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The problems with hacks

‘A political hack is a negative term ascribed to a person who is part of the political party apparatus, but whose intentions are more aligned with victory than personal conviction.’ – Wikipedia (6/3/16)

While even Wikipedia knows hacks are a bad thing, hacks and their hackery occupy a special place in Australian politics, carrying out the bulk of work within all parties. We wouldn’t have the democracy we do without them.

They are the hyper-ideological frontline soldiers who go into battle whenever the need arises, carrying out the orders of the campaign managers, warlords and MPs without question. If you need someone to rip down an opponent’s poster or savage someone on Twitter, the hacks have your back.

Given the inescapable similarities between political parties and religious institutions, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that their adherents are devoted – and that, in itself, is not a bad thing. It is actually a shame that we don’t have more people who feel passionately about politics and join political parties. There is no shame in being a true believer, but political fundamentalism is toxic.

At the same time, there are plenty of party members who are focused more on issues than the political football game. You can spot the non-hacks by their intellectually honest approach to the ideas of their own side and their capacity to applaud or critique as needed. The best of them search for common ground and shared aspirations between parties and across ideologies.

Nevertheless, it is the hacks who dominate the airspace like policy-eating zombies. Try to say something on social media these days and watch the hacks come out to accuse, abuse and drown out your perfectly sensible commentary. They make complex policy discussions impossible.

The heart of the problem with a democratic system that is built on hackery is that it is never going to be able to focus properly on issues. Everything is about who’s winning the game rather than what the game actually means. It is no wonder the majority of Australians are disconnected and disillusioned with our politics.

We will always have hacks, but we do need a greater number of people who look past the battle lines. All of our political parties, from the Liberals and Labor to the Greens and the microparties, need more critical friends and fewer sycophants. Healthy parties and healthy politics needs supporters who care as much about policy outcomes as election outcomes.

We need true political leadership, from our MPs, party officials and ordinary members. We need to find the areas where agreement can be reached and complex social, economic and environmental issues can be debated and advanced.

Most of all, we need to be able to hold our membership cards in one hand and our humanity in the other, acknowledging that all but the most extreme parties have some ideas of value and that the members of those parties deserve respect  – even if we don’t agree with what they are saying.

People bemoan our political culture, but where are the people showing us a different way? Well, they are probably being shouted down on Facebook and Twitter by hacks from their own parties and/or their political opponents. Many good people have walked away from party politics due to harassment and bullying.

There is no glory in standing up for good policy and process in Australian politics. Yet somehow we need to find more people prepared to do it. It is time to invite people back into the political conversation and start a genuine exchange of views.

In a true contest of ideas we all win.