The Possum Box

Thoughts of the Pollytics Community

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.

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. 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.

Adversarial journalism

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.

Ad astra can be contacted at:

ad dots astra5 IatI bigpond dots com


29 Responses to “Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?”

  1. David Gould said

    I would point out that a lot of the adversarial stuff is simply for show. The parliamentary committee system demonstrates that people from all parties can cooperate to produce very good legislation. And it should be remembered that 95 per cent of legislation is supported by both major parties, and often by the minor parties as well.

    The adversarial nature of politics does do some damage. But when the prize is power, the only way to get power is to convince people that your ideas are better, and when people generally vote on emotional responses, it makes any cooperative strategy that helps you gain power difficult to find.

  2. gandhi said

    Of course it is all “for show”.

    Because otherwise you do not get “air time” or “column inches”. And then the dumb ****s who sit in front of their TV sets watching Channel 10 News (waiting for Pam’s boobs to appear) do not even know who you are.

    As Brendan Nelson is learning, the big problems come when your short-term adversarial positions dictate your long-term policy, rather than vice versa.

    I think adversarial politics in all its manifestations is just a reflection of our society these days: we crave entertainment and money, not knowledge or spiritual wisdom.

    One would hope that the slowly unfolding global financial and environmental crises (which do not surprise intelligent observers who have been paying attention for the last few years)might help to focus people’s attention a little better.

  3. Ad astra said

    David and Gandhi, you point up how entrenched adversarial politics has become among politicians, and how complicit the media is in its perpetuation. Finding ‘another way’ is bound to be difficult. But it has become so gross we really must try. Take the events of the last week.

    Since the advent of the Garnaut Report we have seen a classic play of opportunistic adversarial politics. The Government remains non-committal about its stance regarding an ETS which it says will be revealed in its Green Paper. The Opposition stance varies almost every day. Emphasis has changed from a focus on petrol (lowering the excise, making it ETS neutral), to Brendan Nelson’s unnecessary caution (let’s get an ETS right), to let’s not hurry (2010 is too soon), to let’s not get too far ahead of the rest of the world (we shouldn’t move until China and India are on board – they’re the big polluters), to we mustn’t jeopardise our position (by risking our jobs/industries going offshore), to Julie Bishop’s “It remains Coalition policy to introduce an ETS by 2012”, to John Howard’s statement at the Perth fundraiser “Brendan Nelson and his colleagues are right to be cautious”, to Malcolm Turnbull’s assurance on Lateline last evening that Coalition policy was unchanged except for a caveat about petrol. No political party, no matter how adroit, can credibly change or modify its position as rapidly as this. The only plausible explanation of this meandering approach is that it is an opportunistic scramble to extract what the Coalition believes will be maximum political advantage, and yet another move by Nelson to prop up his position.

    Clearly, despite the Coalition’s current policy of an ETS by 2012, Nelson looks as if he will oppose a Rudd Government ETS by 2010 on whatever grounds he considers to be politically profitable, whenever he senses the electorate will applaud. How the whole nation can rationally and calmly addresses global warming in both the short and long term seems to be secondary to gaining immediate political traction with superficial populist positions. A bipartisan approach, which most of the electorate would applaud as being in the best interests of our nation, looks like being sacrificed on the altar of adversarial politics with all its populism and point scoring for personal political advantage.

    Even if there were some differences in the detail of policy (implementation date, arrangements re petrol), if there was general bipartisan agreement on the need for an ETS and its broad structure, how much easier would it be to get started? Instead, if Nelson has his way he will continue to paint Rudd as irresponsibly threatening jobs and industries, rushing headlong into an ill-conceived and hasty plan to meet an impossible deadline, will oppose an ETS until the big emitters are on board, and will portray himself as the knight in shining armour, ‘standing up’ for the workers and protecting energy intensive industries. He’ll do all this for his own political advantage while the planet burns.

    Convince me that a bipartisan approach, no matter how far from perfect, would not be better.

  4. Just Me said

    Ad Astra

    Another thoughtful piece, with which I am in broad agreement. Much appreciated.

