One Finite Planet

Can Peter Dutton repair the democracy ‘loyal opposition’.

Table of Contents

Democracy is under threat, and a significant part of the problem stems for the distortion of the current model of 'opposition'. While the politics of division and polarisation of the USA Trump republicans vs Biden democrats attracts most attention on the world stage right now, what happens in Australia following the recent election which saw democracy strike back (page coming soon), has the potential to provide the world with an alternate blueprint for the role of the opposition party, which could reinvigorate democracy and spread to the US and elsewhere.

Is there an alternative to the current Republicans vs Democrats style, where 'opposition' is about each party demonising the other?

Democracy is under threat, but change is coming.

The topic of how democracy is under threat justifies not only its own separate page, but also books such as “The Good State” by A.C. Grayling which suggests “The foundations upon which our democracies stand are inherently flawed, vulnerable to corrosion from within”.

Also consider that Russia, China and North Korea are all in theory democracies even though we do not necessarily see them that way. It is clear that a democracy can evolve into a democracy in name only, as is the case with Russia which was thought to function as a democracy prior to the reign of Putin, but many now see as no longer a functional democracy.

Historically, democracy is an aberration, and a quick search reveals that those who analyse the situation come to the conclusion that “Democracy is on life support in the US. And if democracy can die there, it can die anywhere“.

Existing for an extend time on life support clearly undesirable. Realistically, either a change restores health, or the future is bleak. Either breakthroughs will restore the health of democracy, or situations in that in Turkey (Turkiye?) where a quick search reveals many also believe has democracy has died, will continue to spread around the globe.

The key threat to democracy discussed here, is that the role of the opposition has fallen from the theoretical ‘loyal opposition’, to that of a destructive opposition, which is one of the major threats democracies face.

This means one of key pillars of democracy: a free press, a legal system preventing corruption, and an opposition able to ensure the arguments against policies put forward are considered, is failing. The result is not only democracy under threat, but the risk of people being denied from living under a well functioning government.

The threat of destructive oppositions.

The theory behind a ‘loyal’ opposition.

Parliament, or congress, is intended to allow for debate of issues.

In competitive debates, there are two teams, one presenting the yes or affirmative case, and another presenting to the no or negative case, with an audience left to vote on the winning case. This is somewhat similar to the legal system where there is prosecution and defence, and then a jury to votes on the case.

When governments propose laws, someone should ideally consider the arguments against those rules, and look for unintended and negative consequences.

The need to have the ‘no’ case presented by people not invested in the ‘yes’ case creates the need for a team to represent the ‘opposition’ arguments. To ensure balance, this teams needs similar resources to those available to the the team presenting the ‘yes’ case.

The concept is a ‘loyal’ opposition, as their goal is to debate and oppose propositions put forward by the government, while being loyal to the laws and constitution of the country. The opposition is to be loyal to the appointed government for the duration the term of that government in office.

While the opposition will normally be seeking to be elected as the party or team of government at some point in the future, up until that time a ‘loyal opposition’ will debate against the government, but accept the outcome of those debates.

‘Loyal’ Oppositions vs alternative governments.

The conflict between acting as a loyal opposition and as an alternative government.

Ideally, an opposition would debate the ‘no’ case against any government legislation in an unbiased manner, just as a defence lawyers is required to present arguments against the guilt of their client, without themselves prejudging guilt or innocence.

A problem is that arguing a ‘no’ case you do not necessarily support has little appeal, and you would hope governments will more often win such debates as they are choosing the topics to be debated.

In reality, oppositions pick only fights where opposing the government fits with the position of their policies. True debating style opposition, would require a separating the stance taken during debates from the policy of the party. True debating would require the ‘loyal opposition’ to have a completely neutral stance on policy, in order to be able to raise the case for the ‘opposing’ view to that taken by the government. For example, in the USA, if the current government is proposing continuing to allow sale of assault weapons to the public, the opposition should argue the ‘against’ case, regardless of their own policy. As politics operates today, this would be confusing for voters, who have only ever seen parties debate their own policy. So if the opposition policy is in agreement with the government, there is no real debate as to the merits of policy at all.

The completely disloyal alternative government.

Opposition political parties in practice focus solely on positioning themselves as an alternative government. Their goal becomes unrelated to the ‘loyal opposition’ goal of ensuring good government during the current parliamentary term, and instead their goal becomes all about trying to persuade voters the current government should not be re-elected. To achieve this goal, the focus very often becomes about undermining the elected government, and trying to ensure their term in office is a failure.

Destructive vs ‘loyal’ oppositions.

While oppositions normally remain loyal to the constitution and laws, they are often in no way loyal the the overall parliament, despite being members of that parliment.

In practice, in place of a ‘loyal’ opposition devoted to ensuring the current government produces the best outcome for the people, as an ‘alternative government’, the goal becomes that of convincing the voters that the current government should not even be in power.

