Federal Politics


Reason can work in modern politics

Malcolm Turnbull was perfectly correct in arguing last week for more civility, less spin, more trust and more respect for voters by politicians. It would be unwise, however, for anyone to get their hopes up. Even the cynical, though not Tony Abbott himself, saw in some of Turnbull's remarks not so oblique criticism by a former, deposed, leader of the opposition of the tactics of his successor, and have discounted some of what was said simply from partisan loyalty. Others, of course, have embraced Turnbull's views, simply because they see his intervention as mildly destabilising of Abbott, failing to see that he was equally criticising other politicians, including Labor ones, for their abuse of public trust, for spin, for attempts to oversimplify and dumb down important politics and cruelly disappointing public expectations.

The reputation of politicians in the minds of voters has rarely been as low. The more thoughtful politicians recognise that this is not partisan, because the status of all politicians declines when debate becomes uncivilised, when politicians resort to mere abuse, when debate consists of little more than point-scoring, name-calling and efforts to drown out the other side, and players are seen to fiddle with, spin, and manipulate not only truth, but that trust and mutual respect upon which the system operates.

It is interesting, in this context, to note the powerful effort, over the past few weeks, of long speeches in the American political conventions - and not all by practising politicians. America may be the home of the attack ad, deeply partisan political commentary and bizarre divisions based sometimes on race, creed, sense of grievance and loony science, but it is also a polity where those seeking election understand that they have not only to woo voters to their side, but to motivate them to bother to vote.

Traditionally pre-convention activity is focused on garnering support within one's party, with almost inevitably a certain amount of pandering to extremists. At conventions, and in the campaign over the next few months, the candidates and their supporters are seeking to mobilise the wider public to their cause. Each of the candidates gave long and thoughtful speeches, attempting, largely without rancour, to define the issues and explain why they deserved support. In each case, their spouse spoke even more forcefully and effectively. There were significant speeches by prominent Americans. There was ample enthusiasm and plenty of partisan spirit, but also a reasoned appeal to both the intellect and the emotions: the voters got that ultimate respect from those whose fate, for once every election season, they hold in their hands. In an outside world, no doubt, were 10-second grabs, arguments based on facts unfairly stated, lies, exaggerations and spin, but there was also some chance to listen and to hear. The ratings suggest that tens of millions of Americans did.

This is not to suggest that Australian politicians do not take opportunities to be thoughtful, to deal with facts and issues in some detail, to debate reasonably and respectfully different points of view, and to seek to win over audiences or the wider electorate. But the arena of an increasing amount of the contest - particularly in a world where most voters, not members of the political class, have ample other distractions - is at the short and shrill end, where slogans and abuse dominate, and where some of the tactics, not least from Tony Abbott, are focused on what David Marr (in a hostile commentary) has called wrecking the joint.

Abbott is perfectly capable of the thoughtful argument and the useful contribution, but has judged that his cause is better served by unrelenting war with a government he believes to have forfeited its moral right to govern. No doubt he also judges - and in tactical terms he may be right - that the job of attacking the government and demolishing any credit it has must precede any careful explanation of how he and his team will do better. Yet the risk is of being seen as merely negative, merely destructive, or of concealing plans and intentions by making minimum disclosure of policy.

Sound tactics, perhaps, but by no means necessarily sound strategy. As public trust in politicians and the political process declines, so does the capacity of the system to work. When politicians win not by superior arguments but in a highly polarised climate of rancour and hatred, the job of governing is made much more difficult, as Malcolm Fraser discovered after 1975. When politicians pretend they have in mind no radical plans, but use comfortable election as a mandate for substantial change, confidence in the game and the players plummets. Likewise with abuse of power by incumbents, as Labor has discovered in NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory recently. Voters aren't to be treated as mugs.