    On the shambles that is the opposition’s current policy on climate change, and it’s dead-in-the-water leader, Mr Nelson: I wouldn’t worry too much about either of them, they are simply not being taken seriously in the electorate, who have largely accepted the reality, importance, and urgency of climate change, and the uselessness of the opposition’s response to it (now, and when they were in government). I think both that this is one of those issues where the electorate is actually some way ahead of the political class, and that Rudd understands this well, which is why he is creaming the opposition.

  5. David Gould said

    Ad astra,

    If two people fundamentally disagree on something, how can they develop a bipartisan approach?

    Further, if power is gained by convincing the public that your ideas are better than the other guys, how can a bipartisan approach to every issue possibly be a good thing?

    Further, if the government stuffs up, it is the opposition’s job not to be bipartisan.

    It would seem to me that a genuine bipartisan approach to all issues is effectively a recipe for a one-party state, and they do not function particularly well.

    And, as I have already pointed out, on the overwhelming majority of issues, the Liberal Party and the Labor Party are bipartisan. It is only on controversial issues that they are not, partly because that is where political points can be scored and partly because there is genuine disagreement on those issues.

    It would certainly be easier for Rudd to sell his ETS to the public if the opposition supported him on it. But if Rudd cannot sell it to the public without opposition support then perhaps that is an indication that it is not saleable. (note: I think that he can sell it and that he will sell it.)

  6. Ad astra said

    Just Me, I hope you’re right when you say “…the electorate is actually some way ahead of the political class…”, but after reading Andrew Bolt’s article in Wednesday’s Herald Sun Doomed to a fatal delusion over climate change, and listening to him last night on the ABC’s Q&A, I wonder how many of his devotees who hang on his every word would have similar views, so at variance with mainstream science. If both Government and Opposition were to have similar, if not identical positions on climate change and the way to tackle it, the views of Bolt and his followers would be overwhelmed by the political force of a largely bipartisan approach. But after a week of Opposition indecisiveness about its policy, which is different again this morning, there seems little hope of that. From his piece in The Australian Endorsing flawed report ensures pyrrhic victory, it seems that Brendan Nelson is now reinforcing some of Bolt’s contentions.

    Like you, I hope Rudd has the Coalition’s measure and will introduce an ETS proposal that Nelson will find difficult to condemn, although if his intention, for whatever purpose, is to be different no matter what, I suppose that’s an impossible ask.

  7. Just Me said

    Bolt is a minority player, with decreasing influence. He is highly irritating, but not somebody worth worrying about too much, most conservatives I know are embarrassed by him and his venal, ill-informed rants. He is so often so factually wrong (and refuses to concede it, eg the claim that global temps stopped rising ten years ago), that he does not carry much public policy clout, and to be honest I doubt he ever did, even at the height of the Howard years. He was always just a useful idiot to Howard. Nothing more. You only have to see the quality of comments from his pack of rabid fanboys, to realise neither they nor he are important.

    Opinion polls now consistently show solid majority support for serious action on climate change. The message is sinking in.

    And Nelson is dead in the water, just flapping uselessly about, grabbing at anything that comes his way, but to little effect. The truth is that the opposition’s current policy on climate change (to the extent it can be determined), is not that different to the government’s. I mean, arguing (hyperbolically) for a 2012 implementation date, instead of 2010, for basically the same scheme, is just a meaningless attempt at product differentiation.

    I am no longer concerned about Bolt, The Australian, or the opposition (as they currently stand). They have all dealt themselves out of the game, Bolt on a more or less permanent basis. The irony is quite delicious.

  8. Ad astra said


    I think that our differences surround the definition of ‘bipartisan’. My dictionary defines the word as follows: ”involving the agreement or cooperation of two political parties”. So agreement is one element, cooperation is another, the latter being possible even if agreement is not absolute. In politics initial absolute agreement is seldom possible, but as you point out, ultimate agreement is. So when I make a plea for bipartisanship, it is not in the expectation there will be complete agreement on every aspect at the outset, but in the hope that at least cooperation can occur.

    Where there are substantial differences between political parties in conceptualizing an issue and fashioning the best approach, a vigorous debate is necessary in a healthy democracy. That may result in genuine agreement or unresolvable disagreement, where only the numbers count.