In reality, opposition parties will often do whatever they can without voters blaming the opposition, to ensure the current term of government unsuccessful.

So in practice, members of the opposition parties, can end up being paid by taxpayers to sabotage government.

Normally, in theory, all members of parliament are funded by taxes to perform their duties in running the government, quite separately form any funding available for election campaigns, but in practice, sometimes the only function of the opposition is an ongoing campaign for their re-election.

The threat: dictatorships in order to eliminate destructive oppositions

When it becomes reality, or is perceived as possible to become reality, that the opposition will simply be an application of taxpayer funds focused solely on overthrowing the party in power, it should be no surprise that governments take steps to hinder the efforts of opposition parties. However, without effective opposition parties, the result what we see in North Korea, China, many would say Russian, and even since 2019, Turkey.

The climate for a change in Democracy, in Australia, and beyond.

The 2022 Australia Election: A Record vote against the two main parties.

In the 2022 national election in Australia, the victorious Labor Party, previously in opposition, won government from opposition despite a fall in their primary vote from the losing 33% in 2019, to an even lower winning 31.9% in 2022. How do you lose voter support and win? Answer: The other major party loses even more support.

Approximately 1 in 3 voters voted for either a minor party, or an independent candidate, and a record number of independent candidates were elected to parliament.

What was the recipe for the change in voting.

Conventional thinking is a lobby group can persuade both parties to adopt a position unpopular, as once both parties are on board, there is no reason for voters to change their vote. But what if, at election time, voters are given an additional choice of well funded independent candidates in in key seats?

At least one unpopular policy shared by both major parties, together with general voter disillusionment with the political parties, can provide the wedge for well backed candidates to win in targeted electoral districts, breaking the two party stranglehold on ‘owning’ all representatives.

I will explain the strategy in more detail in another page coming soon, but although a bigger challenge without Australia’s preferential voting system, the same system could even be applied to win a number of seats in the US congress.

The key ingredient is to have at least one policy that can be high profile frustration for voters, where both parties are supporting a lobby groups over voters. In Australia the frustration it was fossil fuel lobbyists over climate action, in the US it could easily be gun control.

Independents vs party reform: alternate paths for change.

In Australia this first battle against the parties has already changed the landscape, but whether this is a movement, or just a temporary phase is not yet determined. There are two possible futures:

  • Political parties address the issues triggering voter disillusionment.
  • At least one of the main parties fails to adapt, and spirals into decay, ending two party dominance.

It will could take a full term of government before there is sufficient evidence of real change for other countries to have confidence to try and follow.

The Peter Dutton ‘loyal opposition’ risk factor.

A new and unexpected opposition leader.

The confusingly named centre right ‘Liberal Party’, not only lost the recent election, they in the process also lost key representatives, including Josh Frydenberg, who it was expected would become the next party leader. The result is that Peter Dutton, with a reputation of being a further right candidate, to lead a party needing change. With the election result representing a shift to the left centre, does the Liberal party take the risk of moving further right as to be expected with Dutton as leader, or can Dutton defy expectations, and reposition to the centre.

I heard one comment: “If they think Peter Dutton is the answer, they do not understand the question.”

However, that is the attitude of those who would not choose Dutton, and believes the party needs to move towards the centre. While the party has chosen Dutton, if Dutton can change, the party can still return to the centre.

so either they see a different question, or have a different version of Dutton in mind.

A party at a cross roads: Who is the Liberal party.

A big question becomes “where should the Liberal party position itself on the political spectrum?”.

Some blame the election loss on Liberals deserting their ‘core’ conservative values. I will add more to this section with comments, but it all comes down to a question as to what cores values Liberal party members decide it should have going forward. The party was created by Robert Menzies who, like most people born in the 19th century, held views that would today in the 21st century, be regarded as very conservative, even if in his time, Menzies thought of himself as liberal.

At least Peter Dutton declares the Liberal party is NOT the Conservative party.

“We aren’t the Moderate Party. We aren’t the Conservative Party. We are Liberals. We are the Liberal Party. We believe in families, whatever their composition, [in] small and micro businesses, [we are] for aspirational, hard-working ‘forgotten people’ across the cities, suburbs, regions and in the bush,” he said.

Peter Dutton: Abc.net.

‘I will change’ didn’t work for Morrison, but for Dutton the question is “to what?”

This will be interesting. For me, the start is not good:

Dutton said he has had “tough jobs” in the past and hopes the public can see “the rest of his character”.

“I’ve had tough jobs — firstly as a policeman dealing with serious sexual assaults and murders, to home affairs minister where I deported drug traffickers and child sex offenders.”

Peter Dutton: Abc.net.

To me, Peter Dutton’s own words highlight the problem. For background, note that some these people Peter Dutton deported have lived their entire lives in Australia.

To me, that background puts the thoughts expressed as following the extreme right characteristic of banding people as either innately “good” or “bad”, and in some of the deportation cases, purely on the basis of their ancestry. The concept of the “the innocent child assumption” is not accepted at all.

