terms?  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 painted as a loser.

The inelegant terms ‘me-too’ and ‘me-too-ism’, used throughout the 2007 campaign, have a pejorative nuance, implying a ‘copy-cat’ approach, the product of a paucity of original ideas.  The words are applied by journalists when politicians indicate ‘this is our policy and so we agree’, or ‘we agree with that policy’ or ‘that sounds like a good idea, we’ll adopt it’.  No one has exclusive access to good ideas.  So why use uncomplimentary terms to describe those who adopt the good ideas of others?  More ‘me-too-ism’ would be an agreeable antidote to unrelenting adversarial politics.

Slogans and mantras

Slogans are part and parcel of the language of adversarial politics.  ‘Stunts’, ‘gimmicks’, ‘symbolism’, ‘all style and no substance’, ‘all talk and no action’, and more recently, 'Kevin747' and 'Prime Tourist' are frequently used. ‘Control freak’ is another that has been applied to Kevin Rudd.   This is one of Glenn Milne’s obsessions; he likes to embroider this Rudd attribute to make the case that Rudd’s office is ‘chaotic’.  Yet what evidence has been proffered to support the ‘control freak’ mantra, which is now regularly used by Coalition members and many in the media?  It seems that all that can be gleaned is that in the interests of transmitting consistent messages, written statements for distribution to the public are cleared through Rudd’s office, and that Rudd seeks to be ‘across’ all issues, as he should be.  Alternatives to ‘control freak’ could have been ‘having his 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.  Look out for more of the latest Turnbull jibe:  the ‘Kevlani’ bank for infrastructure development, linking Rudd with the Whitlam era and the infamous ‘Khemlani affair’, although there is no confirmation that the Government favours such an approach, quite to the contrary.   Of course the Coalition would think that clever and humorous, but its intent is malicious – to smear the Rudd Government with the ignominy of that affair, which mature readers will remember vividly, as it was a major factor in the demise of the Whitlam Government

Is adversarial politics a curse?

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.  Adversarial politics may be an important reason the public has turned away from politics and has become cynical about the motivation and behaviour of politicians.  The more adversarial politics becomes, the greater the erosion of voter engagement and threat to the democratic process.

Is there an antidote?

One would hope there might be.  In the ABC TV series, Q&A, opposing politicians have shown that free from their party’s line they can discuss all manner of topics sensibly and sensitively.  Although they did lapse occasionally into party slogans and did indulge in some point scoring, most of the time they showed how productively they are able to work together.  What a joy it is to hear politicians of different persuasions agreeing with one another, or giving credit.  We are told that this is often the case when they are off-camera in parliament in routine debate.  And it occurred briefly this week during the end-of-parliament proceedings.  Why could this not be the norm?  Political discourse would be so much more productive and creative if deliberations were more collaborative, more mutually cooperative, more accommodating; if the good ideas from all sides were accepted, acknowledged and pooled.

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 good copy adversarial politics provides, the public would applaud a more measured approach, free from the burden of adversarial behaviour – so wasteful, so unproductive, so distasteful.  We could write to our parliamentarians.  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, even as we enter the Festive Season.  But at this time of year, idealistic hope is excusable.

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6/12/2008Excellent piece Ad astra. As for what we ordinary citizens can do to bring about change I think there is very little because first of all, we have to change the journalists penchant for sensational and misleading headlines designed to sell themselves as being experts and top-gun writers. It is a quirk of human nature, unfortunately, that people love to see a politician, a movie star or anyone else in the public eye, being knocked off what they see as a high pedestal and brought back to earth. The media have cashed in on this human foible and fed their readership and listeners accordingly. Perhaps the best defence ordinary voters could have might come about through education. I have always wondered why politics is not taught in schools. Not party politics, I hasten to say. Too many voters go through a lifetime of voting without any inkling about how governments work, what happens to collected taxes and how revenue is distributed and so on. Too few understand the terms deficit, surplus, imbalance of trade, infrastructure and government funding, and the difference between government and private debt. Too few understand the intricacies of a government's budget which most 'ordinary' people see as being the same as their household budget (if they have one). I feel also that adversarial politics has become far stronger since we dropped the subject of english (together with maths) as compulsory subjects to gain entrance to universities. It is only recently that there is awareness that both these subjects are crucial for people to reach their full potential in the workforce. Those slogans and mantras would not impact so much if people understood the meaning of the words used and the shades of difference in meaning of the synonyms that could be used according to the degree of meaning in the context in which the word or words are used.

