6. Politics versus policies

This chapter will explore the amount of political activity that takes place totally unrelated to improving the lot of the electorate, but focused entirely on one-up-manship over the opposition.  We’ve all witnessed the political blame game, but who benefits?

This chapter will also look at the impact that this has on the quality of the decision making processes that actually encourages poorer policies.

Mencken party politics

In the hurly burly of politics, it is sometimes hard to know when the business of government stops, and political manoeuvring begins.  However increasingly we seem to focus more on the latter than we do on the former.  Programs such as Insiders, or The Drum, often talk more about the political impact of a policy than they do about the impact of the policy on the electorate. We are but an afterthought in the process!  During the 2010-13 parliament, as much discussion was had about the leadership of the party than about the policies that they were introducing.  And this is very much to the detriment of the overall conversation.

And this focus on the “politics” can get decidedly weird.

In early June 2015, the government voted down a motion put forward by the opposition to pass the governments own legislation!  Expecting dissent from the opposition, the government implored the opposition to pass the bill as soon as possible. Having already stated that it would support the bill, the opposition went one step further and proposed an early motion to bypass the Parliamentary debate and get the bill passed quickly.  But the government voted that motion down!   Why? Because they wanted the opportunity to use parliament to let their backbenchers say their piece in Parliament for use in future election material.  To show how they personally supported small business.

But what value did this additional parliamentary nonsense add to us, the people who pay for this?  Both sides stated they wanted it passed, and happy to pass it as quickly as possible. But when such opportunity to progress quickly came, it was voted down.  Why?

Because this is about politics.  Not policy.  We, the electorate, are paying for MPs to discuss matters at no small expense.  If you employed a plumber to fix a problem for which he originally quoted you 2 hours work, but he managed to fix the problem in 1, would you be happy if he simply sat around for the second hour and billed you for both?  Of course not.  But in government this nonsense has now become normal.

Increasingly the focus of government has become about gaining power, and then maintaining power.  That is the game. That is the purpose. Being in power allows you five things.  Firstly, you can attempt to implement the tranche of legislation that (hopefully) you asked the electorate to support you on prior to the election, and secondly, you get to deal with the unplanned issues that develop during that period (tactical). That much is fairly obvious.

However a little less obvious is that being in power also prevents the opposition from putting forward the legislation that they would like to enact, and finally, you can prevaricate and delay acting on issues that might be generally supported by the broad mass of the population, but perhaps not so much to those who support, and vote for, your party (eg marriage equality or renewable energy).   The final fifth thing that is possible is that you can spread largesse or put forward legislation that supports your electorate – the voters that support you, that donate to your party, or to those electorates that might be in the balance.  This is the agenda often unspoken before the election – but you get it anyway.

Unfortunately, when you vote for a political party, they choose to interpret that your vote is an endorsement of their stance on all their policies (and ideologies) stated, and indeed unstated. Its a clever trick.  Your vote gives them “a mandate” to do as they so chose.  If they introduce new things not discussed prior to an election, indeed even if they make promises before an election but then do the exact opposite, well that is just tough.  Suck it up princess.  If you hate it so much you can vote them out at the next election…its only in three years time…

However, three years is a long time in politics, and using the same techniques prevalent in marketing, advertising, and psychology, it is entirely possible to use all manner of tricks and deceit to get voters back in line.   Modern politics is very much an industry, with some highly skilled players.

Increasingly we hear the term “wedge politics” being used.  When a party believes that their stance on an area of politics resonates more with the electorate than the oppositions, they will turn the national agenda to focus on this perceived area of “strength”.  For Labor this tends to be health and education, for the Coalition this tends to be the economy, defence and immigration.   By increasing the national focus on their strong suits, they hope to improve support within the electorate, such that when the next election comes, they will be returned.

But there is significant danger in this approach.  In an attempt to show a difference from the other side, parties can be tempted to be more and more extreme.  Even though the government “begs” the other side to show support for their policies, and be non-partisan, at the exact same time, they push more radical policies to try and drive a wedge such that they can claim that they are the party best to make Australia more secure, or look after its education or health service.

