This is a really good article by Barry Cohen in today’s Australian. Here’s the link, but you may need a subscription to read it.
Essentially, Cohen is arguing that it is actually good for a politician’s reputation to praise what “the other side” has done every now and then. Of course it is an opposition’s job to oppose, and you can gauge a system’s political freedom by how much dissent it allows, but voters are becoming increasingly sick of the partisan warfare that Australia is experiencing at the moment.
Probably the main reason this partisan warfare is so irritating is because it’s not a matter of principle. Take the Thomson affair for instance. If Abbott was prime minister and one of his backbenchers was in trouble he would be pleading rule of law and invoking the image of a kangaroo court, led by a power-hungry Julia Gillard shouting down the microphone that parliamentary standards be upheld. As Lenore Taylor points out, the roles would be reversed.
I am sure both Gillard and Abbott have principles, but at the moment their catfights are more about power than they are about principle. That our political elite would spend all their days shouting at each other in an undignified brawl over something as grubby as mere power is an ugly sight.
That is why politicians should judge all ideas on merit, instead of partisan loyalties. That is why the voters would reward a bit of praising the enemy now and then.
The fundamental reason bipartisanship is so rare is because Australian politics has entrenched political parties, where solidarity with the party is brutally enforced.
In the days of Australian federation, there were no parties. Individual politicians had positions and personal loyalties, but these could change over time. Governments tended to last only a few years, as premiers or Prime Ministers lost the support of a wayward backbench. This was both a blessing and a curse.
It was a curse because with no party line for MPs to vote along, governments were permanently unstable. It was a blessing because MPs were able to speak their mind without having to toe the party line.
I don’t mean to paint the early days as an age of political civility, but rather that having an allegiance to a political party means you must make the party look good, and that can easily involve making the other party look bad. Marching in lockstep with one party implies marching against the lockstep of the other party.
So sometimes, I think we would be better off if politicians were free to vote as they wanted, instead of having an allegiance to a party position they might not believe in. This would destabilise the process of polarising us as always Liberals who always oppose Labor, or vice versa.
I admit it is idealistic, but it is a good ideal.