Maintaining the Moral High Ground (part 1)

A 2 part series looking at Australian politics and how to best push for progressive social change, with a particular focus on why Pirate Party Australia works the way it does. Part one looks at politics within the electoral realm, part two will look at politics within activism.

Politics is a Marathon not a Sprint

Part 1: Electoral Politics

All too often people involved in politics opt for short term point-scoring over long term benefit and consequently damage their reputations, sometimes irreparably. Political parties will adopt positions on issues that they expect to give them a ‘bump in the polls’, that longer term, is devoid of morality and will lose them the support of sections of their core constituency. This is not a trap that we need to fall in to and can avoid as long as we stick to our principles.

Keep Calm Vote Pirate
Keep Calm Vote Pirate

The political cycle is a constant barrage of announcements, press conferences, grubby deals, scandals and point scoring. In part, this is a result of media needing things to report, and over-analysing minutiae of parliamentary debates can fill endless columns. In part, it is how the mainstream parties operate, people who desire power for its own sake will join up with the goal of winning and maintaining power and will do whatever it takes to succeed. This in turn, spurs on the scandals and grubby deals. The constant focus on opinion polls, and short-term point scoring is a game that we do not need to play and should avoid as much as possible.

This is played out in the ALP on a painfully regular basis. Part of the reason Rudd was popular when he got elected PM in 2007 was his commitment to action on climate change. Once Abbott became Opposition leader, there was a conservative reaction to the initiative, and instead of pursuing the policy and explaining what the action meant, and why it was needed, there was deafening silence. So much so, that once Gillard ousted Rudd in the lead-up to the 2010 election, she promised not to introduce a carbon tax because it was seen as a negative.

Had the ALP made the case for action on climate change, rather than remaining silent on the issue for much of their first term in government, there wouldn’t have been the same amount of pressure to commit to opposing a carbon tax.

The alternative was played out with the Greens, where the ALP attempted to pass Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme with a reduction of carbon pollution of just 5% by 2020. Sections of the media had a field day when the Greens refused to support such a minor target on the basis that it was too weak. A target that small would have rightly angered Greens voters because they have a tendency to put principles, in particular environmental action, above short-term point-scoring. This saw the Greens lose a couple of percentage points in the polls over the short term, but they did not damage the support of their core constituents and have since regained any temporary loss of support.

For the major parties (in particular, the ALP/ Coalition duopoly), swing voters may make the difference in winning an election. They will not campaign for you, hand out how-to-votes on election day, donate funds and time or participate in policy development and debate. Basing policies on the opinions of swing voters, through focus groups whilst disregarding the principles of party members causes long term damage to the party. The ALP have been suffering a long decline in members largely because of this.

Since the 1980’s there has been a weakening of grass roots members ability to contribute to policy, a locking up of executive positions through the factions system in the ALP. The parliamentary wing of the party regularly ignores decisions of the membership in the never-ending Quest for a small bump in the polls. This has caused such a long decline in member numbers that some ALP campaigners worry about being able to cover polling booths with people handing out how-to-votes on election day. The decline was only turned around after the last election by giving members a say over the Labor leadership. It remains to be seen if the ALP will continue to give members substantive ways to contribute, or the membership up-tick after the last election was just a dead cat bounce.

This raises questions for members of any political party, what is the ultimate point of the organisation? Is it to form government at any costs or is it to advance a philosophy or a set of ideas? The Pirate Party is firmly in the latter camp. In large part, we formed to make the case for less restrictive copyright laws and to defeat Internet censorship and surveillance. To water these down is to defeat the entire purpose of our existence.

This becomes a little harder to navigate away from our core policies. Do you engage in populism or stay with principled policies (where there is a difference)? Many people will vote on a wide set of principles and whilst they may care about file-sharing and civil liberties, they will also care about action on climate change and education and won’t vote for a single issue party because they have other concerns beyond the core issues. This was why we expanded our policies beyond the initial focus on IP and civil liberties.

The tension between principle and populism came up very early on. A member wanted us to go to the right of the major parties on refugee policy to fish for support from racists. The rest of the party got rather cross with the suggestion and it didn’t get anywhere (I was ready to quit if it happened).

One of the many and varied things I like about Pirate Party Australia is our commitment to giving members as much democratic control as possible over all aspects of the Parties’ politics and activities. This is a good filter to limit the damage we can do to ourselves through some ill-conceived plan to raise our profile by piggy-backing on a poorly thought out supposed ‘vote winner’.

Having members vote on our preference order served us well. It stands in stark contrast with the Wikileaks Party who preferenced through negotiations with the small parties alliance, as established by Glen Drury and preferencing according to back-room deals rather than political outlook. The outrage that preferences went to the fascist Australia First party above the Greens caused an implosion that has damaged the prospects of the party ever getting anywhere. Many of their most committed campaigners quit in disgust.ppausurveillancesign

We have a commitment to evidence based policy based on underlying principles and a culture of consultation when situations arise that need prompt responses. The most recent example being the adoption of a policy that promises to repeal sections of the anti-terrorism Bill that damage civil liberties and the rule of Law, passed by the ALP and Coalition in a classic knee-jerk response to an increased threat of terrorist activity.

A key part to our success in broadening our policy set has been consistently looking at evidence of what has happened when other countries have adopted policies we like, then using that to inform the specifics of our policy area. Policy based purely on principle has a higher likelihood of causing division because we aren’t of a single ideology, however our goals are broadly aligned and using evidence to pragmatically decide the best approach to an issue leaves little room for opposition if the goals are similar.

We need to remember what has driven our success so far and keep playing the long game because that is what will serve us well into the future. Any attempt at short term success that doesn’t fit in with our long term goals and values is likely to do more harm than good.