The dominant word emerging from the last election was that stupid term “me-tooism”. As much as I despise that so-called word as a descriptor it does help, albeit rather clumsily, to bring into focus the phenomenon of political convergence that has become such a feature of our political landscape.
Recognising this phenomenon and how best to capitalise on it should be one focus of Prime Minster Rudd’s vision for 2020. There are countless policy fronts that could be exploited by this convergence and give rise to a more constructive form of participative and consensual democracy.
In 2001, here, in the pages of On Line Opinion, Ted Mack described what he saw as a dysfunctional system of government. He described our current system thus:
The winner take all, two-party system that has caused a political convergence of policies (the Tweedledum and Tweedledee syndrome) and a mutual interest in preserving a self-serving duopoly often leave the public powerless and frustrated.
While ever “representative government” restricts public political participation to a manipulated vote every two or three years and remains largely self-regulating, public disillusionment and frustration with government will continue.
He felt political convergence as a negative result of political expediency. And it is, but that need not be the case. I rather see it having the potential to move us forward to wards a more consensual and participative form of government.
In many respects Mack was right however. While the well worn, and I would hazard to say well worn out, adversarial approach in Australian politics has served us reasonably well, it has left us left with a legacy of poorly developed policies from both parties. These policies, have by and large, been drafted to see those in power or those aspiring to be in power into the next electoral cycle. Policies have been developed to win the argument on the day more than they have been designed to advance the national interest.
Winning is the focus. Securing control of the treasury is the goal. Mining the middle ground is the method. And given the lack of genuine division within the electorate and the major parties on the vast majority of national aspirations, we are offered very bland, and essentially common, policy options. What is presented to the public is usually a bastardised position born out of endless bickering.
When you examine the policy positions of the major parties, little of substance separates them. Accordingly, would it not be a better use of political energy to focus our attention on the common ground and strive for a form of long-term consensus?
Political party adherents will go to great pains to highlight points of difference between the two major parties; but in so many instances they are really only fooling themselves. This was no more self evident than in the run up to the last election. The parties ran parallel campaigns largely mimicking each other with the exception of some minor variations to the same promissory themes. The commentariat called it “meetooism”. But whichever way you cut it, it looks more like consensus to me.
Rudd and the Labor Party were accused of lacking ideas because much of what they put to the public resembled the position of the Coalition. The glaringly obvious fact that nobody seemed to notice was that the common ground occupied by both parties simply reflects a very broad political and social consensus within Australia. If we largely agree on most matters it is hardly surprising that the leaders will stand up and indeed say “me too”.
The most recent federal election was fought on a narrow band of policy fronts. Industrial Relations law was the marquee issue. Rudd and Gillard, as did Beazley before them, vowed to “tear up these laws”. Some of the detail of the new regulations has been revealed in the first days of this parliament. It should be noted though both Gillard and Rudd have gone to great pains to placate a few of the industrial heavy weights who had embraced WorkChoices. I suspect we will not see any genuine tearing up of anything, rather we can expect a compromise and a good deal of pragmatism being exercised by a party very keen to see out at least two terms.
The environment got a fair hearing as well. Eventually the Coalition fell in line and decided to believe the science. The leader of the Opposition in waiting, Malcolm Turnbull, even urged his cabinet colleagues in government to sign the Kyoto Protocol. How stupid is a system that has the Minister for the Environment in concert with his opposition spokesman but unable to engage in a reasoned discussion with him about the best way forward?
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