Comment: Bipartisanship and its limits

The bipartisanship over the plight of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran has been admirable - but should there be on other 'wicked' policy areas?

Policy is often underscored by crucial disagreements, and that can be a good thing. But why are some areas off limits?

The bipartisanship shown by politicians regarding the looming executions of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan has been quite remarkable, and is a tonic to the usual politicking involved with our day to day national affairs.

But we should not be trapped into thinking bipartisanship is always the best way.

If there is one good thing to come out from the events in Indonesia – and given the lives of the two men involved, it is a very small good thing – it is that leading politicians have not used the occasion to suggest Australia should re-introduce the death penalty. The bipartisan support against the death penalty was highlighted in 2010 when the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Torture Prohibition and Death Penalty Abolition) Act 2010 passed with unanimous support.

Only around a quarter of the population are in favour of the death penalty (for murder), and it is pleasing that no major party in Australia has sought to use the current situation to garner the support of that rump.

But bipartisanship, for all its worth, can be over-rated. Often bipartisanship is used as a stick with which to beat opposition. For example, governments will argue that there should be bipartisanship on the issue of national security. But should there be?

Yes, we all agree that we want our nation to be safe from invasion or attack, but there is no more a need for there to be bipartisan agreement on the policy response to that threat than there should be on health policy. We all agree that people in this country should be able to receive quality health care and not have to live with debilitating illnesses that go untreated, but there never has been bipartisan agreement on how governments should facilitate that just as important outcome.

Similarly, even issues such as violence against women or the plight of indigenous Australians can be a loser from bipartisanship. Bipartisanship can lead to lazy responses – where everyone agrees something should be done, and where the desire to not be seen to be political means both sides generally agree to keep doing whatever is being done.

But politics involves – at its best – a contest of ideas. Bipartisanship does not generally lead to change. It may be the final step – such as was the case with the abolition of the death penalty – but before that stage arrives arguing over ideas, challenging the status quo, pushing for a shake-up of how things are done are necessary steps.

It’s why it is good to hear arguments for a Royal Commission into violence against women, or for ALP leader Bill Shorten calling for a national crisis summit. There are those who believe a Royal Commission is not needed, and similarly those who would argue that having the issue discussed at COAG, among federal and state leaders, is better than a summit. But it is a contest of ideas on how to respond – those who believe the current response is enough need to make their case – and they need to also argue why the alternatives are not needed.

Whenever there is contest of idea you need to bring evidence  – facts and data – to the table. It means better research of the issues is required. It means relying on anecdote won’t cut it.

There of course needs to also be action. All talk and no action is the biggest problem with a lack of bipartisanship, but action after no talk is often little better

Bipartisanship can keep ideas and alternatives proposals hidden – just because there is bipartisanship agreement on the overall outcome does not mean there should also be bipartisan agreement on the process and policies.

The issue of mandatory data retention is a case in point. The report issued by the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security handed down last Friday was a perfect case of bipartisanship ensuring a poor outcome.

The report, as the Attorney General, Senator Brandis, was at pains to mention to the Senate was bipartisan. Clearly the Liberal Party is seeking to wedge the ALP into supporting the legislation which many of its MPs have had issue with and have spoken out against in the past. It would appear at present that the ALP will fall into line – using the cover of bipartisanship to ensure they are not portrayed by the government as being weak on national security.

Suggesting that there is only one response to national security and that anything other than a bipartisan response is “politicising” the issue ignores that the calls of bipartisanship are also political and generally done to stifle debate and to silence opposition.

And it is no guarantee to lead to better outcomes – often the reverse. 

Greg Jericho is an economics and politics blogger and writes for The Guardian and The Drum.

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