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Bipartisan games

By John Warhurst - posted Friday, 24 October 2008

The era of Kevin Rudd versus Malcolm Turnbull has begun with lots of bipartisan games. Rudd began by offering Turnbull bipartisanship on a republic. Turnbull countered with an offer of bipartisanship on economic challenges. Rudd responded that economic bipartisanship should start with Coalition support for the Budget bills in the Senate. Now the two are trading insults over bipartisanship in responding to the global economic crisis.

But there is no future in such grandstanding. True bipartisanship, like equality in any worthwhile relationship, is not about being macho and scoring points but about being sensitive towards the other person's needs. One of those needs is for each side to emerge with their dignity intact.

Bipartisanship is a hard thing to achieve in our parliamentary system and is therefore rare in practice on major issues. If it were more common the cross-bench, Greens and Independents, would be out of a job. The reason they are not is that partisanship is deeply ingrained. Partisans want their party to win above all else.


All ministers and shadow ministers are partisan. Above all the parliamentary process itself is partisan. Question Time, where many of the taunts about bipartisanship have taken place, encourages adversarial politics.

Genuine bipartisanship has a number of elements. It is about both style and substance. As far as style goes it is best done quietly and it attempts to find common ground in discussions about issues. It exhibits restraint in baiting or criticising the other side when to do so would inhibit finding that common ground. In particular it avoids actions which aggravate divisions within the other party - so-called “wedging”.

Bipartisanship involves compromise between two initial positions. It does not mean asking the other person to give you their full, uncritical support. That would mean political death for any parliamentary leader as it would look like caving in.

There are occasions when bipartisanship can be achieved in public forums but generally it comes, like diplomacy or interfaith dialogue, through private discussion. When agreement does occur in the Federal Parliament, it is usually the result of behind-the-scenes negotiation, not grandstanding.

The Prime Minister has a patchy record of bipartisanship. He made genuine and largely successful efforts to make the Apology to the Stolen Generations bipartisan by involving then opposition leader Brendan Nelson.

But attempts to build on this through bipartisan committees failed because Nelson believed he was not being kept in the loop and that as a consequence Rudd's bipartisanship was superficial. Once Nelson believed Rudd was manipulating the supposed bipartisanship then the attempt was doomed.


The first issue on which Rudd offered Turnbull bipartisanship was the republic. But attempts at bipartisanship need to take sensitivities into account.

Rudd and Turnbull together offer the best chance yet for the republican movement. Yet bipartisanship won't happen overnight. Each of them has to develop their own approach, independent of the other, before seeking agreement and compromise.

Rudd offered Turnbull bipartisanship in a way that broke many of the rules about achieving the best outcome. He caught Turnbull unawares and was provocative in the way he immediately raised the issue on Turnbull's first day in office. If it was a genuine offer of bipartisanship then it was clumsily done. Not surprisingly a round of tit-for-tat followed and has not stopped.

Bipartisanship will not flourish across the chamber at Question Time, nor is it best sought through the media in formal addresses to the nation. Avenues out of the limelight should be utilised instead.

Both leaders are just playing with bipartisanship. Now they should put it into practice. The steps have to be non-threatening. In particular, partisan advantage has to be put to one side. That is against the grain but it can be done.

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First published in Eureka Street on October 21, 2008.

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About the Author

John Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science with the Australian National University and Flinders University and a columnist with the Canberra Times.

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All articles by John Warhurst

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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