Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Leadership in Political Opposition

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Leadership in Political Opposition

Article excerpt

In his Quarterly Essay of 2012, David Marr pronounced that 'Tony Abbott is the most successful Opposition leader of the last forty years', and so raised serious questions about the measure of successful leadership in opposition. Undoubtedly, Abbott was the most destructive Leader of the Opposition since Malcolm Fraser in 1975, since he believed the job entailed little else than the dismantling of the government of the country. But such destructiveness cannot be all that there is to oppositional leadership in a properly functioning two party democracy. Indeed, if it is, then that democracy is not itself working. What successful oppositional leadership demands is Constitutional Opposition.

Leadership in opposition has not always been at the forefront of political study, although opposition itself received a hefty boost by the publication of Robert A. Dahl's Political Opposition in Western Democracies in 1965. Unfortunately for Dahl, he lived in a country where the political system did not allow for the orderly conduct of political opposition, a fact that he had to admit: 'A distinctive, persistent, unified structural opposition scarcely exists in the United States' (Dahl 1965: 34).1

Dahl's collection did, however, draw attention to the fact that orderly political opposition is integral to - essential to - a democracy, and is best served within two-party systems of government (McLennan 1973: 16-20; Potter 1965: 8; Duverger 1964: 286). To claim that opposition is integral to democracy is to imply that disruption and destructive behaviour are not conducive to smoothrunning democratic government. Giovanni Sartori (1976) usefully characterised constructive or collaborative opposition as 'constitutional' opposition, while efforts to disrupt, which would threaten the existence of the system itself - 'irresponsible opposition' - could be called 'contestation'. Plainly, Tony Abbott's conduct as Leader of the Opposition did not result in the destruction of the system, but he gave every appearance of not caring whether it did or did not. To call his term 'successful' is surely problematic in terms of constitutional opposition. Undoubtedly Fraser's involvement in the conspiracy (Hocking 2016) to destroy the elected Whitlam Government in 1975 severely threatened the very nature of responsible government in Australia.

The Functions of Opposition

Assuming that Australia is, generally speaking, a successful democracy, it is as well to consider opposition under the category of 'constitutional opposition'. In this context, the office has four main functions:

a) to articulate grievances expressed against government executive action and legislation, to gather them as far as possible into a coherent case, and to express them forcefully to the government and to the public;

b) to criticise government policy according to the particular ideals and philosophies the Opposition has undertaken to represent;

c) to provide a practical political education for novice politicians of their own ideological stamp, and to groom aspiring talent for possible office in the ministry;

d) to form a coherent and well-prepared alternative government, standing 'in the wings' and ready to take centre stage as the government of the country when called upon by the electorate to do so. As J. S. Mill once averred, government standards may fall; 'Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field' (Mill in Punnett 1973: 3).

Yet the central function of the Opposition is b) to oppose what the government is doing. Constructive opposition may imply approving much of what the government puts forward, but an opposition would be failing in its function if it did not find reason to criticise much of what a government proposes. I do not here mean that every act of opposition should be designed to bring a government down. Yet the very notion of democracy presumes that all governments, as human institutions, are prone to error, and in the extreme, to the corruptions of power. …

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