Ideology has had a bad rap during the pandemic. The Prime Minister has welcomed the fact that members of the national cabinet, Liberal and Labor, left ideology at the door when they took part in deliberations about how best to deal with COVID-19. No other member of the national decision-making body has demurred from that opinion.
The national cabinet has dealt mainly but not exclusively with the health aspect of the crisis. The Prime Minister has been regularly flanked by the Chief Medical Officer when he has reported on how Australian governments are tackling the crisis, including restrictions on travel and community lockdowns. While there have been differences in how individual state governments have introduced state-level regulations, including tightening internal border controls, there have not been any dramatic outliers from a quite uniform national picture.
The community appears to have welcomed the appearance of unity between political parties and sectors like employers and employees. There has been amazement voiced at how conservative governments have worked comfortably with the trade union movement, personified by Christian Porter and Sally McManus being in daily contact and speaking glowingly about one another. The commonly voiced aspiration is that consensus rather than conflict should be the norm once the pandemic is finished.
In this view, needless political conflict, driven by ideological differences, is one of those aspects of Australian society that we could well do without.
Robust conflict has been muted during the pandemic. Health officials have stood united in publicly supporting their political masters despite plenty of differences in the wider medical community about the pace and scope of the government response.
There has been strong pressure not to rock the boat during the crisis and the absence of parliamentary sittings has contributed to this sense of pulling together. Government leaders have taken centre stage. Opposition leaders, state and federal, have been reduced to the role of minor players.
What we want to get rid of is not ideology ... but the way we have got used to talking to and about one another.
The economic crisis has revealed greater differences of opinion about how to sustain the economy during a long hibernation. The government should be given credit for being willing to drastically alter its initial approach to economic stimulus. The opposition should be given equal credit for its early advocacy of direct support for the working population, an international idea which eventually led to the JobKeeper program.
The government sternly resisted attempts, led by the opposition, the union movement and the welfare community, to broaden the scope of the economic package to include many more vulnerable people, including casuals and foreign workers. Given the government's resistance to these amendments, its package passed Parliament unscathed.
That's where we stand now. We are led to believe that we are in an ideology-free zone, and that that is an outcome of unified and practical responses by sensible men and women to a crisis. Big, bad ideology is on the outer. Those who hope to keep it that way sneer at commentators like the ABC's Barrie Cassidy, who reckon that once this is all over Australian politics will quickly revert to business as usual.
Cassidy is probably correct though. Not only is a reversion to previous political practice highly likely, but it will bring benefits with it. Already ideology hasn't been left at the door entirely. Any claim that it has is based on a limited view of what ideology means.
We all possess an ideology. There are many ideologies in the modern world. A list would include conservatism, individualism, liberalism, socialism, social democracy, nationalism, environmentalism and feminism. They are best seen as sets of values or views of the world which frame our interpretations of events and possible courses of action. They contain built-in priorities and different attitudes towards human nature, the place of government and the relative importance of various social institutions like business and labour.
In short, our ideological persuasions shape our initial reactions to people and circumstances and dictate how we go about life. Most of us adhere to a mixture of ideologies, so varied that society contains many different points of view. Many are moderate and lightly held, but some are extreme. The most extreme are fundamentalist and sometimes destructive.
Particular ideologies prevail within certain institutions. One such institution is the political parties. In Australia we have four major parties and a host of smaller ones. Competition between these parties, each representing a different mix of ideologies or a particular take on one ideology in different circumstances, is beneficial to society.
Within the bigger parties there is also ideological competition. This allows different ideological positions to co-exist within Liberal and Labor. Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian, for instance, represent very different takes on liberal conservatism.
The positive contribution of ideological differences comes in the representation of different perspectives and interests in Parliament, in government decision-making and in broader public discussions. Not only is the death of ideology unachievable, but it would also be a negative development.
Those who don't want to go back to how politics once was are confusing ideological extremism with worthwhile ideological differences.
What we want to get rid of is not ideology - which is an impossible aim anyway, as it is so deeply rooted in all of us - but the way we have got used to talking to and about one another. Modern political argument is too often loud, foul-mouthed and disrespectful of the point of view of the other person.
One of the gifts of the pandemic has been to call a temporary halt to the worst of these aspects of modern political argument. But they are not the fruit or the fault of ideological differences.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.