To be (negative) or not to be – that is the question

Here’s the last of my 2013 election campaign weekly columns for ABC’s The Drum.

Once Labor gathers together the detritus of its parliamentary wing following the federal election and selects a new leader, it will need to decide what kind of Federal Opposition it is going to be.

For even though Tony Abbott’s Coalition can be considered a successful opposition – in that it won the election – it was also the most negative in Australia’s modern political history.

The consequences of those four years of sustained political warfare, initiated when Abbott first became Leader of the Opposition, remain with us today. Most notably, it has set the tone for much of our nation’s political discourse, be it on social media, talkback radio or television talking head panels, in newspaper headlines or at political rallies.

The ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ placards, for example, held aloft at the infamous anti-carbon tax rally would have been considered more shocking and perhaps been more widely condemned if the broader community hadn’t already become desensitised to epithets being hurled at Julia Gillard as a matter of course during the daily political debate.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for vigorous exchanges within Australia’s political conversation, but this type of brutal discourse has moved from being the exception to the rule. As a result, those in the Australian community who are interested and engaged in politics now seem to approach any related discussion from a state of constant combat-readiness instead of a willingness to listen and explore other perspectives.

It may not have occurred yet to the new Labor Federal Opposition, but it has an opportunity to change the tone of our national political conversation to something that is, dare I say, kinder and gentler. Labor knows Australian voters are tired of negativity but the party may well be tempted to adopt an approach similar to Abbott’s uber-opposition as an easy way of scoring early points against the new Government.

While it is clearly legitimate for an Opposition to “oppose” the Government and hold it to account, this does not necessarily require the transformation of parliament into a combat zone. Previous Leaders of the Opposition, namely John Howard, Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd, all took a more positive approach that welcomed sensible policy initiatives from the Government while emphasising the key points of differentiation. The benefit of this approach was that it not only helped position the Opposition as a scrutineer of the Government but also as a credible and viable alternative.

Undoubtedly, the new Labor Opposition has a great deal to work through in the coming weeks and months. Not only does it have to convince one of its young and talented remaining parliamentarians to take on the leadership, which traditionally is a poisoned chalice after a government-changing election loss, but it also has to work out what to do about Kevin as he lurks like Banquo’s ghost on the parliamentary backbench.

Nevertheless, there is one more difficult question that Labor should tackle, for the good of the party as well as the nation.

To be (negative) or not to be – that is the question.