Celebrating the art of the deal

Like the perfect alignment of the planets, a few weeks back our three leading political parties were all simultaneously fighting – not each other, but themselves.

Most prominently, the Liberal Party was fighting an undeclared civil war, with Tony Abbott launching grenades from the backbench as Malcolm Turnbull sought to exhume the corpse of Robert Menzies for use as a human shield. Then in the Labor Party Anthony Albanese was showing a bit of leg to differentiate himself from the prim buttoned-up Bill Shorten. And the Greens were struggling to work out if they were the party of the middle-class doctor from Melbourne or the socialist warhorse from Sydney.

On the surface these tensions appear to reflect the individual circumstances of each party, and the Machiavellian struggle to achieve and sustain leadership within them.

But there’s also a unifying theme that sits at the heart of our political debate: pragmatism versus ideology. Let’s look at the tensions through that lens.

In the Liberal Party, Abbott and Turnbull have put forward contrasting visions for the party: Abbott’s Liberal Party is the standard-bearer of social conservatism, while Turnbull’s Liberal Party is one that embraces liberalism. In practice, this meant that as prime minister Abbott was rather ineffectual at getting his agenda through the Parliament, while Turnbull has found willing negotiating partners. Witness schools funding, the restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, various savings and the company tax cut – each navigated through the Senate in a way that Abbott would not (or could not) do.

Over in the Labor Party, Shorten has worked with the government on matters where they see eye to eye. A slew of savings measures were bundled together in an omnibus bill and backed by Shorten, while he has sought to work with the government on issues such as clean energy and Indigenous constitutional recognition. It is this pragmatism that has led to suggestions that Shorten should be more oppositionist, inflicting on the government the same lack of cooperation that Abbott did on the Rudd and Gillard governments. (Perhaps stung by these criticisms, Shorten took a much tougher stance on school funding, declining to negotiate with the government.)

And in the Greens tensions came to a head over that school funding issue, where Richard Di Natale’s willingness to negotiate with the government prompted dissent from Lee Rhiannon, whose hard-line stance effectively torpedoed discussions. Di Natale’s willingness to engage in talks with the government was part of a declared approach of focusing on outcomes, which previously manifested itself on issues such as pension changes and Senate reform.

In each of these cases, a leader willing to engage in pragmatic negotiations has been undermined by a challenger committed to greater ideological purity. Which prompts an important question – what is the point of politics?

If we accept that its purpose is merely to assert the superiority of your own political philosophy over those of your rivals in a debating contest, then an ideologically pure approach make sense. But if it is to achieve the practical implementation of policies that deliver benefits consistent with your world view, then ideological purity is an indulgence you cannot afford.

I suspect that in Abbott’s mind, Turnbull’s biggest offence is not actually his political centrism (appealing to the “sensible centre”, as Turnbull puts it) but his willingness to compromise in order to achieve his agenda. To Abbott, a product of decades in politics and a theological upbringing, conducting the argument is an end in itself; Turnbull, a businessman, only sees benefits in the deals that are done.

The problem faced by the trio of pragmatist leaders demonstrates the problem that sits at the heart of Australia’s political malaise. We have come to valorise a stoic dedication to principles as a sign of genuine commitment to a cause. Compromise, meanwhile, has become perceived as the tactic of the weak and desperate, whose principles will yield to circumstance.

It wasn’t always this way. John Howard, though revered by Abbott and his fellow travellers, knew the benefits of pragmatism. Stuck with a hostile Senate for most of his time in Government, he cut deals with the Democrats to get through his landmark reforms, including the first wave of industrial relations reform and the GST. (Clearly those didn’t play out so well for his negotiating partner.) Were Howard to try those same manoeuvres in the current political climate he would not doubt have been pilloried by the hard right of his party for not standing firm on every line of these policies.

But the masterful pragmatism of Howard’s era feels like a distant memory. And we are all the poorer for the developments of the past decade.

So long as we celebrate ideological bellicosity and discredit pragmatic deal-making, our political system will be stuck spinning its wheels. To get our political system working again we need to reframe compromise.

How about this.

To be a pragmatist is to be a hard-headed leader who gets things done despite difficult circumstances. A compromise reflects a focus on outcomes rather than process. It demonstrates self-awareness. It is to be a doer rather than a talker.

To be an ideologue is to be a stubborn zealot who is prepared to sacrifice a quality outcome for smug self-righteousness. It involves putting one’s intellectual vanity ahead of the public interest. It is the product of a closed mind unwilling to examine its own assumptions. It is to prefer talking to doing.

And pragmatism leads to enduring outcomes. If the government of the day seeks to bludgeon through reform in the face of hostility from the Opposition and crossbench, you can be sure that those reforms will be undermined come a change in government. However, if the reforms achieve bipartisan support or at least win significant backing from the crossbench they will likely stick regardless of changing political winds.

(Of course, there are some circumstances when the posturing of an ideologue is necessary to deliver the deal of a pragmatist. Strategically statements of self-righteousness can strengthen one’s negotiating position before sitting down at the table, while an early willingness to negotiate can appear desperate. But much of what we have seen in recent years hardly counts as “strategic” ideological stubbornness given it rarely actually leads to a negotiation that might deliver a result.)

Our political system is designed to require compromise outcomes. The Senate voting system means no government is likely to ever achieve a majority, therefore an effective political leader needs to strike deals. The fact that voters have embraced minor parties in greater numbers than ever before suggests they rather like the idea of Senate crossbenchers holding the government of the day to account and forcing it to negotiate. (It has become political folklore that part of Howard’s undoing was his Senate majority from 2005, which led him to WorkChoices once a major constraint on his governing had been removed.)

It seems strange, then, that ideologically-driven politicians theatrically despair at the Senate (think of Keating’s “unrepresentative swill”) and seek to bludgeon their agenda through. For these so-called leaders the strategy appears little more than bleating about the importance of your own mandate or changing the electoral rules (a backlash usually results).

Instead we ought to look to Europe, where in many countries (a third, by one count) minority governments are well established. As a product of both the electoral system and political fragmentation, many European governments rely on building and maintaining coalitions in order to achieve stability. In the European context, negotiating one’s political agenda through the legislature is evidence of political skill, maturity and judgement, and so is rewarded rather than penalised. Politicians who seek leadership roles by pledging zealotry are unlikely to get far.

Yes, Europe’s had its share of political problems, and yes, it has struggled to achieve some necessary reforms. But its national governments have navigated their way through waves of challenges – from immigration, to economics, the security – and remained largely functional.

Turnbull, Shorten and Di Natale actually reflect that approach, but such is the hostility to deal-making that they have opted to bury their willingness to negotiate beneath some hairy-chested bravado. If only we saw compromise in a more favourable light, as per much of Europe, these leaders would be able to burnish those credentials.

Instead they are being undermined by leaders who would rather some ideological biffo over a good outcome.


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