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Why Aussie politics needs 50 shades of grey

Politics is too often discussed in a black-and-white, comic strip way.


And it’s not all the politicians’ fault.

If you spend any time on social media or watching the TV panel shows that have sprung up like weeds, you’ll see what amounts to people from Side A agreeing with each other and throwing scorn at Side B.

That’s how politicians and their active supporters speak, too. Two-dimensional slogans and talking points. A 140-character limit or quick status update on social media encourages simplicity. It takes almost no time at all to hop into the latest outrage, toss off a quick zinger or ‘LOL’ and go back to work.

Yet that’s not actually how the world works. Politicians know this and so do those who work with them. They just don’t talk as if they know it.

Politics actually works in shades of grey. There are very few issues that are either absolutely right, or absolutely wrong. All wisdom doesn’t reside just on one side of politics. Most issues, most policies need negotiation, consultation, finessing and changes to make them work and make them acceptable to the bulk of the Australian population.

So when a Prime Minister or an Opposition leader or a leader of a smaller party declares in their ‘very serious’ voice that Policy X is what is needed to solve Problem Y, what they are actually doing is starting the conversation. If they are successful, Policy X will be implemented, but rarely ever in the terms in which it was first proposed.

Just as in life, you rarely get exactly what you want, exactly when you want it, in exactly the way you want it.

It almost never happens when you have to factor in other people. And politicians have to factor in an awful lot of them: voters, stakeholders, interest groups, and of course, those who occupy the red benches in the Senate.

Black-and-white political discourse does a disservice to the complex, messy nature of human existence. It leaves out the subtlety and nuance. It ignores the true scope of discussion that is almost always needed to address difficult issues. And it leaves no room for the real prospect that things might change.

Almost one year ago, the Prime Minister was arguing that Australia wasn’t considering air strikes against Syria, because it was legally difficult.

He told an interviewer “Morally, there’s little difference between ISIL – this death cult – on one side of the border to the other, because it’s a border that ISIL doesn’t recognise.”

“But legally – and the Australian Government must be conscious of these things because we are a law abiding country – legally, there’s a world of difference between operating inside in Iraq in support of and at the request of the Iraqi Government, and operating in Syria which is largely ungoverned space with a regime that Australia doesn’t actually recognise.”

Mr Abbott still acknowledges there are legal issues, but the language he uses has changed. He has now said “while the legalities are a little different, the moralities are absolutely the same on both sides of the border. The terrorists don’t respect the border, so why should we?”

On the other side of politics, the Federal Labor party opposes an increase in the GST because it’s regressive, having a larger impact proportionally for those on lower incomes than for those on higher incomes.

But Labor in Government had that exact problem with the carbon tax and sought to solve it by “over-compensating” people for the increased cost. And there are estimates a change to the GST that broadened the base and increased the rate could raise $30 billion a year. Surely that’s enough to give some to the States for health and education and also compensate lower income earners?

Change is fine in a black-and-white world where attention spans are short and no-one can remember what happened a month ago, let alone what happened a year ago. A world where it’s as if nothing is recorded, or transcribed, or written about and made searchable on your computer or smartphone.

So when you next witness a conversation between those who should know about politics and it looks simplistic and cartoonish, that’s because it is. What they’re not talking about is the shades of grey.

And it’s a shame, because the grey is actually the most interesting. That’s where things get done.

Lyndal Curtis is an award-winning political journalist.

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