Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?
Posted by Possum Comitatus on July 10, 2008
By Ad astra
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 most 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.
Adversarial politics in Parliament
A recent instance is the contrary position on an emissions trading scheme taken by the Federal Opposition in Question Time, casting doubts about whether petrol should be included, whereas in Government they said it should. Although the Opposition’s position was confused and has since changed, it was clearly different from the one it held previously. Although this change of position has been ‘justified’ by Malcolm Turnbull on the grounds that “things have changed” since being in Government, it looked like an attempt to wedge the Government for political advantage.
The Government too uses Question Time to score 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.
The NT intervention initially had bipartisan support. But by springing on Brendan Nelson during the Apology an announcement of a bipartisan ‘war cabinet’, Kevin Rudd quietly wedged him, and when Nelson nominated Mal Brough to that group, and Rudd rejected that nomination, a pattern of adversarial conflict over this important initiative began, which may destroy what promised to be unique and valuable bipartisanship.
Adversarial press conferences and doorstops
It’s not just Question Time that provides an opportunity for adversarial politics. The day after the Federal Parliament rose, it was announced that head of Treasury Ken Henry was taking five weeks leave during which he intended to spend time in a Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat sanctuary in Queensland. In a press conference Wayne Swan said that Henry had worked day and night since the election, right through the Christmas period, and that anyone working at such intensity, with a busy schedule ahead, needed a restorative break. Did Brendan Nelson, who had roundly criticized Rudd for placing the public service under work pressure, commend him for granting Henry leave? No. Determined to score a political point he queried the wisdom of granting leave at what he considered to be a busy time, and using a clever quip continued: “I’m concerned about who is going to look after the ‘muddle-headed’ Treasurer.” And he wasn’t joking. Malcolm Turnbull did likewise. This exhibition of ‘adversarial-speak’ is another example why many despair of our political system. 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.
In an arranged doorstop we saw Greg Hunt fabricate a scary scenario from insubstantial data and suspect assumptions about the effect on petrol prices of a Rudd Government emissions trading scheme. He insisted prices could rise by 10, 20, even 30 cents a litre. Having concocted this tragic scene, he then demanded the Government ‘guarantee’ that compensation would ensure that no one would be worse off with such a scheme. The fact that this adversarial line was based on a flimsy proposition that was not in accord with the facts was of no importance. Its purpose was to provide a launching pad for an adversarial attack. It llustrated the time-honoured axiom of political life that truth is irrelevant, perception is all that counts.
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. Recently Fairfax Media’s Neil Mitchell tried to push the PM into answering what petrol would cost after the introduction of an emissions trading scheme despite being told by Rudd that until the Garnaut report was public and the Government’s green paper on the subject published, no details could or would be given. General comments by Rudd about making the scheme as wide as possible were not sufficient for Mitchell. He aggressively insisted the PM answer his unrealistic question. Adversarial politics – talkback style.
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”. 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.
ABC’s 774 radio host Jon Faine, and ABC TV’s Kerry O’Brien and Tony Jones 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. 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.
News bulletins can subtly engage in adversarial journalism with the words they choose. A recent instance followed ABC’s Lateline on 27 June where 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? Countless examples of this type of reporting occur every day.
For an illustration of the difference between adversarial journalism and abalanced orientation to writing, glimpse at four articles from The Weekend Australian of June 28-29. For balanced un-emotive pieces that eschew pejorative comments, see Paul Kelly’s “The Rudd Alliance“, Lenore Taylor’s “Taxpayers mugged through their children“, and Mike Steketee’s “They will be missed.“Contrast these articles, free of adversarial language, with Dennis Shanahan’s page one piece “Climate change splinters Kevin Rudd cabinet“. You don’t have to go beyond the headlines and the first two paragraphs to see phrases like “Split on carbon costs”, “…deepest divisions over policy and politics since the election of the Rudd Government.”, “Concerns are being aired…”. There may be some truth in these adversarial statements, but little supporting evidence is offered; readers just have to take Dennis at his word.
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 often uses such terms to portray Rudd initiatives that he 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’, are frequently used. ‘Control freak’ is another that has been applied to Kevin Rudd. Julie Bishop used this slogan with gusto in trying to implicate Rudd in the so-called cover-up of the Belinda Neal affair. On the ABC’s Lateline on 27 June, John Hewson, who is no longer in politics and who usually gives a balanced commentary, mouthed ‘control freak’ time and again. The slogan had firmly stuck in his mind, and he worked it relentlessly. Yet what evidence has been proffered to support the ‘control freak’ mantra? It seems that all that can be gleaned so far is that written statements for distribution to the public are cleared through Rudd’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 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 the latest Nelson quip: “Mr Rudd is all backswing, no follow through.”
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. 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.
Is there an antidote?
One would hope there might be. In the new series on ABC TV, 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 lapse occasionally into party slogans and indulge in point scoring, most of the time they show 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. 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 individually. Or GetUp could get up a petition – it might attract strong support. 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.
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