Come in Spinner: The classic art of Opposition

When I was an Opposition media adviser (then called a press secretary) our office made an effort, at least once a month, to put out a media release agreeing with something the Government did.

More than a quarter of a century later it seems ludicrous but, on the other hand, might have some advantages for modern Oppositions.

It wasn’t as if we were me-tooing very often. There was an ongoing ferocious attack on the Government’s (this was when Dick Hamer was Victorian Premier) dodgy land deals and alleged corruption in which developers were making fortunes flogging off land to the Government which then used it for public housing. The sums, incidentally, were probably less than the amount developers currently spend on buying tables at government and opposition fund-raisers, but for the times it was a scandal.

We also had an old-fashioned belief that we should be putting together alternative policies. And we used qualitative market research to identify where we had perceived policy advantages (public transport for example) and then tried to make these areas into political issues rather than just using the research, as the NSW Right persuaded the Federal Government to do in the recent election campaign, to avoid the issues.

We also tried to go a bit further by saying that while the Government’s idea was a good one it could be enhanced by tweaking it in some way we were more than happy to constructively discuss. This approach didn’t get a lot of publicity but it did occasionally get a line at the end of a story and it did generate some discussion in the Gallery and when we went out campaigning in the community people commented on it approvingly.

We were also helped by Dick Hamer. Dick was a decent, cultured and intelligent man (who was as horrified by the land deals as everyone else when he realised what was happening) and who was one of Victoria’s best Premiers. The cross-section of people at his funeral, not there to see if he was safely dead (as would apply to many contemporary politicians) but rather to genuinely mourn, was ample evidence of this.

As an indication of Dick’s decency I once approached my counterpart in the Premier’s office, Richard Thomas, suggesting that we put together a joint Christmas road safety appeal from the Premier, the Opposition Leader and the National Party Leader (no Victorian coalition then). Richard and Dick agreed and the three leaders appeared together on TV and in other media on an issue which was in the public interest.

Neville Wran and NSW Labor killed off similar initiatives by adopting a ‘no oxygen’ policy which always refused to give the Opposition a place on any platform or even any acknowledgement at functions. This has now become common practice, although at arts events in Melbourne the common decencies still apply – if only because politicians want to avoid the Wran fate of having the audience at literary awards throw bread rolls at him for churlishness and other sins.

Most modern governments follow the Wran approach. And most modern Oppositions – particularly the Abbott Opposition – would never dream of agreeing with anything as opposed to ferociously opposing the suggestion that Friday is Friday or Saturday is Saturday. This approach could not only potentially play havoc with the high holy days, but also locks in a formulaic approach which ends up sounding carping.

Given the public’s cynicism – and more importantly apathy – about politics, a modern day version may have some merit. Such an idea is, of course as crikey readers will know, older than Abbott, Wran and Hamer. The template probably dates back to Aristophanes Frogs and the debate within it between Aeschylus and Euripides. That debate was ultimately about leadership and it is fascinating that Euripides loses it on the basis of how Aeschylus scoffs at the Euridipean repetition of phrases – ‘moving forward’ and a ‘great big tax on everything’ being the modern equivalent of having ‘lost his little flask of oil’. One favours populism the other heroic leadership etc etc etc and the winner within the play is the one who offers leadership and alternatives.

There is much talk about new paradigms but some old paradigms might have some impact as well. One suspects the independents are actually espousing something close to this old paradigm when they talk about their new paradigm.

Given the longevity of State Governments – and the total incompetence which seems to be required to persuade the public to risk voting in the other lot – the old paradigm might be worth a try.