There’s just so much to love about the Nine News report on the student protests against higher education fees from 1987 that suddenly re-emerged this week. Peter Harvey, for example, with his celebrated, impossibly low, authoritative tones coming (as they almost always did) from Canberra. His awful brown suit, matched only by the dated fashion of the student protesters he was covering. But the star turn comes undoubtedly from a young Joe Hockey, pledging to “go out onto the streets and to protest … in our campaign for free education”.
Touche. As archival footage goes, it’s a good get. But here’s the question: beyond the obvious entertainment value, why should we care about this?
The implicit charge – frequently made explicit by an array of internet warriors – is one of hypocrisy. There’s socialist Joe the student unionist who thought deregulating tertiary fees was “suicidal for student welfare”, and there’s cigar-smoking Joe the Liberal heavyweight who now presides over such homicidal policy because it doesn’t affect him.
We’re being asked to conclude that one of them is disingenuous or has sold out to the other. What we’re not being asked to conclude is that someone’s position might change over the course of 27 years. Or that the world might have changed sufficiently in that time to make someone feel a change in position is justified. In short, we’re being asked to hold Hockey to an inhuman standard that demands he adopt one position on all things throughout his life irrespective of circumstance.
On that score Labor’s Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh might empathise. He has spent a good chunk of this week sitting in Parliament watching the Abbott government throw his own prose back in his face.
Leigh, it appears, was once a fan of deregulating university fees in precisely the way Joe Hockey wasn’t. This he committed to print in book form in 2004, a year after he had written an op-ed spruiking co-payments for GP visits much as the Coalition has now proposed. The government seems to think this is some sort of miraculous, decisive gift.
But, again: why should we care? Like Joe Hockey, Andrew Leigh was a student at the time. Is it possible that a decade of exposure to new ideas, experiences and information might have led him to change his view? It’s a substance-free, opportunistic way of arguing that the Abbott government has chosen here, and now that the Hockey-as-free-education-warrior vision has emerged, we can expect the Labor opposition to return the favour. If they do, it will be equally opportunistic and substance-free.
Neither Leigh’s nor Hockey’s volte-faces are scandalous. In fact they both sit comfortably with the broader worldviews they have most recently expressed. Leigh writes incisively about inequality and the stubbornness of privilege in exactly the manner you might expect of someone who has since abandoned ideas like university fee deregulation. Hockey famously spoke about ending the “age of entitlement” even as his party was defending middle-class welfare. You might not like their respective positions, but there is little to indicate they are insincerely held.
The idea that they should be embarrassed to have once thought differently, or that this exposes them as partisan hypocrites, merely exposes our political culture as one of confected warfare, where changes of heart are automatic evidence of dishonesty rather than of reflection. We should instead be demanding that our representatives change their views over time. We should expect them to be open to persuasion. And it follows they should have the freedom to be persuaded without attracting some kind of summary judgment for it.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t crass hypocrisy and opportunism in politics. Of course there is. It’s possible we saw an example of it this week when Martin Hamilton-Smith, a Liberal stalwart and former party leader, stunningly joined the South Australian Labor government with no prior warning and scant explanation.
It’s possible we saw it in the previous federal Labor government on asylum seekers when it first insisted boat arrivals had nothing to do with domestic policy, then shifted dramatically to a policy not merely of offshore processing, but offshore resettlement.
And it’s also possible we’ve seen it for years in Tony Abbott’s position on climate change policy, where, as Malcolm Turnbull has so famously put it, he “in the space of a few months held every possible position on the issue, each one contradicting the position he expressed earlier”.
We’re being asked to hold Hockey to an inhuman standard that demands he adopt one position on all things throughout his life irrespective of circumstance.
Yes, we should be awake to backflips of convenience. Certainly, we should be holding politicians to account for them, particularly where the political calculations are so short-term and transparent. But not all changes of mind are equal. Not all are poll-inspired and politically cynical. What we need is the capacity to distinguish between the two.
A public culture that rushes to judgments of hypocrisy, that fails this test of discernment, is an impoverished one destined for an endless cycle of adolescent sparring that masquerades as a policy debate. It’s a kind of gotcha politics that is more entertaining than edifying. Politicians should be allowed to be people whose positions swing and evolve. If we have inhuman demands of them, we might just find that inhuman brutes, impervious to thought and reflection, are the only ones capable of meeting our requirements.
Waleed Aly is a Fairfax columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.