Political opposition need not be nasty


Attack DogPopular images of parliament and of parliamentarians as a group are generally negative.

Parliament is regarded as an ivory tower that contributes to politicians being out of touch.

Parliamentarians are regarded as overpaid and as too eager to take advantage of parliamentary lurks and perks such as overseas study tours. They are seen as privileged, their privilege shown in the widely envied first class travel and government cars.

Uglier images too inlcude the perception that parliamentarians are corrupt. It certainly doesn't help that former MPs seem so central to the lobbying industry.

And at the really ugly end are sex scandals and other personal misbehavior, including the abuse of parliamentary privilege to slander private citizens.

One of the most important of these negative images of parliamentary politics is that it is unnecessarily adversarial. Parliamentarians are often seen as bad mannered and lacking in common courtesies towards one another. They shout too much and use mildly abusive language. They should be models of best behavior but instead often engage in personal attacks.

Some commentators defend adversarial politics, arguing that such competition is a necessary and positive side of Westminster style parliamentary politics.

But they confuse two different aspects of adversarial politics, mixing up style and content. The good side is spirited opposition. The core of good adversarial politics for both the government and opposition is that well thought out views should be put clearly in argument and, if necessary, very strongly indeed.

There is nothing wrong with assertiveness in this context. Ideological differences will lead the government and opposition to be in deep disagreement from time to time. But this should not always happen. Agreement should be the default position. Indeed most legislation passes through the Parliament with the support of both major parties.

The public has no objection at all to genuine ideological differences expressed politely. If anything it would prefer to see more of this than to see neither side willing to take risks on contentious issues, as happened during the election campaign.

The bad side of adversarial politics is needless aggression, expressed in a nasty tone and apparent anger. In this style bipartisan agreement or consensus is avoided as a matter of course. The major parties emerge as sworn enemies with little in common.

The public does not appreciate this sort of adversarial politics and they like it even less when it is exemplified in the relations between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, has recently demonstrated a strongly negative form of adversarial politics.

In his view the job of the Opposition is to oppose. Although this position is credible, it neglects other tasks such as constructive compromise and preparing the party to govern.

He also confuses the two aspects of adversarial politics. His verbal explosion over the trips of the two leaders to Afghanistan is a recent example. He accused Julia Gillard of an act of bastardry. Whatever the full truth of the matter Abbott's language and tone were intemperate. His own handling of the issue caused most of his problems.

He persisted with aggression and encouraged his frontbench to emulate him even when his approach appeared to have contributed to a fall in his personal approval ratings. And this was not an isolated case. It encapsulates the type of adversarial politics that Abbott seeks to embed as part of his persona.

Only time will tell whether this is a productive modus operandi. It is his right to oppose the Prime Minister as strongly as he likes, but he gains no credit for doing so in an over-the-top aggressive style.

This bad side of Tony Abbott reinforces negative images of Parliament. Ultimately it will probably hurt not only his own standing but public respect for all parliamentarians.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times.

Topic tags: politics, opposition, John Warhurst, parliament



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Existing comments

Thank you. I agree wholeheartedly. Almost every time a member of the Opposition appears on TV, I get up and leave the room.
Pauline Power | 03 November 2010

It would take Tony Abbott a long time to learn to become as nasty and rude as Julia Gillard. In the area of rudeness he will never win against Julia.
Beat Odermatt | 03 November 2010

Tony Abbott is a good man. This piece seems to be about denigrating Abbott and thus the Liberal/National parties. It is a puff piece for the Labor Party.

I doubt that the writer would ever frame Julia Gillard in such a context. More needs to be written abour Julia Gillards policies on abortion, abortion drugs, same-sex marriage,etc and her socialist and Fabian connections.

She is the Prime Minister and Catholics and all Christians should be worried by her beliefs. Not Tony Abbott!
Trent | 03 November 2010

I cannot believe that a person holding the brief he has could put his name to such a one sided comment.

Trent's note says it all but we have lived with a concerted denigration process that coined the phrase Little Johnny Howard.

Once again a Jesuit sponsored article gets stuck into one of their own.
John | 03 November 2010

At my time of commenting three comments of feedback on Prof Warhurst's article have appeared. They make it clear to me,and I trust to the good professor, how hard it is to be objective about politics in Australia. One person admits to leaving the room rather than watch a member of the Opposition on TV. Another claims the PM is more nasty and rude than the Leader of the Opposition. A third dismisses the article as a puff piece for the Labor Party.
Politics is about the pursuit and consolidation of power. Politicians, like the rest of us, are broken human beings. Sometimes they use methods that the rest of us would deplore in our dealings with the people we meet in our everyday lives. But that is because in most cases we are not in a constant power struggle with the people we meet in one day's journey. Unless we're catching a train in Sydney.