Bushfire Bill

6/12/2008A lot of the "gotcha" and "backflip" stuff is because the original position was adopted without qualification, or is alleged to have been. Say a Treasurer declares, "We will never need to go into deficit." Then, a year later a finance crisis hits and the government must do just that... responsibly, but in contravention of the original black-and-white, absolute position. The criticism is not of either position (or need not be). The criticism is of the mistake the Treasurer made in declaring he would [i]never[/i] go into deficit, by implication (or declaration) under [i]any[/i] circumstances. When appropriate circumstances for a deficit arise, the Treasurer looks like a fool for making the promise never to go into one in the first place. Remember Howard's "Interest rates will always be lower under the Coalition," statement? To me, the operative word in that statement was "always". If he had used "generally" he wouldn't have got into the bother he did with it. The "Never, ever" statement on the GST was another case in point. "Never, ever" to me means "never, under [i]any[/i] circumstances, including an election specifically based on the subject." While Howard won the "GST" election in 1998, he was more circumspect about using "never, ever", ever again. When he did use absolutes, as in the "Interest rates will always..." statement, he got into trouble. So, criticism of a backflip is not always about the sense of the new policy, which may be eminiently wise, in the new circumstances. It is often about the [i]lack[/i] of sense in saying, in front of cameras, that you'd "never" take up that policy in the first place. Sometimes the word "never" (or its corollary "always") is implied, often dishonestly. Recently Turnbull was criticising Swan for allegedly saying, a year ago, that Labor would "always" run surpluses; that surpluses were "always" a sign of good economic governance. Of course Swan never said such a thing. It had to be implied from Rudd's "I am an economic conservative" mantra. Economic conservatives, in Turnbull's mind (and, he hoped, in the public's) meant [i]always]/i] running a surplus. When Chris Uhlmann probed Turnbull as to whether he'd ever run a deficit, under any circumstances, Turnbull dodged the question. Instead he substituted his criticism of Swan for running a deficit, or at least flagging one, to criticising Swan for being stupid enough to say he'd [i]never[/i] run one, all those months ago. This was a dilution of the original criticism that Turnbull took with him into the studio. he ended up criticising Swan's stlye, rather than his substance. the public didn't give a damn, though, as long as we didn't go into depression. The ground had been well-prepared for deficits, if they were necessary. A favourite Coalition tactic is to try to establish a charge of ineptness and dishonesty by Labor for their making reckless promises. Once you have a "dishonest" Treasurer, you can use that character trait to lampoon them on a myriad of issues, unrelated to the original (alleged or otherwise) "dishonesty". "If they're dishonest about the deficit, then how can you believe them on Education?" would be an example. The next thing is to get your mates in the media to apply words like "disastrous" or "shambolic" and you set the seed inthe public's mind that the government is inept in [i]every[/i] aspect of policy, not just deficits versus surpluses. The Uhlmann interview has become famous because Turnbull was the nett loser out of it. He looked evasive and tricky. But at least he did not make the mistake that Julie Bishop made of claiming that deficits were always bad and surpluses were always good. He lived to fight another day. After all, he was once a banker. And bankers made their money by convincing their customers that deficits were just fine, in a good cause of course. "Just sign there, there and there, initials... there... Thanks."

Ad astra reply

6/12/2008Thank you janice and BB for your insightful comments, which add so much to the original piece. If only our politicians could engage in such fruitful discourse.


6/12/2008Great post, but as a meager politician, I can tell you sometimes we have to smash the hyperbole throttle a bit more than we should to get people's attention. That said, I think you're right your MPs should just be them - that's how they got elected in most cases. Of course, criticising for criticism's sake is just crass opportunism and why Malcolm Turnbull and gang better get comfortable in the opposition benches.

Ad astra reply

6/12/2008I agree Josef that the personality type that would choose to be a politician might be inclined to hyperbole, which is a regular part of the communication process in order to grab attention. What I find unacceptable is not so much the exaggeration as the deliberate distortion of the facts, the omission of key bits of information, the misrepresentation of what others have said, and of course the downright lies. We ordinary citizens could cope with hyperbolic talk, it's the deception that grates. BB, you're right about 'always' and 'never'. Unwise words to mouth, particularly in politics. In medicine we were taught to avoid saying 'never' or 'always', as usually there are 'exceptions to the norm'.

Bushfire Bill

7/12/2008Every now and again, very rarely in fact, but sometimes an interviewer gets a polly to utter "Never" or "always". It gives them heart to go on trying. One "never, ever" from Howard inspired a decade of gotcha questions, not only of Howard, but of every politician who ever got in front of a microphone.
How many umbrellas are there if I have two in my hand but the wind then blows them away?