Bipartisanship: moving left and right together?

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.