Yes, people who commit crimes must be punished. But the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” becomes relevant. Deporting people criminal bad behaviour, when they were raised their whole life in the “village” of Australia, seems to be declaring these people innately “evil”, solely on the basis of their ancestry.

The applied by Dutton is that of “othering“, even though the people in question were raised as children of the Australian village. When your child does something wrong, you know they must be punished, but you are still sad, and wonder how you failed. A leader needs to be able to think as a parent for a large group, but this mindset of “othering” is still part of the mindset of Peter Dutton, so he does not yet understand how other people see his actions.

The appearance is that Peter Dutton does genuinely want to change, but he does not yet understand how he needs to change.

The real problem: Missing the message and the ‘disloyal’ opposition.

“By the time of the next election in 2025 we will have presented a plan to the Australian people which will clean up Labor’s inevitable mess and lay out our own vision,” he said. “We won’t be Labor lite.”

Peter Dutton quoted by the Guardian on day of elevation to party leader: May 30, 2022.

Is declaring that it is inevitable the other party will create a mess a sign of a Peter Dutton’s softer side? This sentiment, and the declaration that “this is bad government”, prior to the government even being appointed, have been repeated several times by Dutton already.

The tone is more a commitment to the politics of polarisation, than any suggestion of a constructive role in opposition. In an ideal world, the words would have been something like: “by the time of the next election people will realise it has been our voice in parliament and ideas that have provided the greatest contribution during this term of government”. But sadly, no.

At some point, the Australian people may begin to question why all the members of such an opposition are highly paid, given their intent to ensure the current government is dysfunctional.

The new loyal opposition: ‘changed’ Dutton or Independents?

The structure of the Australian government for 2022.

  • Governing Labor party: 77
  • The coalition opposition:
    • Liberals (27) and Liberal Nationals (21): 48
    • Nationals: 10
  • Crossbench:
    • Greens: 4
    • Others: 12

The coalition is a complex alliance that while technically being three parties, acts as two parties each with their own leader: the liberals led by Peter Dutton and the Nationals led by David Littleproud.

The liberals, as the largest non government group, could act alone as opposition, but require the additional numbers from the Nationals to present as having numbers feasible to be alternative government.

The possible paths in Opposition for Dutton and the Liberal/National Coalition.

There are two possible paths to the opposition led by Dutton:

  1. Transform into a true ‘loyal opposition’ to win back support lost to the independents.
  2. Increase polarisation even further in the style of Trump, with a hope of attracting new voters currently supporting the Labor party now in government.

The problem for the opposition led by Dutton is that they do not yet even understand how they need to transform. They are addressing symptoms, but not the core problem. In a post election recent interview, the new leader of the Nationals, David Littleproud, when asked what message they received from voters on the need for climate action, basically stated that he saw the message as they need to keep up their good work. He would not acknowledge the fact that voters disapproving of his parties stance on climate was a key reason they are no longer in government. Was it the wrong time to acknowledge the problem, or does he genuinely miss the point?

What is clear, is that as overall opposition leader, Peter Dutton has failed to read the message that a significant part of the electorate, in voting independent, was frustrated with the adversarial current two part system. Either Peter Dutton gets this message and adapts, or he is left with strategy number 2.

The alternate path is to try and build outrage not against the political system, but against the other party. Unlike Donald Trump, Peter Dutton cannot claim to be outside the political system, so all the outrage needs to be built against a party that has not even yet started its time in power. With looming inflation, energy price shocks, and a housing affordability crisis, it may be possible to generate outage in a new group of voters, but it is a big gamble to try and pin problems that began when you were in power on a new government.

Independents as the real ‘loyal opposition’?

Logically, a genuine ‘loyal opposition’ cannot be focused on deposing the government. The independents and Greens would make a more logical choice to present as ‘loyal opposition’. There are many challenges, but separating ‘loyal opposition’ from ‘alternative government’ has the potential to solve a key problem of democracy if it could be achieved formally.

The independents formally being ‘loyal opposition’ is not yet even on the radar, but achieving this role in practice is very realistic. If the actual opposition fails in its attempts to remain relevant, given that strong support from independents is all the government requires to secure legislation, the role of the liberals in opposition could become sidelined.

Conclusion.

To me is seems clear, Peter Dutton has received the message that he needs to change for the electorate to find him acceptable as the leader a the Liberal party that could win government.

What is not yet determined is how he will change.

What is not yet clear, is if he understands the very different position his party finds itself in now it is in opposition. Not since WWII, have so many independents been elected. With a clear expression of voter frustration at the two party system, he can either try to somehow channel frustration towards his enemies, or look to reduce the frustration.

The very real prospect is that the independents will end up acting as the real opposition, and the electorate may find that far more appealing. Then the next step, would be how to ensure government remains with an independent opposition, in place of a government funded team of insurgents trying to undermine government.

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