05/12/2007 - 22:00

Open debate is a healthy sign

05/12/2007 - 22:00


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When Coogee Chemicals boss Gordon Martin addressed a WA Business News breakfast last month, he said one of his golden rules was that there was no room for politics in running a business.

When Coogee Chemicals boss Gordon Martin addressed a WA Business News breakfast last month, he said one of his golden rules was that there was no room for politics in running a business.

Mr Martin explained his point this way: “With politics you’ll never get robust, open, passionate, transparent debate which is essential for any organisation to succeed. Politics in management is absolutely destructive.”

While Mr Martin’s comments were addressed squarely at business executives in the audience, they could be applied equally to the world of politics.

Open, robust discussion is good in business because it leads to better outcomes; and it should do the same in politics as well.

This train of thought was prompted by the follow-up to the federal election result.

Many people on the conservative side of politics have questioned the stance they have been publicly espousing for the past decade, and in some cases have suddenly adopted a more ‘liberal’ stance on some of the key policy issues.

A prime example is the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd always favoured ratification, and this week made it his first official act, just hours after being sworn in as prime minister.

More surprising was the support from opposition leader Brendan Nelson, who sat mute – along with many of his colleagues – while former prime minister John Howard spoke forcefully against ratification.

Western Australian opposition leader Paul Omodei got into the act this week, saying he applauded Mr Nelson’s decision.

Mr Omodei went further, saying the Liberal Party also had to become more socially and culturally inclusive.

“We’re seen as negative, reactionary, out of date and out of touch,” he told a party function last weekend.

Federal leadership aspirant Malcolm Turnbull has also been calling for some major changes in policy and thinking. The message from Canberra journalists was that Mr Turnbull actually went too far, particularly his suggestion the national government should say sorry to indigenous Australians, which cost himself some crucial votes in the leadership contest won by Mr Nelson.

Despite this, the Australian community has enjoyed a rare moment in time, when new ideas and policy directions have been openly discussed.

Mr Rudd, from all reports, stays strictly ‘on song’ when he makes public appearances, and expects the same from his ministerial colleagues.

That is seen in some quarters as a virtue – the notion that a disciplined government is also an effective government.

But does that also mean the debate over ideas has already ended inside the federal Labor government?

One of the problems with Australia’s political system – like most democracies around the world – is that robust discussion and debate is usually characterised as dissent.

A mature, confident leader – whether it’s the prime minister, the opposition leader or a company chairman – should welcome vigorous debate.

It shouldn’t be seen as a threat or as an attempt to undermine the leader, but rather an attempt to strengthen the organisation by producing even better policies and ideas.

The Carpenter government is, for the most part, pragmatic in the way it handles policy issues. However, there are some rusted-on policy positions that have more to do with ideology and old class battles than with current values and needs.

A prime example is its opposition to uranium mining. While many Labor figures around the country have swung behind uranium mining, reversing many years of staunch opposition, the Carpenter government has not budged.

This is an issue that needs to be debated. Uranium mining – and nuclear power generation – is expanding around the world, and Australia is sitting on the world’s largest deposits.

More robust debate can only be a good thing.


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