The current “debate” on national security is a case in point.  Our government is proposing a change in legislation to remove the Australian citizenship of dual nationals who have been engaged in terrorist activities, by adapting the legislation that already exists where dual nationals can have their Australian citizenship removed if they fight for a country against Australia.  The fact that we have had the current law for over 40 years, and in that time it has NEVER been used to strip the citizenship is totally besides the point.  The entire debate is focussed on trying to show that one party is stronger than the other on national security.  And in order to do so, we have seen the government suggest the entirely unconstitutional proposal that it should be a government Minister, rather than the courts, who decide on whether that person should have their citizenship stripped.

Although the final policy proposed was amended such that the courts will, after all, be the deciders, let us examine the debate, how it was framed, and what was achieved.

Firstly, to suggest we change one of the key pillars of our democratic system is in itself dangerous.  This suggestion was actually supported by many government back-benchers who were also keen to extend it to those of single citizenship.  Because once you start removing such safeguards, where do you stop?  The separation of the executive from the judiciary is a fundamental tenet to prevent the abuse of power.  Even the suggestion of such is concerning, because it normalises a concept which should be cast in stone, except perhaps in the very direst of national emergencies.

What did the debate achieve?  Well, from the voters perspective, they saw the government apparently being tough on terrorism.  Many will neither understand or care about the concept of separation of power, they just want no terrorists in Australia.  And this SOUNDS like what the government is proposing.  So if the opposition party makes statements about the way this law is framed, such that the government detects a difference, then the accusations of them being soft on terrorism emerge.  The unedifying, and frankly ridiculous statement from our current prime minister suggesting that the opposition party were rolling out the red carpet for terrorists to return to Australia underlines the banality of the debate.

So from two weeks of precious parliamentary time, what has been achieved?  Well, the approval of a law that may never be used, and if it is may only apply to less than one hundred people.  Secondly an opportunity for the government to look stronger on national security than the opposition.  Thirdly, a useful distraction from those areas where the government is clearly not performing particularly well.  Such as the economy, which last year was THE reason why we had to have a very tough budget.  The actual objective of the government was purely about trying to garner more electoral support – it was only about votes.  And this isn’t supposition.  A leaked government paper revealed that tactic in the press.

But what about the unseen impacts?   Firstly we have opened the suggestion that the core democratic principles within our constitution are no longer sacrosanct.  We have a population that is more fearful of a terrorist threat than the actual reality of terrorism in Australia (and there are other impacts that such fear causes that will be discussed in a later chapter).  And we have lost the opportunity to discuss in parliament other important policy issues.  Given how comparatively little time the Australian parliament sits, compared to say, the UK parliament, this is, in my opinion, a scandalous waste of time.

Over the last five years, the UK parliament sat (i.e. it debated government business) on average 160 days per year.  The US and Canada are not far behind that.  The rest of the time, elected politicians spend time in their constituency, or doing “research”, as well as taking holidays, and fundraising activities etc.  In Australia, the average parliamentary sitting time is incredibly only 62!  62 days per year devoted to debating vital matters of state.   Is it perhaps any wonder that the quality of our legislation is so poor that the first thing new governments seem to do is to undo the legislation passed by the previous one?  It also reinforces the concept that politics in Australia is not about policy, but about power.  Getting into power, and staying in power. If you have achieve that (and particularly with a majority in the lower and upper houses), you can effectively do whatever you want.  And with no control to prevent a government from implementing legislation in complete contrast to election promises, you potentially have a system open to very obvious abuse.

So if you aren’t already doing so, ask yourself the following when you hear a politician making statements.

1) Will the solution they are proposing really solve the problem that they are describing, or is it simply a populist strategy?

2) In their statements, do they only outline their proposals, or do they take the opportunity to criticise the other parties?

3) When they ask for bi-partisanship on an issue, do they maintain a non-partisan stance, or do they still try and criticise the other side?

If you haven’t already worked it out, you will quickly realise that the objective of particularly the main political parties is not to look after the wants and needs of the people of Australia, but to get power and stay there.  And if that means going against the needs of the nation, then so be it.  But remember that they are doing that politicking on our time, paid for by us, the taxpayer, and providing no benefit to us whatsoever.




About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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