    What angers me is not genuine disagreement based on political orientation, policy differences or dispute about the facts, but opportunistic disagreement to score political points or gain political advantage. My hope was that on the important national issue of climate change and an ETS there could be sufficient initial agreement between the larger parties to enable a cooperative approach so that a balanced, informed debate could take place that brings all the intellectual power of Parliament to address this weighty issue. Because Brendan Nelson has ‘jumped the gun’ and is already condemning the Rudd approach before it has been made public in the Government’s Green Paper, we are witnessing an acrimonious public slanging match, which is likely to continue.

    It is hard to escape the view that the Coalition’s gyrations this week and in particular Brendan Nelson’s frequently shifting posture, is as much about hanging onto his leadership in the face of a thinly-veiled Turnbull challenge, as it is about contributing to sound policy formation in the national interest.

  9. David Gould said

    Ad Astra,

    I would agree that most of the Liberal Party slithering on this issue is for internal political reasons. However, I would also suggest that the Liberal Party is still full of those who deny human caused climate change is occurring, and this is where the ‘genuine disagreement’ issue arises. If Nelson and his backers honestly do not think that the world is in peril, using the ETS as a political football is not irresponsible from their perspective. I emphasise: from their perspective.

    But I agree that it would be nice if they could agree with the government on this issue. Given the misinformation put out there by the climate change deniers – the Australian seemed to deliberately misquote a report in two articles a couple of days ago – it is very difficult for the public to know what is what in this regard.

  10. kerneels said

    I suspect we need to explicitly put certain aspects of running this country into a category ‘above’ politics. All parliaments do this already with the so-called bread-and-butter issues. Once you have such a classification, it is to the detriment of any one side to impede progress, since it would be agreed by all that no one party will get all the credit for finding and implementing a solution. A surprisingly large amount of government business falls into this category already. The disadvantage to the party in power is that it cannot get the sole benefit and prestige of a successful outcome. We should be able to expect any government to accept that disadvantage and do what is required. For instance, setting up the organisation to provide uncontaminated drinking water, whether by outsourcing or government agency. Extend this concept only a little, and we cover dealing with the effects of potential climate change, regardless of the cause of that change.

  11. janice said

    What angers me is not genuine disagreement based on political orientation, policy differences or dispute about the facts, but opportunistic disagreement to score political points or gain political advantage. My hope was that on the important national issue of climate change and an ETS there could be sufficient initial agreement between the larger parties to enable a cooperative approach so that a balanced, informed debate could take place that brings all the intellectual power of Parliament to address this weighty issue. Because Brendan Nelson has ‘jumped the gun’ and is already condemning the Rudd approach before it has been made public in the Government’s Green Paper, we are witnessing an acrimonious public slanging match, which is likely to continue.


    This is also what angers me, Ad Astra. Not only on the issue of climate change and the ETS either. In my view the Coalition and their media supporters are irresponsible and clearly show they care nought for the good of the nation and its people.

    What concerns me most is that the negative campaign of the Coalition and media may impact on the resolve of the electorate to endure the pain that comes with facing up to the urgency of tackling the problems we have to solve, after a decade of a do-nothing government. I despair when I read the (ultra) conservative blogger’s comments, but read them I must in order that I can at least attempt to understand them.

  12. JP said

    But adversarial thinking is so common…

    Right here in this thread and its comments Brendan Nelson and the Libs are ridiculed for flip-flopping between:

    “we think there are benefits to caution”
    “we agree on an ETS but think 2012 a more appropriate start date than 2010”
    “we think there’s risk in signing up for ETS before China and India, and that risk is lowered by waiting till 2012”
    “we think we can still be seen internationally as acting if we commit to the later date”
    “we think that our cautious approach is better than Rudd’s”

    So broadly, they’re doing what Ad Astra suggests – agreeing on the central issue of an ETS, and using the political process to drum up support for changes in detail (start date, petrol concessions) that they think will make the scheme better (economically and socially – obviously not environmentally). Whether they’re right or wrong, they’re also taking a far more consistent position than many here give them credit for by lefty adversarialists.

    And yes, they ARE coming from a perspective that has not yet grasped “the environment IS the economy”, and for all their failings, I think that it’s important that that line is not swallowed unquestioningly in a rush to be more environmentally “pure” than your opponents.

