Bipartisanship: moving left and right together?

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During his
recent formal apology to indigenous Australians, Kevin Rudd surprised many with
an unusual political proposal. He called on the Opposition to join him in a
joint policy commission on indigenous housing. This would be like a ‘war
cabinet’ which would tackle an issue that is more important than partisan
politics and which requires co-operation between the parties.

Given that
the entire political system is based on the adversarial and competitive model
of party politics, this is a remarkable suggestion. Political insiders believe
this move towards bipartisanship is merely a smart political tactic which makes
Labor look good and the Opposition bad.

For the
Opposition – any Opposition – bipartisan proposals are laced with danger. The
Opposition risks surrendering its one weapon: the ability to oppose. It risks forgoing the chance to capitalise on
the unhappy, on the demoralised and on the out-groups which new policies
inevitably create.

But for the
many Australians who are observers of, rather than participants in, the political process,
it signals hope for a new kind of politics.

Bipartisanship
appeals to those who, driven by the predictable
posturing of governments and mindless opposition from the Opposition,
feel more and more disenagaged from politics. As the Sydney
Morning Herald
commented on the bipartisan proposal, ‘Australians … elect [politicians] in the hope – usually vain – that they will
just go away and fix things without making a fuss. Is it too much to hope the
latest crop might get together and do just that?’

Something along
those lines has been tried before in indigenous politics. In 1991, the Council
of Aboriginal Reconciliation was formed by agreement between the Opposition, the
Democrats and the Labor government. It functioned well until its role was
diminished by the obdurate attitude of John Howard.

So a
bipartisan approach won’t work if one side doesn’t play ball. Refusing to engage
is the favoured stance of the agenda-setter for the Right on indigenous issues,
the conservative Bennelong Society lead by Gary Johns. Johns articulated what
many Opposition members have said privately: that Rudd’s joint commission would
stifle debate and stymie the development of good ideas. `It’s a political
management exercise to bring people into the tent. It doesn’t provide the
solution, per se,’ Johns said.

This
statement fails to acknowledge the fact that Rudd is building upon the debate
initiated by Noel Pearson some seven years ago, where the ground was laid for a
kind of bipartisan approach to indigenous policy which had not existed
previously. Johns is so blinkered by his
own obsessions that he fails to see that Rudd has already been genuinely affected
by the most important recent debate on indigenous politics. Pearson’s arguments, as needlessly
provocative as they sometimes are, have carved out a territory of ideas beyond
right and left.

This new
bipartisan approach, while still in embryonic form, draws from both traditional
Labor and Left thinking which emphasises the need for government services, and
Liberal and conservative thinking which stresses the importance of personal
responsibility and individual rights.

If the
intervention in the Northern
Territory has established anything it is that
indigenous communities need many traditional services in health and education
which can only be provided by government. But as Pearson and others such as Marcia
Langton have argued, this is not enough. Perhaps bipartisanship is the best way
to begin a discussion that has a long way to go.

But why
should bipartisanship be confined to indigenous issues? One real test of
bipartisanship is whether the government of the day is prepared to surrender
some of the privileges of office. One of these privileges is the ability to
appoint members of government boards and agencies. This privilege was shamefully misused
by the Howard government to appoint a series of ‘culture war’ intellectuals to
the board of the ABC and elsewhere. Previously, the Hawke and Keating governments
had also made political appointments.

Released
last June, Labor policy on ABC appointments sanctions the need for a
much broader bipartisan approach. The policy states that under a Labor
Government, ‘The ABC Chairman would be nominated by the Prime Minister and
endorsed by the Leader of the Opposition’.
That’s a very good start. The policy then suggests a new arms-length
approach to appointing board members whereby a selection panel would ‘provide a
recommended shortlist to the Communications Minister. Should the Minister
choose a candidate not on the shortlist, the Minister would be required to give
their reasons for doing so to Parliament.’

The
question which arises obviously is: who would select the selection panel?
Suppose the Rudd government agreed that its composition would also be
bipartisan. This would immediately raise the make-or-break issue for all
bipartisanship. Will the Opposition come to the table or will it trot out
highly partisan members for such a panel? Will it seek some sort of common
ground based on an agreed approximation of the needs of the ABC or will it play
hard ball?

So, genuine
bipartisanship requires something from both sides. From Opposition leader
Nelson, sensible appointments and not conservative ideological agendas. From Mr
Rudd, a preparedness to surrender some perks of office and to walk into
uncharted territory trusting the bipartisan way.

There is not yet a great deal of evidence
that this approach will succeed, but it will be fascinating to
see what happens. Certainly a lot of Australians, tired of the way politics is
now played, will be watching for further signs of hope.

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