There are two usual responses. The one I favour is that politics in a democracy is about the clash or contest of ideas. Smart, nice, well-informed people can and do disagree on a host of issues – how to improve the economy; what to do about our borders; whether to take a Hobbesian or ‘United Nations talking shop’ approach to national defence; what weight to put on non-economic ‘social’ issues such as abortion; who can marry; whether drugs ought to be unregulated, regulated or criminalised; what kind of criminal justice system one wants; what comparative weights to put on liberty and equality. The list goes on and on and on.
Notice that on this first understanding of politics in a democracy no two people are likely to line up exactly as to their preferences on these myriad social-policy issues. So, in a country with a two-party majoritarian voting system, which I think is miles better than the highly proportional voting systems in continental Europe, what you end up with are two broad-church, big-tent political parties. You have the centre-left team and the centre-right team. Both are in constant flux as to which elements are dominant. Both shift emphasis depending upon how they are doing in elections. The left team is some shifting coalition of those who favour unions, environmental concerns, lawyer-led ‘human rights’ issues, Big Government and so on. The right team brings together economic dries, social conservatives, Hobbesian national defence proponents, those who put much weight on free speech (though 25 years ago this was a Team Left concern, but no longer) and so on.
That means that politics is a clash of ideas between two main political teams, yes, but also a clash of ideas within those teams. And on this first understanding of politics there is next to no truth to talk of policies that are uniformly approved of, in the ‘national interest’, or self-evidently a matter of bipartisan agreement. Virtually any idea for reform will be opposed by others — some who will dislike the reform on first principles and some with vested interests in the status quo. The best you can hope for is that some policy reform will be tried and time will reveal its benefits. The numbers of people wanting to return to pre-reform policies will then shrink and shrink.
You might think that’s what has happened, at least a bit, with protectionism. That used to be espoused by many. Far fewer argue its case today. Same goes for the merits of an independent central bank. And, I regret to say, the matter of free speech has reverted to being more honoured in the breach than the observance (just look at the United Kingdom).
At any rate that’s the clash-of-ideas way of looking at politics.
A different way of looking at politics is much less inclined to see those who oppose one’s views or preferences as well-intentioned or smart or reasonable or even nice. Differences are put down to moral turpitude and personal failings, rather than the fact of disagreement. For them we live in a world there are clear, right policy choices and those who fail to see them need a bit of re-education. Giving a polite hearing what those who disagree have to say is not seen, therefore, as a valuable benefit and one to be encouraged. Vague, waffling talk of ‘the public good’ or ‘the need for bipartisan consensus’ almost always sits atop the unspoken premise that my policy choices are the ones that are good and deserve consensus support, not yours.
Okay, let’s say that you more or less agree with me so far. How does any of that affect the current poor polling of the Coalition and all the talk from the ABC, from the Fairfax Press, and from the lesser and mostly anonymous wits in the Liberal Party itself about Tony Abbott’s deficiencies?
Well, on the reasonable-disagreement school of thinking, mine, you can’t expect even the party you support and its leader to line up perfectly with your own views. So a first question is whether any alternative leader would line up better with your judgements, preferences and values.
For me the answer is a pretty clear ‘no’. If the Coalition were to replace Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull I would never vote for it. For instance, what bothers me most about Abbott is his craven backdown as regards emasculating Section 18C. Would Turnbull be better? You’ve got to be kidding! Put Bishop, Turnbull, Shorten and Abbott in a line-up and the pathetic truth about Australia is that Abbott is the most pro-free speech of the lot, — and by a long way if the comparison is with Shorten. That is the truth, despite Abbott’s craven backdown on 18C.
With Abbott, though, there is still a glimmer of hope on the free-speech front. Not with Turnbull or Bishop. So why favour dumping Abbott on that score?