At the moment we are seeing the truth of HL Mencken's words: "Under democracy one party always devotes its energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed and are right." Minority Report 1956
Uncle Pat | 03 November 2010

so glad to read this - articules my views - I am deeply worried that Abbott's approach will undermine public confidence in our political process. Trust is the essence of Jesus' message, Abbott is destroying trust.
Helen Gould | 03 November 2010

Helpful analysis, John. Thank you.
Would you agree part of the problem derives from the recent marked shift in the way news organisations cover politics?
In the 1980s and 1990s (from some experience back then), news editors seldom regarded an opposition attack on the government as news in itself. 'This is what oppositions do, so where is the news value?' was their stance. An intrinsically important political story, however, would carry comments from both government and opposition.

Now, unprovoked opposition attacks seem to be the staple in any news diet, including that served by the ABC.

Compare opposition assaults on John Howard's performance, motivation and character in his first term with those broadcast routinely against Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Does anyone know of any formal research into this? Would be intriguing.
Alan Austin | 03 November 2010

I agree with the author - Tony Abbott does seem to have become less moderate in his language and tone lately.

I would also argue that some members of the government have become less moderate in this regard as well - Wayne Swan springs to mind.

I consider some of the comments on this article to be unjust and of a rather personal nature with regard to both the author and Julia Gillard. I hardly think this is a 'puff piece' for the Labor party.

This article simply critiques one recent and apparent aspect of Tony Abbott's behaviour. Noticing this does not mean one's commentary is partisan.
The beliefs of Julia Gillard are not relevant to this piece. Nor is Tony Abbott's Jesuit education.

Address the argument, not side issues.

MBG | 03 November 2010

Well said Alan Austin.
Clare Walsh | 03 November 2010

While it is true that both sides engage in personal attacks, Tony Abbott's exchanges have been over the top.

This is recognised, as Professor Warhurst points out, by his slide in the polls. It has led to a noticeable restraint in his behaviour of late.

Regarding adversarial politics. There are times when such a system serves a purpose and there are times when it seriously hampers important policy implementation.

The obvious example is during war. That threat demands that adversarial politics give way to a collective response. The same approach is needed to policies that threaten, or are essential to today's environment.

The same united approach is needed to confront to the pressing issues that have risen today.

The two party system arose, and was essential during the industrial revolution. One represented the exploited workers , the other capitalist exploitation.

Today both parties support, with slight modifications, capitalism's polilicies.

This merging of the parties means that both aggressively manufacture differences, or magnify any slight differences that might arise. This is because both of them support neo-liberalist policies. There is no real difference between them.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee has replaced the two party system, it's time to bury it.
Reg Wilding | 03 November 2010

You can always tell when Parliament is sitting: turn on ABC NewsRadio and you hear people shouting at each other.
Frank | 03 November 2010

First, Howard's haters. Now, Abbott's haters. Congratulations Eureka Street.
Ron Cini | 03 November 2010

I would like to see ideas debated in Parliament, and I don't see this happening. Not only is Mr Abbott's language intemperate, his body language is that of a threatening bully. Fewer antics, more real debate. Some time, even the Opposition has good ideas - and sometimes, so does the Government. How does this lashing out and personal attacks allow us to benefit from these good ideas? I find Parliament behaviour generally offensive and a disappointment. So much for the new paradigm.
Eveline Goy | 03 November 2010

Thank you for this article. It is time someone with standing in the community brought this aggressive - or violent - behaviour to the attention of all.

I'm not sure, but I think O.Henry once wrote - 'Of courtesy - it is much less, than courage of heart or holiness. But in my heart it seems to me, the grace of God is in courtesy.' A pity our politicians, and others, who claim christian principals, don't follow through in public life.

Margaret Martin | 05 November 2010

A breath of fresh air, thank you. Some readers here are, it seems, highly offended at any criticism of Tony Abbott.
When he behaves like a scowling bully instead of showing that he understands what being Opposition leader means, he deserves to be criticised. He is famously Jesuit educated but it's very hard to pick from his behaviour or his attitudes to social issues.
There is also a tendency to attack the PM because she has a slightly different moral compass. She was raised as a Baptist, and her politics are more closely aligned with helping the poor than Mr. Abbott's. Remember his comments about the homeless?
Perhaps they should keep in mind that we have a secular government, unless, of course they would prefer a Tea Party situation like the U.S.A.
Between the News Ltd. propaganda machine and the tacit permission by Mr. Abbott to be rude and untruthful it's no surprise to read the comments pages deteriorating to gutter level these days, and the ABC is hardly any better, beginning most "reports" with "the Opposition says..".
That's fine for dyed in the wool Liberals, but for centrist minded voters it's appalling.
Phil | 05 November 2010

Ideological differences don't exist. they all cow-tow to the multinationals. Polititians are just there to cover up the crimes of the cow-towing public services.

The buck only stops at the top because accountability has been purposely made to disappear from the bottom leaving no-one accountable and the public vulnerable.
Greig WIlliams | 04 April 2011


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