Slow learners

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 to 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’!

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Ad Astra



If the Wagga Wagga by-election, in which the Liberal Party lost 29% of its primary vote, and forfeited a State seat it had held for 60 years, is not enough for the Liberals to learn a bitter lesson about its conduct, what on earth will?

Joe Carli


Ah! come late to the to cast aspersions on raillery and accusation in the Senate...Mark well the words of Suetonius on the life of Caesar being mocked by Cicero in the Senate...:

"  But Cicero was not content with writing in some of his letters, that he was conducted by the royal attendants into the king's bed-chamber, lay upon a bed of gold with a covering of purple, and that the youthful bloom of this scion of Venus had been tainted in Bithynia—but upon Caesar's pleading the cause of Nysa, the daughter of Nicomedes before the senate, and recounting the king's kindnesses to him, replied, "Pray tell us no more of that; for it is well known what he gave you, and you gave him."

Ad Astra


Joe Carli

Obviously you are a well read and cultured man.

Joe Carli


Flatterer!...but as you wrote of such things a decade ago...indeed, I have read your articles and pieces for many years trying to bring att'n to this or that social have I as last piece trying to inject a degree of humanism into the gender debate was met with scorn and accusation and behind the scenes machinations got the piece removed from site...What is one to do..what can one say?....Are we to share the same fate as those historians both Primary sources and studious scholars who have delivered to humanity both the cause and effect of a millennia or two of hard lesson? I am becoming more and more concerned that there is no stopping the turning of Vishnu's Juggernaut..and once again humanity is preparing to throw itself under the wheels of the military/industrial machine... I seriously despair..

If I may once again quote a favourite historian.. : " From Caesar's time, as the sequel will show and Gibbon has shown long ago, the Roman system had only an external coherence and received only a mechanical extension, while internally it became even with him utterly withered and dead. If in the early stages of the autocracy and above all in Caesar's own soul the hopeful dream of a combination of free popular development and absolute rule was still cherished, the government of the highly- gifted emperors of the Julian house soon taught men in a terrible form how far it was possible to hold fire and water in the same vessel." Mommsen

Joe Carli


I cannot help but notice , Ad Astra..that you and I are the only ones commenting on this piece...Is there a pause in time of a cupla days.. a cupla days.. before people get up to speed and then there is a surge of commentary equal to a nese tsunami? ....

I saw this very article on Twitter and though I have not gone to your site for quite a while being busy else, thought I would have a look and a read and perhaps drop a comment in the box there.. And we are..just you and I..but stay..I am not mocking, but rather exhibiting a kind of surprise that even here, on a "high-end of town" blog, there is a certain lack of reciprocal input from the reading public..Perhaps there is more deep thought going on than there is willingness to write..But this is not an unusual factor in blogging these times... once a legion of posters would hang out for the next discussion piece and then proceed to vent their political spleen in either agreeance or vitriolic contrariness. So have they gone, all these Ciceronian debaters? ... I'll tell you my opinion...

I have been blogging for many years now..and have contributed to several long term sites with articles, stories and included, back in "the good ol' days"....along without fear of stated comments ..and why not..why not?...I am a grown adult, of satisfactory intelligence and education..just so many others here there and else...why do not we all contribute our learned wisdom or experience in the blogosphere's rich tapestry?  most other Australians, I too have lived and experienced the political and social vicissitudes that come all our ways...yet...yet there appears this mute indifference now to make waves in what can be described as the calm pond of shared misfortune of living under an anarchistic government.

There appears to me to be a almost involuntary or uncontrollable design by some members of a regular blogging fraternity sited on established blog-sites to corral and herd those other commentators on the blog around one particular line of doctrine that their own psyche of control demands charge of. A cabal or clique is slowly formed...the followers identifiable by the flattery they exercise toward one or two favourites and these "apostles" are jealously guarded and stroked in agreeable condescension, while those who are contrary are gradually chipped off the mother-load and discarded as blogging mullock to be cursed or mocked until they drop off the conversation...every conversation..and eventually out of the blog altogether.

The end result being a blog with no more than a core of regular commentators each stroking each other in oily concurrence with little original conversation but a plethora of cut and paste Tweets and links...until there is really not much point even commenting any more..the vacant commentary page a symbol of their success..NOT in the form of intelligent discussion, but rather, in the evidence of the vacant page, of their command and control of the conversation of those "once were warriors" posters, whose only claim to any residual originality being a quirky "Gravitar" of their own design.

The "power" of their persuasion or coercion becoming the portent of doom of a once vibrant blog.

Joe Carli


Btw..There is a terrible word-correct operation going on with your blog...words are missing from my commentary that make no sense of some sentences.. just sayin'.

Joe Carli


Politicians may be slow learners, but Jasper wasn't!...

I have two politicians and add 17 clowns and 14 chimpanzees; how many clowns are there?