    Personally, I find it amazing that resistance to moving away from a carbon-based economy is being driven by fears of anthropogenic climate change. And that’s only partly because we have no concrete model of the effects of our emission reductions beyond “less CO2 = good” so “even less C02 = even better”.

    If we’re searching for reasons to move away from carbon, the economic elephant in the room is $150/bbl oil and rising coal prices. Surely that’s a sound economic/political reason to move away from reliance on carbon based energy? Renewable power was always slagged as “nearly twice as expensive” when oil was $25/bbl. By any logic that makes it cheaper now, as well as less risky. Why are we clinging on to reliance on an energy source controlled by the nation that provided the 9/11 terrorists, and seems bent on finding more socially acceptable ways of battering American capitalism into submission via OPEC?

    It’s always going to be hard to drag politicians into agreement on a science that not one of them understands, but surely getting political traction on non-carbon energy is easier if the benefits are sold as: (1)it’s cheaper, (2) its price is massively less volatile, allowing certainty in future planning, (3) it moves us towards energy independence, (4) it reduces Saudi Arabia’s malign world influence, and (5) moving now allows us to get ahead on the skills curve so we can profit when everyone else figures out points (1) to (4) or wants to make the same move for climate change reasons?

    The quasi-religious “planet in peril” approach reminds me of “Reds under the bed”, and “War on Terror” fear campaigns described only too well in Orwell’s 1984: a fearful and constant threat that only our wise masters can protect us from. In a way deriding those dare disagree with the mantra of the times is the ultimate in “adversarial politics”. If we think that moving to a more intelligent engagement with our political opposition would be a good thing, we need to stop painting anyone who isn’t utterly in agreement with Garnaut or the IPCC as a witch that needs to be burnt.

  13. JP said

    Ummm… “they’re also taking a far more consistent position than many here give them credit for by lefty adversarialists” would be:

    “they’re also taking a far more consistent position than they’re given credit for by lefty adversarialists here”. Oops 🙂

    And I should say that much as I support a reduction in adversarialism (I personally think our justice system would be better if all cases were handled the way they are in Coronial investigations) one of the benefits in adversarialism is its ability to provide momentum for change. Righteous indignation is a more powerful force than a rational explanation that things might be better if we make a series of small, safe changes.

  14. Ad astra said


    You’re right – adversarial thinking is common, and no side of politics is free of it. That’s what I find so distressing, and more importantly distracting, as it diverts attention away from the core elements that should be the focus of rational political debate.

    Leaving aside the changes of position that Brendan Nelson has exhibited in the last week, many of which seem to be the product of internal party tensions, if he had expressed his concerns about what he imagines a Rudd ETS will look like in the manner of your list, perhaps putting your second point first, he would have attracted more support for his propositions than seems to have been the case. If only debate was as rational as your list portrays.

    Even those who disagreed with some or all of it would have had at least to accept the unemotional logic therein. But this is not how these propositions were presented. They were surrounded with barbs such as the ‘religious crusade’ accusation and a caricature of the possible consequences of climate change: there are “people that are running around saying, ‘Look, if we don’t do this we’re going to have disease and plague and pestilence and all sorts of dreadful things visited upon us’ “. Tony Abbott said that Nelson was doing “a very good job in calling into question the apocalyptic language of the climate change zealots” The Australian July 11. These utterances seem on the one hand to cast doubts on, or even deny the realities of climate change, and on the other suggest that the ‘zealots’ are paranoid. There’s an old saying that it’s not paranoia if it’s true. Instead of mockingly accusing the others of exaggeration designed to terrify into acceptance, it might have been more helpful to say something like: “There are some who predict dire consequences of not acting urgently on climate change; our approach is to be more cautious in accepting the validity of these predictions, and to adopt a more measured approach to addressing what the Coalition acknowledges is a critical problem for our planet.” This would have had the effect of validating the Coalition’s existing policy on climate change, while counselling caution. But I expect such a statement would be seen as too wimpy, with not enough political bite.

    I agree with your concluding statement: “…we need to stop painting anyone who isn’t utterly in agreement with Garnaut or the IPCC as a witch that needs to be burnt.” Adversarial behaviour plays both ways.

