If we take anything from the COVID-19 pandemic, it might be that nothing worthwhile happens without collaboration and its inseparable twin, compromise.
There has been a growing tendency to sideline these sensible approaches to problem-solving in Australia’s public debates, and to instead win battles through political strength and favour. Human history repeatedly shows where this tactic takes us: into never-ending dispute and dysfunction that makes progress impossible, while reinforcing the idea that the only path to success is total victory over the opposition.
The pandemic has reminded us that collaboration is possible and desirable. The dramatic decline of cross-bench snarking from our politicians is one of the best gifts a virus could give us – although only an optimist would imagine that our politics won’t return to its old sad ways.
But at least for now, there seems to be a chance of reform through collaboration. We’re living through a vast global experiment in which the functioning of societies capable of collaboration and compromise can be compared with those that can’t muster these qualities. Those that can work together are clearly getting through the pandemic in better shape than those that can’t – with the added benefit that in nations doing well, there is a quiet, shared pride in pulling together.
Can we use this experience to revisit some old sores, like the decades-old battles over the Murray-Darling Basin, land clearing and agriculture’s social licence?
There’s an assumption here that old adversaries might be prepared to revisit these contested areas from new perspectives. There is no guarantee that will be the case, but perhaps making new approaches in a world being unexpectedly remade will produce new results.
Just as tribalism encourages greater tribalism, brokering new deals on old churned-over problems using collaboration and compromise may inspire a similar approach to other challenges.
It has often been said that the definition of madness is to keep failing the same way. On several fronts, Australia has failed to address some big issues around agriculture, especially regarding natural resources, and we seem to be failing harder as we have moved towards a more partisan approach to problem-solving.
Here’s a chance to throw out old stalemates and start talking across the barriers that have been built, to some degree accidentally, and to have a real discussion about what shared success looks like. I’m not sure the opportunity will arise again.
By Robbie Sefton
Robbie Sefton has a dual investment in rural Australia as a farmer, producing wool, meat and grains, and as managing director of national marketing communications company Seftons.
This article was published in The Land newspaper on 07 May 2020. Link to the article can be found here – https://www.theland.com.au/story/6745237/now-time-for-some-grounded-debate/