Beyond Bipartisanship: Recapturing the art of productive disagreement

Vishaal Kishore is Professor of Innovation & Public Policy at RMIT University.

We need to recover the lost art of engaging in conversation around things we disagree about, writes VISHAAL KISHORE.

With the Victorian election behind us and a federal contest looming, more and more we are hearing the whispered critiques of our modern politics – too much competition, too much short-term point-scoring, too many attempted tit-for-tat ‘gotcha’ moments, and too easy a slide towards the most divisive forms of populism and interest-group politics. We bemoan the hyper-partisanship of our politics and wistfully imagine a more bipartisan/non-partisan way of public life (especially that of yesteryear).

A seemingly impossible dream

When VCOSS asked me to write about bipartisanship my first thought was that it seems outlandishly quaint – bordering on delusionally naïve – to call for bipartisanship in today’s riven political and social milieu. Those whispered critiques are not baseless.

Our politics does appear to be volatile, our political leaderships unstable, the media cycle simultaneously endless and remarkably flighty. Yesterday’s crisis is today’s meme and tomorrow’s near-forgotten memory. Opinion polling has made electioneering perpetual, and parties and politicians often seek to establish positions perhaps more by negation – by contradicting the postures of others – than by forging their own.

At the same time (and perhaps in part because of this), Australians’ trust in government languishes at all-time lows. Frustration is rife. Popular disengagement looms. Globally, the freneticism and divisiveness of issue-, identity- and interest- based advocacy froths. Uglier forms of populism and protest votes continue to emerge.

Those who speak most about politics and policy seem often to be relatively remote from it. The talking heads have come to town – they sell, they peddle, and they won’t shut up. New social media technologies – for all their connectivity and other advantages – create both megaphones and echo-chambers, at times encouraging us to narrow and harden around our existing views and positions.
In a time of such difference, partisanship seems like it is here to stay – with hopes of bipartisanship or non-partisanship appearing as increasingly remote fantasies.

But what do we mean when we say bipartisanship?

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what we mean when we say bipartisanship.

Parties often seem to think bipartisanship happens when the other side agrees with them.

More seriously, bipartisanship is often imagined to involve two parties compromising for the benefit of the ‘common good’. But herein lies a problem. Part of our challenge is that in today’s context we do not – if we ever did – find it easy to agree on what the common good actually is. Viewpoints differ. Values differ.

Interests differ. This is *just* politics – imagining otherwise is indeed part of the delusion.

Similarly, bipartisanship is often thought of as politics proceeding from commonality rather than difference. As agreeing rather than disagreeing. Bipartisanship becomes an imagined starting point – of politicians and parties meeting on common ground and proceeding together. But this too is based on a tricky problem. Settling on commonly held perspectives, values or goals is seldom a starting point – it is actually the outcome. An outcome of what? Of a process of clarifying and perhaps resolving disagreements; in short, the outcome of a civil conversation, of a kind of civil interaction.

The real problem of partisanship.

And here we come to the real problem of partisanship: not that we disagree, but that we have lost the art of disagreeing productively, of engaging in a conversation in relation to those things we disagree about.

Part of the problem is that we are not as good as we should be at clarifying values and purpose. The absence of clarity about what we believe makes it hard to agree with others.

And beyond questions of values, there needs to be a way for us to engage with each other about different priorities, different courses of action, different pathways – even if we agree about where we might like to go. Disagreement and differences of views are unavoidable, but we must find ways to make those differences productive – to mine them for new insights, for refinements of our positions, to clarify what is important and what isn’t.

Perhaps counterintuitively, the pathway to less partisanship requires first crossing the threshold of disagreement. As Gandhi once remarked: ‘Honest disagreement
is often a good sign of progress.’

So, what should we do?

In its ideal form, politics and public policy is a dance between principle and pragmatism. But in relation to both, reasonable minds can differ. Our challenge – if we want a less partisan politics – is to find ways to hold that disagreement and make it productive.

And in this task, we all have a role to play.

First, we all share the task of clarifying questions of values – and how we give expression to them in our engagement with and around politics.

Second, our great institutions – be they peak bodies like VCOSS, or universities, or business groups, or unions, or government departments – have an important role, not just in advocating for specific views, positions or interests, but also in curating spaces and forums for disagreement. In holding disagreement and helping it to become productive.

Third, all of us have an obligation to bring our best selves to politics: to act rather than throw rocks from the sidelines and bemoan that people can’t agree. The time is now to create the platform for a different kind of politics and public debate. This is how we overcome – rather than fall prey to – division and disagreement. This is how we rescue our politics from brute interest and estrangement.

This – at the end of the day – is how we make bipartisanship or non-partisanship something more than a distant and wistful dream.