    My plea is simply to strip the dialogue of emotive, exaggerated, embellished language that serves to put the other side at odds, rather than solicit cooperation. Pie in the sky?

  15. Ad astra said


    Like you, I’m astonished at the intensity of the vitriol, even hatred, expressed by the ultra-conservative bloggers, and despondent about the prospect of ever changing their viewpoint. It seems that no matter what Rudd or his Government does, it is useless, or worse still outright bad or hopelessly incompetent, that is, if the Government actually does anything at all, as many deny. These folk seem to occupy positions several standard deviations from the mean; at least I hope they do.

    But they do represent a fertile field for the sowing of propaganda, which grows with all the vigour of noxious weeds. I console myself with the view that they represent the rusted-on supporters who will never change their voting intentions, and who will continue to oppose ad infinitum anything the Government does. Maybe that’s the unchangeable nature of adversarial politics at a community level.

    The worry is that if enough of those in the middle of the Gaussian curve are persuaded by the propaganda to move to join those who oppose the measures needed to address the critical problem of climate change, political resolve may soften and leave the planet heading inexorably to the point of no return.

  16. […] – bookmarked by 2 members originally found by nmrmusic on 2008-07-31 Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy? – […]

  17. william said

    geez.we dont have a democracy.
    we dont have a bemocracy.
    we have a constitutional monarchy. that means that there are (supposed to be)boundaries to what parliament can bring into law.
    however, the reality is that the system has become so perverted and the population so apathetic, it is in fact, not even a democracy.its a media driven collection of spin artists manipulating the system for their own benefit. the politicians are owned by their party, so what you see them doing in the alloted airtime, is what the fat controller tells them they need to say or do. the parties are owned by anyone who has enough money to buy what they want the party to do, kinda like the worlds oldest profession, but a lot less respectable.and its all funded by the ever gullible tax payer.Everyone knows the politicians are a pack of scumbags, everyone knows the media has the crediblity of a vegan crocodile, yet 99.9% of the population still vote for the scumbags and 99.99999999999% still watch the t.v, and couldnt come up with an origional opinion to save their life.
    you get the politicians you deserve.whilst its easy to blame the politicians for everything, when you turn the t.v off and have a think about things, most of whats wrong with our country is the fault of the politicians, but only because they are scumbags who couldnt get a real job, so they took advantage of the lazy brain dead population.
    so we have the majority to dumb to know whats going on, as opposed to what should be going on, so in effect we do have a democracy but its wrong.wrong in fact and wrong in effect.

  18. juitle said

    Занимаюсь дизайном и хочу попросить автора отправить шаьлончик на мой мыил) Готов заплатить…

  19. I am impressed by the way you mastered this topic. It is not often I come across a website with enthralling articles like yours. I will note your feed to stay up to date with your forthcoming updates. I like it and do keep up the solid work.

  20. We have reached a point in our history that actually closely mirrors the beginning of the 20th. During that time, big industry and the capitalist model was once again ascending the ladder of power in the industrialized countries.

    News became the tool of corporate leaders to secure their agenda. Pockets of progressive resistance were seeking to push back against hegemony and oligarchy in many of the industrialized countries in hopes of making life better for the masses.

    There are many conflicting viewpoints regarding the strategy but the various reform groups had one overarching objective, to save humanity.

    We reach that crossroads again but this time there is more at stake than womens’ suffrage, child protections, equal rights or equal pay. The stakes are global and the worst case scenario is likely to be catastrophic on a scale we haven’t imagined before.

    As the old saying goes, the devastation could reach biblical proportions. So the question is, do we argue amongst ourselves all the way to the gallows? In the end do the deniers win out while the doomsayers get to say I told you so? Do we get to wag our fingers collectively as we are devastated by massive floods, droughts, disease and mass migration?

    If history is any indication, we might pull out of this as we have in the past. But chances are it has to get much worse before we tend to the onerous task of fixing our own problems.

  21. “in the political arena, it is a source of irritation because inherently it involves dishonesty and at times downright deceit”
    Nailed it!

  22. […] Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy? An argument that this is damaging our democracy. 10 July 2008 […]

  23. estetik said

    Good article i like and thank you for this article.

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