Opinion Editorial: Compromise Lubricates Major Parties' Machines

9.00am | July 22, 2016

Some commentators have been quick to champion the high vote for minor parties in this year’s election as inherently good for our politics. For them, minor parties offer a more wholesome, farmers market democracy than the supermarket democracy of the major parties.

Independents and minor parties do play an important and legitimate role. But it is a mistake to think that more minor parties mean a more authentic, representative parliament producing more democratic results.

Minor parties are romanticised as a scrappy band of authentic insurgents. Although some minors genuinely are, it is a perception that other minors manufacture through slick, professional branding that positions them as a departure from slick, professional politics. This is often pushed well beyond the point of credibility. The Greens claim to be political outsiders. This is despite 20-plus years of parliamentary experience, numerous career politicians and a well-worn party machine with warring factions. It is the political equivalent of selling new pre-distressed jeans.

Where some minor parties do represent a break from politics as usual is in their suspicion of compromise. A strain of ideological puritanism runs through many minor parties, particularly those on the ends of the political spectrum. Minor parties such as the Greens and One Nation do not aim to speak to or for most Australians. Instead, they often have a narrow policy platform that speaks directly to the interests of their small constituency. There is little room for compromise. Having empathy for other views becomes a betrayal of values. Finding points of agreement becomes a grubby bargain.

This does a disservice to us all. Our democracy has to be more than isolated groups of people standing in the corners and shouting. There is no shame in compromise; there is shame in not listening and learning from different views. Like a family, we have to go on living together after disagreement. Other people don’t just melt away the day after a political victory. Generosity in politics is the hallmark of a functioning society; our politics are best when we take pleasure in reaching inclusive agreement with others.

This is what the major parties attempt. They are more than just coalitions of interests. Major parties represent a formalised attempt by different people to find common ground and make pro­gress collectively. It’s not just horsetrading; it’s structural empathy. I’ve found my priorities broaden during my two decades as a Labor member as I’ve learned from the varied perspectives found inside our broad church. Major parties offer a public square in which feminists and environmentalists, trade unionists and tax reformers, farmers and defence hawks, social conservatives and free marketeers can mingle.

We should reject any attempt to characterise this inclusivity as sign of inauthenticity. In fact, the major parties are often more democratic and representative than the minors. This is because voters have a better idea in ­advance what they’re voting for. At their best, the majors approach the electorate with a comprehensive policy platform and a defined approach to governing. Labor even lets voters see how we get there: we hold our national conference in the media spotlight, and expose how we accommodate different views and interests.

Voters can know only so much about minor parties. This is because minor parties make their key compromises after the election, not before. Despite criticising the majors for making internal compromises, minor parties have to make deals to get anything done in parliament. The difference is that these arrangements are less likely to be known by voters before an election. Indeed, the terms of these arrangements are often entirely unpredictable.

None of this is to say that the major parties are perfect; far from it. One in five Australians directed their first preference away from the major parties this election. Major parties must re-engage with these voters.

Governing for all Australians means promoting complex rather than simple solutions. Too many political actors have shied away from complexity and from solutions that ask for compromise from electors. Labor’s national conversation about negative gearing shows it can be done. We did the hard work of building the moral and intellectual case for complex policy change across many months.

This is the way to combat populism: by talking to people honestly how their interests fit in alongside everyone else’s and by showing them that they, too, have a place in the whole. We are right to aim for more representative and inclusive national politics. A more fragmented political landscape is not the way to get there.

First published in the The Australian on Friday, 22 July 2016