Opinion: Do party politicians think we're idiots?

Photo by Tara Winstead on Pexels
Sunday 4 February 2024

By Colleen Lewis

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

Federal parliamentarians seem incapable of accepting that the vast majority of people are fed up with MPs wasting time and energy repeatedly criticising those from other political parties.

The emphasis here is on the word constantly. Some ministers, shadow ministers and those in senior positions in minor parties appear unable to say anything without criticising their so-called political opponents.

Their pejorative comments are predictable and therefore tedious to listen to. They also feed the worrying lack of respect too many Australians have for their elected representatives.

The ever-present criticising is, more often than not, unnecessary and to a degree insults the intelligence of the Australian people.

It suggests that MPs and their political/media advisers believe voters are incapable of assessing bad policy when they see it.

It further suggests that MPs believe that voters cannot recognise inappropriate decisions and poor leadership when it is staring them in the face. Voters can, and it explains in large part why governments are voted out of power.

Voters are smart enough to remember the shortcomings of a previous government. They can recognise disingenuous comments by members of the opposition, minor parties and government members for exactly what they are: entrenched partisan politics writ large.

MPs need to focus more on the policies they intend to introduce to remedy a situation, why they are continuing down a particular path and/or need to change direction rather than taking every opportunity to denigrate their parliamentary colleagues when in front of a camera or microphone.

Of course, political parties are striving to win government or in the case of minor parties to hold the balance of power, but does that mean that those of a different ideological perspective are to be treated disrespectfully and as if they are the enemy?

It is highly doubtful that voters go to the polls thinking, I will vote for the representative and/or party that is the most negative, the one that excels in criticising, sometimes brutally, nearly everything said or done by either the government, alternative government or minor parties.

These days more and more voters are turning away from traditional political parties and casting their votes for true independents like Helen Haines and David Pocock.

These two independents do not spend their precious time continually criticising. Even when they point to flaws in a policy, they do so in a measured, respectful manner that focuses on the policy not the person. The same approach is often taken by many of the loose grouping known as the teals.

It is clear to most Australians that many MPs from the three major parties are reading or reciting from a prepared set of speaking notes, and the message of the day dominates the airwaves before their advisers and party strategists present them with a new hymn sheet from which the overwhelming majority sing, yet again.

This and the constant criticisms, undermines trust in MPs and potentially Australia's political system. So too does the hypocrisy which is currently on display in relation to the Albanese government's decision to go back on an election promise.

Surely senior members of the opposition, in particular Peter Dutton and Susan Ley, have not forgotten then prime minister John Howard's broken promise in relation to the GST. When questioned about the possibility of such a tax being introduced Howard proclaimed that: "Suggestions I have left open the possibility of a GST are completely wrong. A GST or anything resembling it is no longer Coalition policy. Nor will it be policy at any time in the future. It is completely off the political agenda in Australia ...There is no way a GST will ever be part of our policy ... Never ever. It's dead". Howard's government went on to introduce the GST.

Has the opposition also forgotten about the plethora of broken promises that occurred when the prime minister Tony Abbot led the Coalition government? A few examples include: that there would be "no cuts to education, no cuts to health ... and no cuts to the ABC or SBS".

Bill Shorten, leader of the Labor opposition at the time responded to Abbot's broken promises by proclaiming that: "A broken promise is a broken promise ... After seven months the Australian people are onto him ... [they] are not mugs".

Previous Labor governments have also broken promises. For example, Prime Minister Paul Keating proclaimed that his government's tax cuts were "not a promise, they are law - L.A.W." He subsequently explained that the second leg of his government's tax package would only proceed "when fiscal conditions permit".

Prime minister Julia Gillard pledged "there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead and later announce her government's intention to introduce a carbon price.

These few examples of broken promises by previous governments of different political persuasions demonstrates clearly that broken promises are not rare. An alternative approach is for a leader to drive over a policy cliff shouting, I have not and will not break a promise, regardless of the consequences.

All politicians engaged in the current debate over the recently announced change to tax cuts should acknowledge the many broken promises of the past and their reaction to them.

Many Australians do remember and therefore view the current strident and at times personal criticisms by MPs of other MPs from different political parties as nothing more than entrenched partisan politics and hypocrisy on steroids.

Dr Colleen Lewis is an Honorary Professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute.

Updated:  5 February 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications