Last week, outgoing Liberal Senator Sue Boyce became the latest poster child of politicians with principle.
With a clumsy clarification that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is more an old-style sexist than a misogynist, and having crossed the floor in the past to vote against her party on same-sex marriage and an emissions trading scheme, Boyce is now recognised and celebrated as a politician who has remained true to her own (progressive) values in an increasingly right-wing party.
Boyce joins other moral malcontents such as Sharman Stone, who stood up to the PM and Treasurer on Government assistance to SPC Ardmona; Judi Moylan and Mal Washer who campaigned for more humane asylum seeker policy; and even Malcolm Turnbull who continues to challenge the Coalition’s orthodoxy on climate change.
Labor MPs Melissa Parke and former speaker Anna Burke also joined the ranks of MPs with morals last week when they (ultimately unsuccessfully) attempted to get their party to withdraw support for the processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.
So it seems political principles have become the new black.
Voters appear to be rejecting consensus-based political parties as too scripted and poll-driven, and are instead embracing political outriders who resist party group-think and put their own strongly-held values ahead of established policies.
The trouble with the celebration of these political insurgents is their influence can cut either way. Politicians who take a stand according to their core beliefs are not limited to the progressive side of politics.
For every Sue Boyce trying to drag the Coalition back the political centre, there’s a Cory Bernardi trying to heave it further to the right. And to the voters who share Bernardi’s world view, he is no less a rebel to be championed and celebrated than Boyce, Stone or Washer.
The same could be said of other Coalition MPs such as John Williams and Ian Macdonald or any other Government member who’s taken to speaking out against Government policy such as the proposed paid parental leave scheme. Or former Liberal senator Nick Minchin, who campaigned against climate action within the Coalition when Malcolm Turnbull was leader.
And then there are the MPs who are not from mainstream parties, whose whole reason for being is to dissent from or provide an alternative to the status quo. Libertarian David Leyonhjelm, who will soon take a decisive seat in the new Senate, firmly believes schools and hospitals should be privatised. He’ll join the DLP’s John Madigan and Family First’s Bob Day, both of whom are anti-abortion.
These men make the party consensus that often takes the edge off such extreme views suddenly look a lot more attractive.
Finally, there are the practical consequences of being a principled political dissident. Both the Democrats and the Greens discovered the hard way that there’s a political cost to relinquishing their moral malcontent role for real influence in government policymaking. One simply cannot keep the bastards honest while also being one of them.
The Greens appear to have learnt this lesson and reverted to their predominantly spoiling role with gusto. While their dissent is not always based on core values, as will likely be seen in the Greens’ opposition to the fuel excise increase and paid parental leave, they’re at least taking a principled stance on most matters.
The Greens’ experience should also be instructive for Clive Palmer and the assortment of MPs who will hold the balance of power in the Senate in a week’s time.
Palmer has run interference until now, demonstrating an absence of consistent values as he’s tried to leverage concessions from the Government before having to declare his own intentions.
On Wednesday Palmer will apparently announce how his party will vote in the Senate on key issues, ahead of a meeting with the PM on Thursday. Voters may at this time finally get an indication whether Palmer intends to be anything other than a spoiler.
And this will likely set the course for PUP’s political future.
While moral malcontents and principled revolutionaries may be inspiring, entertaining and able to tap into dissatisfied voters’ need for retribution, there is still a point at which they will either have to reach a compromise or fail.
Without consensus is it impossible (within a democracy at least) to make and implement decisions for the good of the nation.
Voters might like the idea of principled insurgents but they seek consensus-driven politics as an assurance that somebody is in charge. The deep-seated need for political stability leads voters ultimately to relegate political dissenters to nothing more than a romantic diversion.
For one person’s rebel can easily be another person’s traitor – which is why disunity is death in politics. The adage may apply more to political leadership than policy, but it remains a potent one nevertheless.