The Art of Clash


 A speech, so limited and dictated in style, length etc. I intend to treat this subject more comprehensively; my ability to produce new material is horrifically limited by the evil spectre of school.
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In the immortal words of Martin Luther King, “Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are annoying idiots.”
I agree with him.

But politics is actually quite important, for a bunch of moral, social, aspirational and – honestly – pretty pretentious reasons, which I’m not going to explain here.  But that leads us to a bigger question – if politics is so important, why is it so bad?

Now some of you may know that I’ve spent my whole life, and hundreds of hours, doing debating.  So to answer that question, I’ll go to what I know best.  Our coaches at debating told us that when we were responding to a question, an argument, or a challenge, the best response was to be strong.  Your arguments have a principle, and you should stick to it.

Our politicians don’t.  Let’s look at why.


To begin, I want to defend two parties which suffer a lot of bad press and an incredible amount of hatred: Australia’s Greens and America’s Tea Party.

The Tea Party is, of course, utterly crazy, and no speech about them would be complete without an explanation of just why they’re so crazy.  A couple of quotes:

Sarah Palin was quizzed about why she had notes written on her hand during a speech to the Tea Party Convention. "I didn't erally had a good answer, as so often - is me."

Carl Paladino thinks people from poor families don’t know how to wash their hands, and should be given free housing by the government.  In prisons.

Christine O’Donnell would have us believe that "American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains."

But despite their boggling insanity, the Tea Party succeeds where our major parties fail: they believe in something, and they stick to it.  The Tea Party is dedicated to small government and minimising government spending.  Michele Bachmann has crossed the floor to vote against Republican majority on student financing bills, bailouts for failing companies, increasing the role of government in healthcare, reforming Wall Street and, most recently, the increase of the debt ceiling.

You may not agree with all or any of those policy positions.  You may think that some of them, particularly the last, are catastrophe-inducingly stupid.  You’d probably be right; that’s why the Tea Party is still a fringe movement rather than a major party.  But all of the Tea Party’s admittedly crazy policy stances are consistent with its admittedly crazy principle.  They are what they are, and the votes they get, they get because of that.

Take now the less extreme instance, the Greens.  The biggest policy issue in Australia at the moment is our carbon tax.  The principle behind a carbon tax is to punish companies for emitting greenhouse gases, and as a result to push our economy onto clean energy.  That means the ideal result is 100% clean energy.  That means the principle of a carbon tax ultimately means shutting down coal power stations.  Ask Julia Gillard if that’s what she wants, however, and she will reject that idea out of hand.  That doesn’t make sense.  The Greens actually hold to the principle: Bob Brown, asked the same question, says that coal power is bad; the carbon tax is designed to reduce and ultimately stop its use.

Here’s what the carbon tax debate, or at least the debate about action on climate change, is really about: either we care about the environment most and coal power can ultimately go jump in the lake, or we care about the coal industry most and the environment can go jump in the ravaged hole in the ground where the lake used to be.  But that is nothing like the debate framed for us in Australia.

But both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are guilty of suspiciously trying to be all things to all people: we’ll get a clean energy economy, but apparently we’ll get it without closing coal power stations.  Absolute rubbish, but rubbish peddled by effectively all of our significant politicians, because they don’t have the courage of the Greens or the Tea Party to take a principle and stick to it.

Those parties do what the Liberal and Labor parties consistently fail to do: set out policies according to what they believe in, and try to convince people they’re right.  Set out the climate policy debate like I just explained, get out and argue your case, and the people will probably come around to your side.  Or they might not.  And that is democracy.

That brings me to another debating concept I want to apply to our modern politics.  Something else our coaches taught us was that you win a debate by creating clash: making yourself different to your opposition, playing up those points of difference.  If there’s no difference, there is no possible rational mechanism to choose one over the other; if there’s only a small difference, it’s very difficult.

Our major parties, though, are terrified of clash.  That may sound odd in a country where Tony Abbott follows Julia Gillard around the country shouting about how bad her policies are, but that isn’t clash in any meaningful sense.  There is no clash of ideas: listen closely and the vast majority of policy critique, from both sides, isn’t about any underlying ideology, it is at best “that’s not a good way of achieving that goal”, and too often “you’re a negative bully” or “you’re a minority government” or “you picked on Kevin.”  Kevin himself, in 2007, spent the election campaign studiously copying John Howard’s every move.

The current process of ‘democracy’ in Australia looks something like this.  Public sentiment generally holds opinion X.  Both major parties shift their policies to align with opinion X.  Public sentiment changes to opinion Y; the parties follow, and the show goes on.  So Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party currently espouses a form of trade protectionism, because that is what the public seems to want.  That may seem great: public policy almost always reflects public opinion.  A lot of the time, it does give a pretty close approximation of actual democracy.

But actual democracy is this.  A party – founded on an ideological basis – sticks to that ideological basis and has policies that reflect what it believes in.  The ALP has policies that match opinion X; the Liberal Party’s policies match opinion Y.  The Liberal Party, founded as a free-market party, does not espouse protectionism because that is not consistent with its own ideology.

When the public has opinion X, the ALP will be in power because they match public sentiment.  When the public has opinion Y, the Liberal Party will be in power.  And public policy still almost always reflects public opinion.

What’s the difference?  Firstly, it’s clear that there actually is an opposing ideology, and it treats the people of Australia with respect by letting them listen to opposing ideologies and decide which they prefer.  Secondly and similarly, it means political parties actually are something – the Labor Party, for trade-unions and social progressiveness, the Liberal Party for free markets and social conservatism – instead of being two ineffectually populist parties that simply shout what people want to hear.  It’s not a coincidence that the last vaguely good election was in 2007 when the ALP stood for workers’ rights, the Liberal Party stood for market flexibility, and the people decided.

Of course the reason this doesn’t happen is that it means resigning yourself to periods out of government: resigning yourself to the fact that, when the country isn’t feeling particularly trade-union-y, or particularly free-market-ish, you will be out until you can convince them to change their minds.  None of our politicians are willing to accept that, and that’s what’s wrong with our system.  Their personal ambition comes ahead of the interests of our society or the principles of their party.

Nascent democracy in the Athenian Assembly did not work by taking opinion polls of citizens and then having statesmen stand up to call eachother names but essentially be in furious agreement.  Alcibiades, and Nicias, and Pericles, and Socrates, stood up to talk because they believed in something and they wanted to convince other people to believe the same.  They didn’t stand up solely for the purpose of establishing themselves as rulers.

Here’s the real test of democracy: ask political leaders why they’re there.  Are they there because they believe in something and they want to fight for that cause on the biggest stage, or are they there because they personally want to hold high office?  If our democracy is dying, it’s not because of roadblocks on the ACT border, or because Alan Jones said so, but because if our politicians honestly answered that question, they’d give the wrong answer.

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