Political Collaboration (Guest Blog by Richard Williams)

‘Political Collaboration’ could be described as an oxymoron.  Political parties usually pride themselves on the point of difference they have with their political competitors.  It’s seen as their competitive advantage in their appeal to the voting public, despite the fact that often the public is actually sick of the political spin put on everything.  This is particular to democratic forms of government.  As Winston Churchill observed in 1947 – “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Does a democratic form of government not facilitate political collaboration? In reality there is a lot of collaboration that takes place in democratic governments to ensure the process works.  This tends to be at the process end of government, passing non-controversial pieces of legislation, which are perceived to be necessary or not worth expending the energy on opposing.  It’s the big-ticket items, or the issues that attract the interest of the media or vocal advocacy groups that lead to political opposition.  Unfortunately it’s these issues that an Opposition will latch on to, believing that taking an opposite view to the Government will gain it merit in the eyes of voters.

“We need more collaboration in politics

when it’s in the best interest of the country

and less an attitude that political point scoring is best.”

While it’s understandable that an Opposition will take advantage of the free ride it’ll get from media exposure, it shouldn’t be an automatic default position on every issue.  In recent times in Australia we’ve had two significant issues, both received a lot of media attention but the Labor government of the day could have handled at least one of the issues differently to reduce the political fallout and gain voter kudos.

The first issue was the introduction of a carbon tax.  Labor did this with little consultation and in fact had promised prior to the election that it wouldn’t introduce a carbon tax.  To appease its relationship with the Greens and in the misguided view it could sell a tax to the Australian people it went down the path of implementing a tax.  It was an issue that was never going to achieve political collaboration except with the Greens, which was irrelevant to its political longevity.  The issue provided to the conservative Opposition a gift in that it knew there was widespread opposition to an additional tax because of the impact on cost of living, but worse for the Government, it had told a ‘great big lie’ and reneged on its pre-election promise of no tax.  Political Collaboration was not possible on this issue even though reducing emission pollution is a good objective environmentally.

The second issue with some smart politics and employing political collaboration could have been a winner for Labor but it was too bound up in its dislike for the Opposition, its own philosophical view of life and arrogance on how it should be delivered.  This issue was the implementation of a National Broadband Network (NBN).  Nationally it’s a good idea; develop an Internet highway for the country.  It is a popular idea and one difficult for an Opposition to oppose, particularly if it was turned into a politically collaborative process.  However, while Labor could have turned itself into a winner it chose not to.  It should have treated the project as too important to be tainted by base politics and invited not only the Opposition but also various interest groups into a collaborative venture.  The result would have been that any political issues would have been neutralised but more importantly the development of the NBN program would have been successful.  For example, the Opposition spokesperson on communications could have been appointed to the NBN board to make it a bi-partisan effort.

Unfortunately given the cost is now likely to exceed $60 billion Labor chose its own course of non-collaboration.  It stacked the NBN board with its preferred appointees; it became an employment centre for Labor supporters (the average salary for employees was $400,000 a year); it developed a plan for roll out which was nonsensical because it didn’t explore the options thoroughly; cost has gone through the roof; and it failed to develop a supporting business case at the start.  Perhaps in the context of ‘political collaboration’ the biggest mistake was to appoint a Minister to oversight the project that pathologically hated the Opposition and was arrogant enough to believe he solely had the skills to deliver such a landmark project.

A ‘politically collaborative’ approach could have turned the NBN project into a political winner for Labor but it chose to put politics first.  Unfortunately political parties come to the conclusion that political collaboration is good only when there’s a national threat that then drives the formation of a unity government, as in the Second World War in Australia and Britain.  A unified and collaborative approach to the delivery of key government programs, without politicisation, would benefit the ruling party and the country but it requires political leaders to rise above the view that everything is about political warfare.  It would even benefit an Opposition that in the near future might be the Government, demonstrated by the new conservative government in Australia now having to sought out the NBN mess. We need more collaboration in politics when it’s in the best interest of the country and less an attitude that political point scoring is best.


Question for discussion:

 Four elements contribute to a successful ‘political collaboration’ relationship; these are in order of importance:

1. Politics – if the political stars don’t align then it’s unlikely parties will collaborate; politics is not an altruistic business.

2. Policy – through horse-trading the policy approach will need to be agreed; while philosophical positions may exist there is probably always a middle path.

3. People – it’s critical the right people undertake the process of collaboration from start to finish to ensure success; political zealots are unlikely to be suitable participants but political pragmatists are.

4. Process – an important element but not a deal breaker; essentially how will the agreed collaborative exercise be managed.

What are your views on the key success factors for each of the above 4 elements?


Richard Williams is a policy analyst with extensive executive experience in government and the private and not-for-profit sectors. He runs his own consultancy service assisting organisations to develop strategies, understand the working of government and in addition provides a research service.  He was formerly the President of Volunteering Queensland and Vice President of Volunteering Australia.  His website is www.ideasgrew.com.au and e mail richard@ideasgrew.com.au


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