Politics: the ugly game where the melee rules

The NRL this week announced its rule changes for next season. The AFL will do that later, but for now its community is engrossed in a frenzied debate about what those changes should be. In both cases, though, the aim is clear: make it easier to score. Footballers in both codes are simply so fit, so disciplined now, they’re defending too well. The game is clogged, rigid, structured. It’s ugly. Fans are disillusioned. So, for example, both codes will likely reduce the number of substitutions in the hope of exhausting the players, cracking defences, and inviting a festival of tries and goals late in matches. That’s a spectacle that will thrill us.

What both codes know is that this cannot simply be left to the coaches. Their job is winning. It is not to make the game attractive. Every club would rather win ugly than lose pretty. And hereabouts a paradox emerges: your club’s single-minded quest for success slowly erodes the game’s appeal. The adversarial grammar of sport guarantees more professional performance, but not a more enjoyable product. So, at intermittent crisis points, the AFL and the NRL intervene, assuming their role as overarching custodians of the game.

Hereabouts we learn politics and football aren’t quite identical. Politics has no custodians. Apparently it is nowhere near as important.

Politics, of course, has no equivalent of this. It is left entirely to its clubs, each of whom is similarly obsessed with the short-term pursuit of victory. In theory, an overarching concern with the good of the nation is meant to mitigate. But that requires us simply to trust our parties to subordinate themselves to this; to sacrifice cynical political opportunities for something greater. Right now, that trust seems thoroughly naive. Politics is at a point of crisis, where no short-term political opportunity can be passed up. And the end result has been the debasement of the whole endeavour of politics. The game’s ugly.

<i>Illustration: Dionne Gain</i>Illustration: Dionne Gain

I could recite any number of examples to illustrate this. Like Labor’s faux outrage on the fuel excise, which it irresponsibly slammed, then having extracted maximum populist mileage, quietly supported a year later. Or the Coalition’s declaration that it was open to examining superannuation tax concessions, only to dismiss this altogether in a Tea Party-style rage the moment Labor dared to offer a suggestion. But such is our age that a new example is born every moment. And so, I give you Bronwyn Bishop.

There’s little disputing the offence here. Even Tony Abbott – a man intensely loyal to Bishop – has confirmed as much. There’s also little disputing that the starring role of an indulgent chopper lends a surreal, satirical quality to the whole affair. So, too, that this is Bronnie – the woman who made a name for herself savaging others’ misuse of public money. But all that said, we’re not talking about high crime. In a normal world, this sort of thing is shoved off to some finance committee or other. But this is no longer a normal world. And so Labor’s first instinct is to ask the federal police to get involved.

That, of course, is retaliation for the sordid Peter Slipper affair. This is understandable, but it’s also the point. The Abbott opposition’s attack on Slipper – which resulted in criminal charges for misused cab charges that ultimately failed – was a nakedly political one. So, for that matter, was Labor’s contrivance to put Slipper in the speaker’s chair in the first place, handing the Gillard government an extra voting member in a hung Parliament. That was the story of a cut-throat Parliament in which the office of the speaker became a mere pawn. That is a serious erosion of a key institution of government. Bishop’s continued partisanship – so strong that her greatest regret is that this saga has taken the heat off Bill Shorten – has only compounded the decline. But it is a decline that was already well in motion.

In this sort of politics, nothing has an existence beyond winning and losing.In this sort of politics, nothing has an existence beyond winning and losing. Photo: Andrew Meares

We’re playing politics by newly unvarnished rules now; a kind of total politics, where nothing has an existence beyond winning and losing. The disease extends even to royal commissions, like the one on pink batts, telling us nothing we didn’t already know, but reminding the world of past Labor scandal. Should this become a pattern of partisan shaming of previous governments, our political culture will be truly lost.

All this inevitably exacts its price in policy. Here, too, the week provides an example in Shorten’s new proposed renewable energy target of 50 per cent by 2030. Bold. Ambitious. Etc. But the giveaway is Shorten’s celebration of this as the “centrepiece of our response to climate change”, promising he would refuse to buckle before “ridiculous scare campaigns” from the Coalition. But if Shorten means what he says, he’s already buckled. The RET is not a centrepiece. It is rather a peripheral complement to the real centrepiece: an emissions trading scheme. And there’s a very good reason for that: just about everyone agrees that the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions is to use the market to do it by pricing carbon. To make the RET your centrepiece is to abandon the very idea of a market-centred approach in favour of using blunt regulation.

Labor doesn’t believe in that. At least, it has always said it doesn’t. Its reason for making the RET central is simple: it’s popular. Everyone loves renewable energy, even Coalition voters. But everyone’s nervous about pricing carbon because Abbott so mercilessly slayed Labor with its carbon tax. Even now the Coalition is insisting there’s no difference between a carbon tax and an emissions trading scheme (incidentally making John Howard the first prime minister to propose a carbon tax). If that’s a “ridiculous scare campaign”, then it seems very much to have intimidated Labor.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson

It’s a bizarre scene. The major parties – both of which heartily embraced free-market orthodoxy about 30 years ago – are now vying with each other to move the free market to the edges of their climate change policies. Labor’s focus is apparently regulation. The Coalition has a centralised command and control policy it calls Direct Action, which sounds a bit like some radical socialist group that handed you pamphlets on campus. This is not the result of a policy debate. It’s the accumulated effect of a series of small, short-term political manoeuvres that have left us with nowhere else to go; a steady stream of wins and losses being chalked on a board somewhere at club headquarters. Meanwhile, no one seems to care much for the state of the game. And hereabouts we learn politics and football aren’t quite identical. Politics has no custodians. Apparently it is nowhere near as important.

Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and winner of the 2014 Walkley award for best columnist. He also lectures in politics at Monash University.

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