Hewson's View | National interests should come before those of the party

UNITED: There are times when politicians must set aside pedantic partisanship and work for the collective good.
UNITED: There are times when politicians must set aside pedantic partisanship and work for the collective good.

When I first got involved in our politics in the mid-'70s I was struck by those who went out of their way to instruct me that, effectively, I should "hate the other side", that I should see "no good" in them either, or in what they stand for, that I should "oppose", that the end game was "winning", not "good government".

I could never accept this attitude or strategy.

Indeed, as Leader of the Opposition I saw that I had a responsibility to be a "constructive opposition" - sure, oppose when we disagreed, but oppose on "evidence", not just as a matter of course.

Then also, as an "alternative government", to attempt to get out in front of the government, to attempt to set the policy agenda, to improve the process of government by making the politics less adversarial - in effect to make it easier for them to govern in the national interest - to provide a level of "bi-partisanship", at least on the big issues and challenges confronting our nation.

The result was that on many issues that defined the reforms of the Hawke/Keating era their government was made easier by a degree of opposition support - whether it was financial or tax reform, cutting protection, making a commitment to the first Gulf War, and a host of other issues.

In recent years it has often been said that I lost an election trying to prove this attitude - that I laid out too much detail, that I made myself a "Big Target", an easy target for a scare campaign - that I was too politically naive to be a political leader.

Mostly true, but you should be concerned at just how "tribal" politics has become since then where today the hope of a degree of bi-partisanship on issues such as climate, tax, inequality, aged care, federation, migration, and so on has evaporated.

Abbott was lauded by many as the best Leader of the Opposition of all time, as he elevated opposition to an art form - he simply opposed everything the Rudd/Gillard Government said or attempted, with the aim of destroying their credibility as a government.

You may recall that famous poster of Obama, of his head with the word "HOPE" across the bottom, and the Abbott version that was widely distributed across our cities, with his head crossed by "NOPE".

Abbott certainly was able to defeat the Rudd/Gillard Government by such destructive opposition, but to what end?

Consider the damage he did to our national response to the climate challenge, dismantling rather than improving a carbon pricing system, attempting to close down the renewable energy sector, dramatically reducing (for a time) broad-based community support for decisive, government-led action, setting us back years against the urgent imperative of a decisive response.

Recall also all the budget cuts, and the damage done to so many important policy areas, in the mindless pursuit of "debt and deficits" - a legacy that has constrained government ever since, and certainly compounded the difficulties of dealing with the COVID pandemic.

Surely in grappling with the pandemic, and its consequences in creating the most challenging economic and social circumstances for a century, voters have every right to expect politics should rise above its negativity, to work collectively to develop an effective, longer-term recovery strategy.

The challenge to our politicians is to think and act beyond themselves ...

After all, as individuals, households, businesses and institutions we have all adjusted our behaviours quicker than we could ever have imagined - the way we work, travel, spend, save, entertain, mix, what and where we eat, and so on.

Isn't it reasonable to now expect a degree of bi-partisanship in our governments, putting aside differences, working constructively together to our greater, national good?

Although climate persists as a major battle ground - both between and within the major parties - with a focus on "wedging" the opponent, rather than an effective competition of ideas - it is the area that can contribute most to a sustainable recovery.

With Biden driving the global competition in emissions reductions, pursuit of an effective and fair transition to a net-zero Australia over the next three decades is an opportunity not to be squandered - hundreds of thousands of jobs, and billions of investment and growth, would flow from a transition in the key sectors of power, transport, agriculture, buildings and industrial processes.

The challenge to our politicians is to think and act beyond themselves, and their political games, in the national interest.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.