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Being in opposition is tough

By John Spender - posted Monday, 18 February 2008

Opposition is a tough business. I know. I spent seven years at it after the defeat of the Fraser government. It is no place for the faint hearted, passengers, or the uncommitted.

Looking across at the government from the loser’s side of the House of Representatives you may dream that this is just an aberration. Rudd won’t last. The old order will be restored. All you have to do is to hang on until the next election - which even to the most sanguine would seem a daunting time away. Don’t kid yourself. Rudd is not a passing phase in political life. He will be a hard man to dislodge. He is the new face of politics. That is why he is there.

What to do?


First, forget that pernicious and mindless adage: the duty of the opposition is to oppose. Australians aren’t stupid. When they see politicians opposing issues for the sake of it, they know them for what they are: politically amoral opportunists. The duty of the opposition is to oppose sensibly and propose constructively. A strong opposition motivated by a principled concern for the public interest is an adornment to political life. Negativism for its own sake is a political cancer.

Bipartisanship on the right issues earns public respect. Over time this translates into votes. The Opposition leader’s acceptance of Rudd’s offer of joint action to implement the goals of the apology is a good start for the Coalition and Australia. This does not mean a weak Opposition. The willingness to be bipartisan when there is genuine agreement between the parties gives strength to Opposition objections on other issues. Always focus on the main game.

Ask yourselves why Rudd won. Could one reason be that he got across a message of change for a better style of political debate, and a return to values which the government had neglected? Put simply, a concern for an ethical content to political decisions and public debate. Isn’t this something to have at the core of one’s political thinking?

Take a hard look at the Coalition’s election campaign. It seemed premised on the belief that the public was for sale to the highest bidder: if there was a barrel within sight, pork it. After 11 years of government was that, plus fear and spin, the best the Coalition could do? Sure, Labor didn’t run a kindergarten campaign but Rudd claimed the moral high ground and now commands it.

He changed the tone of political debate, and the public thanked him for it. And he has kept it up since gaining government, putting the apology at the head of his government’s agenda. Isn’t there something to learn from this?

Start the process of policy making afresh, and don’t blame everything that went wrong on John Howard. Every Cabinet Minister now in opposition was a party to the Howard agenda, and a public supporter of his leadership. They had other options and elected not to take them. The same could be said of most backbenchers. A little honest reflection and a few mea culpas wouldn’t hurt.


Cherish honourable dissenters within your ranks; men and women who believe ethics count; and that governments and oppositions need a moral compass. Under the Howard government the careers of principled dissenters on issues such as the Pacific solution, Hicks, and Doctor Haneef, suffered. Political parties need principled dissenters. They often have an acute sense of when things are about to go very wrong. Listen to them,

Treat the public with respect. Evasions, half-truths, stonewalling questions from the media, and behaving in parliament like the Australian Eleven on a desperately bad day against India may get you points from your political acolytes, but earns you nothing but contempt from voters. They are weary of being treated like fools.

Refresh the political gene pool. Set out to recruit the best and the brightest. What about a few Asian faces and Chinese and Indonesian speakers among that stolid mass of white faces on tho opposition benches? We live in Asia, not Europe.

Stamp out factionalism. The enemy should be on the other side, not within your own ranks. Factions embitter, encourage schisms, and secure parliamentary pre-selections for the wrong candidates for the wrong reasons. How to get rid of them? For starters, try strong leadership.

Keep religion out of politics. (America is a text book study of the ills of competing for God’s political favours.) Pray if you will but don’t bring God into your debates. If He is up there, in whatever guise, He has more to do than worry about who runs Australia.

Lastly, if from day one you are not 100 per cent committed, find yourself a less arduous occupation. Our political life is too important to be treated as a form of semi-retirement.

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About the Author

John Spender QC was the Member for North Sydney between 1980-1990. Positions held during opposition included Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Foreign Minister and Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives.

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