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Enough nitpicking: let’s have a grown-up political debate

5 December 2015 99 views No Comment

I think most of us can agree that the standard of public debate in Australia has declined during the past few decades.

Under Liberal prime minister John Howard, we had a considered and rational response to the Port Arthur massacre. We also had considerable elements of maturity in the 1998 discussion of the GST.

Under Labor PMs Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, we had tax summits that actually meant something. Moreover, we had an informed debate about what fundamental economic and fiscal changes could mean for families, for business and for the country.

Citizens felt comfortable talking about option A, option B and option C with reference to the Hawke and Keating 1985 tax summit because people knew what those options were. They thought about how those options would affect their lives.

Journalists assisted informed political thinking by the presentation of factual and comprehensive information for their readers and viewers.

In those days, the battle of ideas was alive and well.

Now, instead of a battle of ideas, we simply witness a highly contrived battle of political point-scoring and nitpicking.

The reality is that deep political and economic thought rarely, if ever, happens these days in our nation. Just look at the present situation. Important debates about superannuation, national security, budget sustainability and our generous social safety net have been distilled into five-second media grabs that rule in and rule out policy, largely at a whim.

Debates are had — and won and lost — before members in parliamentary question time even have the chance to scrutinise them at 2pm.

Question time is now effectively the conclusion of the real parliamentary day in Canberra.

Indeed, many journalists and media commentators write or file their pieces soon after question time, and almost immediately after are enjoying a beverage down at Manuka.

In fact, print journalists and other media commentators are often accompanied from the chamber by the main protagonists, who also see question time as the effective conclusion of real parliamentary business for the day.

As one former federal cabinet minister recently told me, these days “politics is a morning sport.

But with ideas being ruled out so quickly, can we really have a decent standard of debate on key policy areas? The answer is an emphatic no.

It is no wonder that, as custodians of political power and parliamentary politics, many members of the commentariat have left a broken system for our future generations. This is not a legacy we should be proud to be bequeathing our children and grandchildren.

However, some politicians have recognised that this urgently needs to change.

The much-maligned Joe Hockey presciently observed in his recent valedictory speech to parliament that “the 24-hour news cycle has changed politics forever, but I am not sure that the traditional Westminster system has kept pace with that change. It is now far more difficult to examine and debate policy issues in a measured and considered way.

How do we change this? Good and effective education about parliamentary politics, constitutional history and civic life is a key, but so is the behaviour of politicians and political commentators.

Here is what at first may seem a crazy idea. As a rule of thumb, let’s have a one-year moratorium on immediately rejecting ideas announced by the other team or by opposing think tanks.

Under this proposal, politicians must not straight away jump to rejecting an idea. And journalists, commentators, and other media personalities should not criticise politicians if they don’t do so.

That’s not to say we should give our politicians a free ride.

But we should not metaphorically leap down their throats as the backroom economic and social policy number-crunchers do their misnamed “due diligence on important ideas for our future.

Ultimately, if we do not improve the standard of public debate in Australia, we will all be worse off.

We should change now before it is too late.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 38 books, most recently, with co-author Ian McFadyen, of the political satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure’.

The Weekend Australian, December 5-6, 2015, Inquirer, p 24.

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