Madness? This is Sparta… Do 300 bills make a good government? #auspol

This post is about two parts to the same story: is there any room left in political discussion for debate?

Like many, I’m not terribly enthused by the Gillard Government.  I find it difficult not to see them as dysfunctional.  If they’re not trying to assert their brand of populism against those of the Greens and LNP, they’re bickering internally.  I feel like they are poor communicators.  Even when I bypass the ‘mainstream media’, I get confusing messages from them.  Rally cries rather than reasons.

I don’t know what they stand for.  I don’t know what sort of vision they have for Australia.  I don’t know how they would respond to various issues because I find their positions on issues to be inconsistent and, generally, reactive.

As an engaged but disillusioned political junkie, I feel like the only thing the ALP has in its favour is that it’s not the LNP or the Greens.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen the same response over and over again to the above.  Recently, it was made by @Gwillotine:

SO the 300 or so pieces of legislation that have all gone through parliament have all been spin have they? [Source]

The idea seems to be: ‘If the Gillard Government is so terrible at governing, why has it been able to pass over 300 bills?’

Does this follow as an idea?  Why the number of bills a government passes an indication of good or bad government?  If the ALP had only managed 299 bills, would this be an indication of abject failure?

The idea seems to be that, as there is a hung parliament, 300 bills indicates the ALP’s ability to negotiate and facilitate a functional government.  The assumption here is that, if the wheels haven’t completely fallen off the train of government, the ALP is doing a great job.

Clearly, it’s faulty reasoning.  A government might be great at passing lots of legislation, but be utterly rubbish at other — perhaps more important — areas of governing.  For example: the ability to lead, to share a vision, to communicate effectively with the electorate.

Good luck having that conversation with anybody.  When I suggested that the quality of the bills passed might also be an indicator of whether a government was doing a good job, the Political Sword’s Bushfire Bill entered into the discussion with:

Can disagree with SOME of 300, but how else to view Coalition’s 0/0? [Source]

The assumption here is that it is illegitimate to criticise the ALP because, regardless of how we understand success, the LNP is dreadful.  The Coalition — with neither the resources of government or agreements forming loose alliances with the Greens and independents — ought to have passed some legislation in parliament.  Because they haven’t, they are terrible and the ALP is great.

I’d hate to be accused of misrepresenting Bill’s argument, but I can’t understand how Abbott’s performance tells us anything about Gillard’s.

When I asked how the number of bills passed indicates the quality of a government, I was told:

I think you need to do some homework [Source]

Honestly, you don’t need the media to tell you how to think [Source]

I like you but as I said bills passed are the measure [Source]

We no longer focus on skills of persuasion or rational engagement.  Our assumptions and assertions about the world must be correct and, if you question them, you are an outsider.  This is the sort of groupthink rhetoric into which political discussion has fallen.  You’re either on our side of the fence, or you’re dumb, deceived, or delusional.

The problem with this line of argument is that it’s routinely hijacked by troublemakers and trolls.  People saying outright racist things, as a matter of course, respond with: ‘Stop calling me racist.  I’m just expressing my opinion.  Stop marginalising me and excluding my views from the discourse.’

So how should we engage in political discussion so that we leave the door open to people who disagree with us, but not so wide open that all the crazies come and gatecrash?

Part of it has to be self-reflective.  Are the views I hold falsifiable?  What evidence could somebody present to me to make me change my views?  Further, could I justify my assumptions to somebody who is rational, charitable, but who disagrees with my views?

I wonder if the reason so many of us are rubbish at discussing our views is that we so rarely keep serious company with people who disagree with us.  Many of my friends see me as their token conservative.  By and large, people’s social circles are made up of like-mindeds.  Our social framework is geared towards echo chambers.

This, in a nutshell, is what I see as the problem.  We need to learn how to foster debate instead of rallying troops.

[[Sources broken: Twitter webpage seems to have collapsed… I’ll fix them soon]]

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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