What about debt reduction and small government concerns? Here there is no doubt that the Paid Parental Leave scheme was a travesty for anyone with my preferences. Abbott needed to dump it or alternative leaders would. He waited far too long to do so. At last he has. But on other matters no one else in the Coalition looks any more likely to be the small government person I’d like to see in The Lodge. As to on stopping the boats and making sure we have no carbon tax, Mr. Abbott is clearly as good as it gets in the Coalition ranks.
So, the obvious question is what should Abbott be doing? My own take is not the usual ABC/Fairfax/half The Australian op-ed writers’ advice. I think Abbott’s main problem is that he went from being a very partisan (as in pro-Team Right) when in opposition to a wishy-washy ‘please, please like me all you ABC commentators’ type leader once in office. This desire to be seen as rising above politics and to be liked was accentuated by his reaction to the obstreperous Senate.
This was, in my view, exactly the wrong strategy. Take a look at Canada and its Prime Minister Stephen Harper. No one would accuse Mr. Harper of seeking to be loved. He takes his core ideas for how to make Canada better and tries to get as many as he can implemented. That involves some compromise with other parts of his broad-church Tory party, and it means some compromise with other parties. But he does not revel in compromise or see it as a good in itself. It is necessary, of course, but there are things he will not sell out.
Mr. Harper wanted repeal of Canada’s equivalent to our Section 18C. For years he couldn’t accomplish it because his was a minority government. Even when he won a majority he had trouble. But he never waivered in saying it was the right thing to do, to get rid of these laws seeking to gag free speech. So his supporters knew where he stood. Eventually he got them repealed via a Private Member’s Bill.
There is no doubt in my mind that, had Mr. Abbott put the bill emasculating Section 18C to the Senate, and had it rejected, he would be much, much, much more popular with his Liberal base. These are the people who canvass for votes, hand out how-to-votes, donate money and do all the hard work.
Canadians do not much say they like Mr. Harper. But he commands the loyalty of enough to have won three elections, with a good shot at an upcoming fourth. That’s because many voters respect him and know more or less where he is coming from. For instance, Harper thought Canada’s CBC, the taxpayer-funded equivalent of our ABC, was both profligate and partisan. He cut its funding by 10% a year ago and didn’t apologise for doing so.
My sense is that Mr. Abbott should have more of Mr. Harper about him. Imagine if he were to say, in blunt terms:
Here are my core beliefs. Most I will not compromise. If the Senate won’t pass the bills we send to it we will not indulge in watering them down to the point that the Labor Party could have enacted them. No, we will make it clear to the voters that we are trying to do something about the debt and the inherited spending spiral we inherited. Under our US-style constitutional set-up, with its strong Senate (unlike in Canada, or the United Kingdom, or New Zealand where centre-right leaders now in power can always enact what they wish and leave it to the voters to decide down the road), we may not be able to get some, most or possibly any of these spending reductions through the Senate. Indeed it may be that Clive Palmer, the Greens and most independents will never vote for spending restraint, as opposed to more taxes. Not ever. We think that is selling our kids and grandkids down the river. But you the voters will get to decide.’
Meantime, my government will just keep trying. We will not go down the more taxes road. We will tell voters daily of what we are trying to do to fix the budgetary mess. We will have charts showing what the interest on the debt payments are, and announce those weekly. We will make it plain that Labor won’t even vote for spending cuts it had promised before the last election. And then the voters can decide for themselves in a year and a half.
Heck, as this government racks up double dissolution triggers we will keep our eyes on the polls. If we get tied or ahead of Labor, and there is more than six months before the next election, and Palmer’s party won’t pass anything, then we will call a double dissolution election. The voters can then have their say on PUP and its ringleader as well as on this government.
Anything strong and full of conviction would be terrific, Mr. Abbott. Meantime, the danger is that someone might take over who comes from that part of the Liberal Party which often seems more at home in the Labor Party. If any Coalition MPs really think that is a good long-term strategy then they must be bonkers.
Alas, having chatted to more than a few Coalition MPs, I can’t rule that out.
James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland and the author of Democracy in Decline