Politics is a team sport


Team Player Peter Garrett, the shadow minister for the environment, is suffering substantial damage to his reputation over the Tasmanian pulp mill.

He stands by Labor policy to support the federal government's decision to approve the mill, despite his long history as a leading environmentalist and his past presidency of the Australian Conservation Foundation. Environmentalists are already campaigning against him in his NSW seat of Kingsford Smith.

Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Greens, has ended their friendship and another former colleague, Geoff Law of the Wilderness Society, now describes Garrett as a traitor to environmentalism. Brown says Garrett has gone missing in action on the environment and many others have echoed these criticisms.

Yet these criticisms are beside the point. What Garrett thinks personally doesn't actually matter, other than ultimately to his conscience.

Politics is a team sport. Individuals, especially those with particular enthusiasms, need to recognise this. Major party politics is not made for determined individualists.

It is irrelevant to query whether the private and the public Garrett are on the same page, just as it is pointless to ask the same question of other politicians. Does Malcolm Turnbull really believe all he says about the pulp mill? Does Joe Hockey really believe all he says in defence of Work Choices? We may never know and it doesn't really matter. We judge them on their actions as ministers.

The same is true on other issues. Turnbull must bow to his team's view on the republic, at least until John Howard goes. Tony Abbott, at least since his loss of control over RU486, can only talk about his personal opposition to abortion.

Like it or not our Westminster system does not depend on ministers and shadow ministers believing what they say. Some might find this a remarkable statement, but government depends in practice on a collective view. In fact collective ministerial responsibility for government policy makes a virtue of group solidarity prevailing over individuals.

Ministers and shadow ministers will not always be on the winning side in internal debates about policy directions. They can argue their case strongly, of course, but they have to be ready to lose.

Nevertheless, unless they choose to resign from their positions on principle, they must then go out into the public arena and sell their party's policies whether or not they believe in them. They must flick the switch in their brains and become true believers in the government policy for which they personally are responsible.

Resignation is always an option, but the assumption is that, unless the deepest of principles are involved, ministers and shadow ministers will be team players rather than individualists and, therefore, will not resign from the team. Careers and reputations, as well as consciences, are at stake here. Resign once and you might come back; resign twice and you will probably be out for good.

There is a good, though counter-intuitive, case, for usually allocating portfolios to generalists rather than enthusiasts like Garrett. Rudd will face this problem with Greg Combet. He should keep him away from industrial relations, because of the conflicts that will certainly follow him from his previous job with the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and use his talents in another area.

It was always dangerous for Garrett to be made shadow minister for the environment. Despite the attraction of his past record, his obvious subject knowledge, and his potential electoral appeal to environmentalists, Labor should have avoided it.

But his position is not unique. Garrett, assuming he wants to, can only speak out against his party's policy if he is willing to damage both his own career and his party's prospects. Unfortunately, many ministers and shadow ministers must wrestle with the same conflict between their individual conscience and the collective will of the ministry on a regular basis.

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




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Existing comments

This article is tragic. 'Politics is a team sport' we are told. Oh really? Is this the best that political 'science' can offer. The Westminster system is to blame and this is just how it works and anyone who is unhappy with it is lacking realism, I guess, because this is the reality of party politics.


How about this instead: the ALP has a special trick for anyone who has deeply held values which involves force feeding those values back down the throat of anyone who might have spoken them. Welcome to the party son!

How about this as well: read Richard Flanagan's article (available free) on 'The Monthly' website; read about the corruption, bully boy tactics, violence and nepotism that constitute Tasmanian politics under the rule of Gunns Ltd.

Then explain that away as the 'normal' functioning of the Westminster system. The problem, of course, is that it is all too 'normal'.

How about this instead: join GetUp and fight back. Reclaim parliament for the people. Encourage debate, individualism, outspoken attitudes. Be a part of a democracy. Remember that?

Or accept it as business as usual and go back to sleep.


Anthony Nolan

Anthony Nolan | 22 October 2007  

Thanks for reminding us that politics today is about a collective position. However, I feel for Garrett. I believe it was a mistake to make him shadow minister for the environment. He was always going to be 'conflicted' about any issue in this portfolio because of his previous public position and statement of beliefs. It is a shame that the Labor party has 'blooded' him so shamelessly. It will most likely make him thick-skinned for any further attacks.

Patricia Gates | 22 October 2007  

Now here's an ode to Peter Garrett
Pursuer of the biggest carrot
He's likely to have found
(A turncoat to his loyal supporters)
Yet a minister of the crown.

Claude Rigney | 22 October 2007  

Anthony Nolan says: "Encourage debate, individualism, outspoken attitudes" - Yes, within the party room. Can you imagine the electorate voting for a party where everybody was speaking out separately? It's good to feel warm inside, but you must accept that then you will always be governed by the other lot.

Richard Johnson | 23 October 2007  

There are two problems with the article. The first is that the article assumes that Peter Garrett has abandoned his environmental principles and beliefs with his endorsement of the paper mill. This assumption is not substantiated. The issues surrounding the paper mill are indeed quite complex. These issues at least deserve some serious consideration.

The second problem is that it so happens there is a political party in Australia structured upon individual opinion and conscience - the Australian Democrats. This is significantly overlooked in the article. Politics based upon participation and individual conscience is never easy. Yet I would suggest that such politics are worth supporting.

Dr James Page | 24 October 2007  

This issue has raised a fault line in the West Minister system. Issues of principle should not be the sole property of a caucus few. Recent history shows that this has allowed democratic will of the people to be thwarted on key issues of principle. The war in Iraq was one example, there are others.

Society has moved on, but we are still using yesterday's model. This has allowed for the system to be manipulated by conservatives. The war in Iraq was an example and the statement that there were "core and non core promises" another. The blatant current privatisation of the power industry by the NSW Government industry is a current glaring issue. A need for an updated Constitution is plainly obvious, one that introduces a vibrant republic based on today's world, not yesterdays.

But there is no need to wait for such a convention to begin to address the problem. Issues of principle should be debated by the parliament, not left to caucus. The conscious vote should be applied to issues of principle. Had this happened we would not have gone to war in Iraq and there would be no Gunns in Tassie.

Reg Wilding | 30 January 2008  

The systemic corruption that ICAC has discovered in Wollongong Council and which provided the Iemma government with the excuse to sack the council, provides a case study for the issue raised by John Warhurst. It showed how caucus solidarity allowed a minority of 4 to control a council of 13. Hardly systemic, according to the dictionary systemic 'relates to the system has as whole'.

The seven ALP members who held the majority on the council were controlled by an internal caucus of the four councilors, who it is alleged were influenced by shonky property developers. This is the eighth WSW council that has suffered the same fate. Adminstrators appointed by a caucus dominated state ALP are in control. So what has changed?

It is time to examine the caucus control of councils, State and Federal parliaments. It allows minorities to dominate the caucus, which in turn dominates the party and in turn dominates the parliament. This led during the Howard years to decisions being taken which conflicted with the people's will.

It is obvious that the political system we inherited all those years ago from Westminster needs tuning. An issue for the Ideas Convention perhaps?

Reg Wilding | 12 March 2008  

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