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On 'negativity' in our politics

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A lot has been said, negatively, about the Opposition's liking to be negative about everything. Mr Abbott has been pictured as nothing more than a nay-sayer, and Mr Rudd told us the other day that he wanted to bring us all together, and that we were tired of all the negativity. He thought we wanted everyone to lift their game, and for all the politicians to work together constructively. All he needed was a pulpit.

Winston Churchill is supposed to have said about Clement Attlee (though he denied having uttered the quip), 'Attlee is a modest man - but then he has a great deal to be modest about'. I've always liked the balance of the jest, and I feel that Mr Abbott could use a form of it: 'I have been accused of being negative about the Labor Government, but in truth there has been a great deal to be negative about'.

There are two well-meaning fantasies about the way our politics should work. In one of them the party that has won power is able to do whatever it wants to do, providing that it has said something about it in its election policy. Here the Opposition has no role at all. In the other, the Opposition is there to improve the work of the Government, by pointing out weaknesses in the legislation before Parliament. Otherwise it should remain quiet, and wait for its turn.


The Opposition is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, any more than is Cabinet or the Prime Minister. It was one of the 'understandings' that the founding fathers had about the way things would work. At the time, colonial governments could fall swiftly and unpredictably, because party lines were fluid, and there were lots of independents who could switch sides tomorrow if the inducement were enough. The Opposition was simply those who weren't in, and didn't support, the current government - it was a sort of government-in-waiting.

After 1910 party lines in the Australian Parliament were fixed: there was Labor and non-Labor, and indeed in that election they won 95 per cent of the vote between them, and every MP elected was either Labor or Liberal. It's been that way ever since, more or less. And our Oppositions have all been 'negative', every one of them. If you need a current example from the Labor side, consider the role of John Robertson, Leader of the Opposition in New South Wales. Everything I see him say is negative: he is consistently hostile to the O'Farrell Government, and finds fault in whatever it does.

Now in practice there is a lot that governments do that oppositions don't criticise. A substantial proportion of all the legislation that is introduced is accepted without much demur, and is passed on the nod, so to speak. Much of it is machinery, or fixing up something that needs fixing, or amending something to make it consistent. Oppositions in practice do not oppose everything. And you may remember a recent little bill that both sides had apparently agreed on beforehand, which would have provided all the parties with more money with which to pay their bills, where the Opposition seems to have reneged on a prior undertaking when the public fuss grew too intense.

But to return to a possible Abbott response, the performance of the Labor Government over the past six years has been pretty bad, and the cause, in large part, has been poor leadership by both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. He never seemed to me to understand how to get any kind of constructive relationship with the Opposition, and his 'bold' moves (and we are seeing it all again) meant that his Government was always exposed to criticism. Being bold is fun, but it leaves you open to quick objection, whereas the moderate course allows you to change course a little if you need to.

Signing Kyoto was electorally popular, but he had no need to then rush into an emissions trading scheme whose existing examples overseas were already showing great weakness. Having committed himself to it, nonetheless, he then backed off from it when it was clear that the electorate didn't like it, and were losing their approval of him. Why wouldn't an Opposition have seen this as a weakness, and exploited it? His whole period as PM seemed to me to be a chaotic one, where he jumped from issue to issue, and then failed to explain himself.

Julia Gillard sold her party to the Greens and the Independents in order to remain in power. Increasingly, that made Labor look the creature of the Greens, which didn't endear it to its core constituency or to much of the rest of the electorate. She was more stable than Kevin Rudd, and less jerky in style, but as someone wrote the other day, she never looked like or sounded like a true Prime Minister. I'm not sure quite what the writer meant, but I think it was accurate. In part it was because she indulged far too much in the ad hominem. Your real Prime Minister, I think, should rarely descend to that.


It may be that much of the complaint about 'negativity' has been based on the uncomfortable awareness, among supporters of the Labor Government, that its record was poor. In defence, those supporters criticised the Opposition and its Leader for pointing out the errors. Because there were so many errors, it could then be labelled as 'negative'.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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