Pollies, ideas and dissent

What is happening in political parties and their ability to generate ideas? If we were to go by what the papers say, the chronic lack of ideas and vision is the problem facing Australian politics today.

Yet, if you randomly read a handful of first speeches by parliamentarians, it’s likely that you’ll find a reference to ‘wanting to make Australia better’ or a commitment to a set of values, principles, perhaps, if they are very brave, even an ideology. Politicians like to think they are in the ideas business. Everyone else likes to argue about whether that is truly the case.

But for today’s post, let’s take them on face value and run with the idea that:

Politicians are in the ideas business

One of the functions of political parties is to act a filter, aggregator, and even generator of new ideas for policy. Parties are also supposed to be organs of representation for liked-minded groups in the community (which, party machines like to remind their parliamentarians from time to time).  But to be successful, party leaders regularly make overtures to govern for the good of all, not just those that voted for them. This makes for a fruitful tension between ideology, national interest and popular will.

And it’s an important tension. Think of it this way, if politicians weren’t in the ideas business, but merely in the business of slavish representation or one-eyed ideological implementation, why have elected governments at all, why not instant online polling or  have teams of technocrats that rule the country?

Our political representatives are there to do this governing job for us. Politicians don’t work in a vacuum either. They are working within institutions, engage with other institutions (parliament, parties, the media, interest groups, the bureaucracy). Their thinking and actions are shaped by the rules and norms of each institution. The job is, very simply, to collect all the facts, make decisions, persuade us that its a good idea, and have the idea tested by public opinion, parliament, interest groups etc. Then, after all that, politicians take responsibility for managing its implementation and for when things go wrong (well, at least in theory).

Yet, how often do you hear politicians say something genuinely surprising or different from what everyone else in their party says? When it does happen, what happens with politicians who have ideas that are different, or worse still, contradictory to the party’s current position?

‘If you can’t govern yourselves, how can you govern the country?’

As the above Bob Hawke quote suggests, one of the challenges to free flowing debate in parties these days is party discipline and the way the media reports on internal debates.

As discussed in my last post party discipline in Australia is very strong.  Stronger than many other Westminister systems, due to the small size of our parliament compared to the size of the executive. Party leaders have also been very successful at centralizing power in their offices over the last 30 years. Together, this is a great recipe for politicians expressing themselves in only one dimension — the party’s.

For MPs who do argue for different ideas to the stated party position, they are usually immediately cast a ‘dissenters’ or marvicks’ by the media. Very quickly, often harmless — and I would argue — healthy disagreement and debate within a party, transforms itself into “disquiet within Party X”, or worse still “open warfare” within the ranks or ‘threats to the authority of the leader’. The extent of leaking of party room (and increasingly cabinet) discussions in the current government only increases the chill effect for those wanting to honestly thrash out ideas.

Today, contradicting the party line marks you out as a troublemaker, or it suggests division among your colleagues and a lack of faith in the party leader. When did rigorous and contested thinking become a bad thing?

The shift towards centralized messaging happened slowly.

Looking at Liberal Party archives (and this analysis is shamelessly from an LPA perspective and from my own PhD research), you can see that the rise of television focused the party machine’s minds onto national media campaigning by the late 1970s. The desire to manage an effective national campaign (ie. one message) only grew stronger with each passing election. The establishment of Hawke’s National Media Liaison Service (known as aNiMaLS by critics) allowed the government to effectively monitor comments by the Opposition and to highlight and distribute examples of internal dissent within the Liberal Party to the press gallery. Given the divisions and dissent wracking the Liberal Party in the 1980s, those that survived into into the 1990s, placed a high premium on  discipline and ‘staying on message’.

Moreover, this doesn’t even take into account technological change during this time. One of things that really struck me when looking through archive collections of Liberal MPs from the early 1980s through to the early 1990s was the way election folders were organised. For the 1983 or 1984 campaigns, folders were a chaotic jumble of candidate aids (talking points) from the federal party, marching orders from the state division, which actually had to run the campaign on the ground, and locally produced advertising material by branch members. By 1993, with the roll out of fax machines, every MP had a daily missive from Campaign Head Quarters telling them what that days lines were, what to be worried about, and little sign-offs of encouragement. And this was accompanied by shell press releases where candidates could insert their name and any electorate specific details and then distribute it to the local press. The result was a uniform message. Research by Ainslie and Peter Van Onslen explored how the internet and secure websites had effected campaigning by the late 2000s, which they found had only increased centralization, but gave politicians the impression of control.

Between party discipline, party structures , MPs own ambitions and the way media currently reports on politics, we can see why there is a strong incentive for politicians stay on message. And it’s not just because what they say might be unpopular with the voters.

This, of course, has implications for the quality of our overall public debate and public policy. If debate is discouraged, especially in public where it naturally must be more rigorous, our politicians are progressively de-skilling. If they can’t have vigorous internal debates without it being seen as division within the party, when will new MPs cut their teeth? For example, in the 1980 and 1990s, it was not uncommon to hear arguments that Labor’s factional structure promoted debate and debating skills, which the Liberal Party lacked.  With the decline of Labor’s factional system, both parties seem to be struggling to provide their MPs with opportunities to safely play with ideas.

Talking about ‘narratives’ etc is actually just talking about the symptoms. Moreover, its largely a discussion about tactics and strategy, and if the last decade has shown us anything, it breeds cynicism.

Will it go on forever?

Well, I’m an optimist about Australian politics (call me crazy). I think many of the fundamentals of our political infrastructure remain strong. Most of our politicians, and many interest groups recognize we do actually have problems after our long boom. As these problems become increasingly obvious to voters, the incentive in electoral politics to ‘manage’ the good times should shift towards those politicians with policy solutions and the skills to prosecute them. Moreover, with the rise of social media, and in an age where authenticity is currency, it seems unrealistic to think that backbenchers will meekly stay on message into the future. In fact the last few years have demonstrated backbenchers willingness to assert themselves.

Perhaps these are our years of gauche adolescence, as we adapt to our digitally mediated conversations about politics?

I may be hopelessly optimistic, but then, for all our sakes, I hope I’m not wrong.

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One Response to Pollies, ideas and dissent

  1. Pingback: Is this the end of the Abbott Prime Ministership? | Political Animals

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