When Barack Obama won the presidency, the US Republican Senate leadership made a tactical decision. Unlike Democratic Senators, who had opted to negotiate with President Bush on his top priorities of tax cuts and schools reform, Republicans sought to block Obama on healthcare - his signature campaign issue.
As former Bush speechwriter David Frum describes it: “No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles.” The strategy was based on pure politics, but even Frum had misgivings. “Politically, I get the ‘let’s trip up the other side, make them fail’ strategy,” he told the New York Times. “But what’s more important, to win extra seats or to shape the most important piece of social legislation since the 1960s?”
The result of the Republican strategy, of course, is well known. Far from winning all the marbles, the Republicans got none. The biggest threat to mainstream Republicans today is the Tea Party, who lost their marbles long ago.
Although the Australian Liberal Party are clearly less reactionary than the US Republicans, there are times when the two parties seem to be working from the same playbook. Under Malcolm Turnbull, the Opposition voted against a fiscal stimulus package that saved around 200,000 jobs.
Despite this, it looked as though a Turnbull-led Opposition would strike a deal to pass climate change legislation. It is easy to forget now, but the emissions trading scheme really went down by only one vote: the 41-42 margin in the Liberal Party leadership ballot. (It also gave political dinner parties another “what if?” question to add to “what if Harold Holt hadn’t gone swimming?” and “what if Vince Gair didn’t like prawns?”)
Since Abbott’s ascendancy, the blocking game has accelerated. Alongside climate change, the Opposition have voted against means-testing the private health insurance rebate and updating the Medicare levy surcharges, and have announced that they will oppose the Resource Super Profits Tax package.
The Senate’s role, of course, is not to merely rubber-stamp legislation. At its best, the Australian Senate has been a critical house of review and a check on government excess. But the unusual configuration of minor parties and independents in the current Senate has made the Opposition’s strategy particularly damaging.
In the US, the filibuster allows Republicans to effectively block legislation with just 40 out of 100 Senators. Australia has no such supermajority rules. Yet the reality is that the polar differences between Steven Fielding and Bob Brown allow the Liberal and National Parties a veto power that is out of proportion to their Senate numbers.
Another clue that US Republicans have some close followers downunder is the fact that the Coalition has often sought to cast its position as delay rather than obstruction. In the midst of the US health care debate, a key Republican strategy memo argued that the best way to defeat Obama’s health care bill was by putting on the brakes. Republicans were urged to use the message “Slow down, Mr President”.
In Australia, Tony Abbott has accused the government of moving too quickly on fiscal stimulus, health reform, and an emissions trading scheme. In the short-term, this may be a clever approach. But delaying would have been absurd in the case of fiscal stimulus, since the very point of such a package is timely action. And because the cost of climate change abatement rises over time, the Coalition’s decision to block an emissions trading scheme has merely raised the future price tag for businesses and households.
Indeed, it is not even clear whether obstruction serves parties’ long-term political interests. A policy of “Just say no” may temporarily fire up the base, but the current chaos in the US Republican party shows where it leads. Politicians who play obstruction for its own sake merely fuel the rise of radical fringe movements.
It may feel good to pander to a sense that government is broken, but as any student of history knows, the best leaders have always been willing to engage with the other side. Or to use a game show analogy, you don’t win “Deal or No Deal” by saying “No Deal” every time.