License article

Tribal politics enforce petty divisions

The paramount motivation of most of those in politics and public policy in a democracy is a desire to make the world a better, fairer place. If we can’t sit comfortably with this idea, we are, I reckon, lost. There might be peripheral other motivations including ego, but the overwhelming majority of people in politics and policy are decent and honest and are not, logic compels us to believe, there to maximise their own wealth.

Financial and material fortunes, after all, are forged not through the ballot box, the bureaucracy, journalism, academia or policy research institutions, but usually by investing capital, effort and entrepreneurial talent in commerce or financial markets. Those who do this are crucial to fuelling the economic growth upon which democracies in no small part depend; one of the greatest forms of social justice and cohesion is employment, and the greatest generator of employment is business, small and large.

Those in politics and policy, then, share something fundamental – protecting and augmenting the quality of our collective and individual existence. When one asks ostensibly opposed participants to list their driving principles, they come up with the same things: equality of opportunity; property rights; the rule of law; individual liberty; robust communities; support and compassion for the vulnerable, damaged and marginalised; open markets with regulations aimed at creating a level playing field and protecting consumers’ rights; an accountable, transparent and efficient government sector.

What separates people in politics and policy is their perceptions of how best to achieve all this. But they usually really only differ at the margin, and what they share in terms of desired ends dwarfs, in most cases, what might divide them in terms of prescribed means. The terminology ‘‘left’’ and ‘‘right’’ is unhelpful – these are all-but meaningless terms that obscure the overarching, unifying motivations of those who make laws and policies. 

But while there is clearly common ground across mainstream issues, the language and comportment of those in politics and policy is so often, and so unnecessarily, combative to the point of vicious. Verbal abuse abounds. Question time in Parliament is, bizarrely, seen as a blood sport; and it is thoroughly unedifying. The flip side of free speech is a responsibility to be civil; it does not mean an entitlement to abuse. At a more pragmatic level, those who seek to prosecute their position through invective tend to appear odious, and thereby undermine their own position.

Many see themselves as ideological warriors, rather than as thinkers fundamentally united in a common purpose – advancing humanity. The most important market we have is the free market for ideas, and it should be a place where courtesy, evidence and reason reign – again, because ultimately almost everyone involved is motivated by the same things.


There are a number of phrases and ideas that are unfortunately and wrongly seen as signs of weakness in political debate. These include: ‘‘I’m not sure.’’ ‘‘I don’t know.’’ ‘‘I have changed my view in light of new evidence.’’ ‘‘I agree with you.’’ ‘‘I’m sorry.’’

Former prime minister Paul Keating is revered by many for his oratorical savagery. He was wont to argue, in essence, that our nation’s history is free of widespread street-based political violence because our elected dignitaries massacre each other verbally in Parliament. That was more than a little self-serving. Keating is rightly widely applauded as a policy reformer. But the regard for his ability to insult and belittle is misplaced. Some of the greatest political leaders in history are testament to this – think, for instance, of Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela and Ronald Reagan.

Anyway, and particularly at a time when no political grouping has the ability to dictate what passes through our federal Parliament, there is much to be gained by focusing on manifold common goals, rather than on differences that are essentially marginal.

Divides that once might have been relevant have faded. For example, almost everyone in federal Parliament professes to agree that human-induced climate change compels local and global action, that a market-based economy with fair and enforced rules is the most effective way to allocate scarce resources and create wealth and that the state must not unduly impinge on individual and collective rights and freedoms. For the past 30 years, both sides of Australian politics have followed similar liberal market policies and have run one of the lowest-taxing, lowest spending governments in the industrialised world.

Our massive pool of superannuation has negated what was perhaps the most profound socioeconomic divide in contemporary history – that between labour and capital. These days, labour owns much capital through shares in companies; there is a profound commonality of interest. There are no prosperous high streets without healthy backstreets.

Ideology is the enemy of decent public policy and of effective politics. Should you identify as ‘‘left’’ or ‘‘right’’, you might ask yourself what that actually, precisely means, and whether you really do differ so much from those you perhaps see as foes. Tribal politics is a shame and a waste, for it fails to leverage the reality that we truly are in this together.

Michael Short is editor of The Zone. twitter: @shortmsgs