Questions and Answers
According to a chameleon model of political behaviour – referencing the ability of some chameleons to match their colour to the environment – moderate political behaviour will rapidly become the fashion if there is a convincing threat to punish immoderate behaviour at the polls. That may be naïve; the process might be more like breeding virus resistance into plants, taking several elections to weed out the worst.
Expect some political issues to be negotiated and settled more quickly than others, such that, over time, the more difficult issues are brought into sharper focus. That is a good thing. Political warriors seek to control the agenda, fighting change by finding ways to ‘kick the can down the road’, distract attention and give priority to issues that discomfort their opponents. Expect moderates to agree on the agenda and clear it more quickly.
We can hope that, longer term, qualities of ruthlessness, manipulation and aggression become less important to political success. Hope that more agreeable natures aspire to political careers, relatively free of factional constraints and compromises.
Hybrid movements may emerge, hybrid in the sense of being offspring of the base parties. They would be like regular political parties in most respects – developing policy, raising money, enlisting volunteers, running campaigns. But the candidates would be drawn from the base parties, aiming to better discriminate between existing candidates, rather than add yet more candidates to the ballot. Electoral reforms could provide for the formal recognition of hybrid movements, including convenient ‘above the line’ voting for hybrids.
The underlying problem is that getting elected is a two-stage process. The aspiring politician must first be preselected by a major party, then win the seat from the opposing party. There are centrists in both major parties but, being split between the two sides, centrist voices are muted in stage one, relative to their underlying numbers. Non-centrists (right wing and left wing) gain party traction that is disproportionate to their numbers in the broader community.
Stage one is also largely hidden from public view. Preselected candidates emerge from internal party processes that, for the voting public, are opaque and unaccountable in respect of selection criteria, representativeness of preselection committees, underlying factional deals and promises of financial support.
Democracy gets a say in stage two, but after the parties have closed ranks behind the pre-selected candidates, regardless of where they stand relative to the centre. Centrists on both sides are thus co-opted to support non-centrists, papering over their differences till the election is done.
The CENTRE is not a fixed position with a specific policy and legislative agenda. It varies between countries, for example, being somewhat different in the UK and the US. It evolves over time, such that the oldest and youngest generations are differently centred.
Thus, the concept is used here, not to reference specific economic and social policies, rather an acceptance that politicians need to stop arguing and cut a deal that most voters can live with. That kind of centrist believes that political settlements can only be negotiated by moderates and is resolved to vote accordingly. They delegate reasonable people to settle their differences, not warriors.
The core democratic value is a willingness to accept the will of the people, regardless of one’s own views. Even right-wingers and left-wingers, if they are democrats, accept the will of the people.
Logically, therefore, non-centrists who adhere to democratic values accept that it is the will of the people that political parties ‘meet in the middle’, that policy settings do not cycle endlessly and acrimoniously between left and right. Curiously therefore, non-centrists should also be content with political settlements that have been negotiated by moderates, purely as a matter of democratic principle.
The democratic principle is like that expressed in relation to freedom of speech … I disagree absolutely with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it. The non-centrist democrat can likewise say, in relation to a centrist political settlement … the settlement disgusts me but I accept it as democratically legitimate. The ‘defend to the death’ aspect is overstated but you get the idea.
Democracy comes more easily to centrists; it’s their will that should prevail. Intentionally or not, however, the centrist gift to the non-centrist is precisely that democracy prevails – including of course, that opposing non-centrists will not prevail. Non-centrists, if they are also democrats, can thus cease political hostilities with opposing non-centrists, abandon uncomfortable political alliances, turn their backs on campaign money with strings, and pension off their political warriors. Again, you get the idea.
Centrism is thus the political device that elevates all democrats, centrist and non-centrist alike, from party to nation. And possibly makes Australia a model of democratic innovation and progress for the rest of the world.
From that perspective, perhaps we should regret that some political parties include ‘democratic’ in the party name – thus, the Democratic Party in the US and various Social or Christian Democratic Parties in Europe. No party can reasonably claim to embody democracy, to speak for all citizens, or promise to govern for all citizens, since no party can be more than part of the whole.
Democracy is a higher thing, an elevated thing. Our democratic aspirations cannot be achieved within parties, only by electing moderates who are committed to distilling the will of the people into political settlements that most voters can live with.
National unity governments are grand coalitions of the major parties, usually to confront national emergencies. That’s not the intention.
The CENTRE leaves our system of government intact, including both a government and an opposition. Political parties would continue to present their slates of candidates in the traditional way. The issues will still be complex, the processes still messy, the debates still animated.
Expect adaptation of political systems and strategies, not revolution. Thus, platforms for cross-party initiatives in respect of legislation, regulation, program evaluation, infrastructure planning, investigations and information gathering. Expect policy work to be more imaginative and less partisan, given a more respectful and constructive political audience.
Stability and strength are the objectives, not the national unity that we reserve for wartime, not strong men, not crushing defeats of the opposing party. We want greater stability in legislative frameworks and policy settings; incoming governments that don’t dismantle everything that the outgoing government achieved.
Expect voters to return to the major parties, gathering momentum as the major parties cut deals and start clearing the agenda. But otherwise expect the governing party to alternate between left and right as it always has. The mix may alter a little, one way or the other, but that’s of little moment to centrist voters.
There is no ethical problem. Political parties are essentially platforms for voter collaboration. Politics would be unworkable without deals of the kind … you vote for my proposals and I will vote for your proposals, let’s agree on a slate. Such agreements are also the stuff of everyday work and family life; they encompass everything from the evening meal to global war.
The lack of collaboration between ordinary voters is the anomaly – plausibly, the root cause of the inefficiency, instability, unfairness and acrimony of politics-as-usual.
Offsiders and Insiders are ABC panel shows that cover sport and politics respectively, each a discussion and debate around the preceding week’s news and developments. Panel members are senior sports and political journalists from major news organisations.
The sports panels frequently discuss national selections – team members, coach, tactics, recent performance and what to expect in upcoming matches. Sports journalists, obviously, watch a lot of sport, talk to lots of fans, players and coaches, read and write about sport, argue about sport, may have played and coached. One way to distil that information, for the fans, is to nominate a national team and argue the case for who makes the final cut, who doesn’t. Sports journalists do that for us.
Political journalists are similar in that they watch a lot of politicking, talk daily to politicians and their advisors, read and write about politics, argue about politics, have participated in politics or plan to. They could distil their knowledge by nominating a national political team. But they don’t.
They should, since it provides voters with critical information that is otherwise impossible to obtain. Thus, the key task for political journalists would be: … of the candidates nominated by the major political parties, nominate the slate of candidates that offers the best prospect of cutting a deal that most voters can live with. Say if you are a bit uncertain but we really need to know what you think. Your informed and considered opinion is all we ask.
Journalists may apply complementary filters when ranking candidates – ability, experience, integrity, consistency and transparency. They may give weight to considerations of balance – more women, fewer lawyers, fewer from the finance and property sectors, more new blood and fewer old hands. Such variations are welcome, requiring only that journalists explain their approach.
This is critical guidance for voters angered by the political ‘warriors’ who exaggerate differences and demonise each other; voters cursed with the ability to see both sides of an argument; voters frustrated by the refusal of politicians to answer questions or reveal expert advice; voters who resent the disproportionate influence of power brokers, vested interests and money; voters who have lost track of myriad political flip-flops, broken promises and betrayals; voters who just want to get some issues settled and move on.
There is also reassurance for those who suspect that democracy itself is the problem and should give ground to a strong and decisive leader – the ‘strong man’ option.