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Civility in Politics: A Lost Art?

In an age where political discourse increasingly resembles a battleground rather than a forum for reasoned debate, the erosion of civility within the political arena has become a pressing concern. This decline, evident in legislative bodies and public forums alike, signals a shift from constructive disagreement to a polarised, confrontational style of interaction. The Australian context, particularly in the Northern Territory, provides a poignant illustration of this worrying trend.

Historically, politics, despite its inherent conflicts and disagreements, maintained a veneer of civility. Lawmakers and politicians, while often at odds ideologically, adhered to a set of unspoken rules—a gentleman's agreement of sorts. This decorum fostered an environment where ideas could clash without personal animosity, where opponents could fiercely debate during the day and share a congenial meal by night.

However, recent developments have seen a marked departure from this tradition. The Northern Territory, known for its diverse cultural tapestry and unique political landscape, has not been immune to this shift. Instances of heated exchanges, personal attacks, and an overall decline in the quality of political discourse are symptoms of a broader, more systemic issue. The current sitting Chief Minister only evicted from parliament due to such behaviour months prior to her appointment.

One illustrative example is the increasingly acrimonious tone of parliamentary debates. Gone are the days of measured, albeit passionate, discussions. In their place, we now often see a theatre of personal vendettas and sensationalism, where the focus is on scoring points rather than addressing the nuances of policy and governance. This degradation is not merely a matter of etiquette; it fundamentally undermines the democratic process. When politicians engage in this manner, the real issues at stake—those affecting the lives of everyday Australians—are sidelined.

The roots of this decline are varied. The rise of social media and 24-hour news cycles has created an environment where sensationalism trumps substance. Politicians, in a bid to capture public attention and sway popular opinion, often resort to inflammatory rhetoric and oversimplified narratives. This approach, while effective in garnering immediate attention, fosters a divisive and hostile political climate.

Moreover, the polarised nature of modern politics, where ideological extremes dominate the discourse, exacerbates this issue. The middle ground, once a place of compromise and mutual understanding, is increasingly seen as a no-man's land, to be avoided rather than embraced. This polarisation is not just a theoretical concern; it has real-world implications. Policies and legislative measures, rather than being the product of careful deliberation and consensus, often become battlegrounds for ideological warfare. These legislative Acts and regulations that have not endured effective debate or discourse are then subject to a range of reinterpretations by the judiciary, often with cases brought to the fore by taxpayer-funded NGOs and interest groups seeking to advance their own agendas. Activist judges and civil administrative delegates are all too happy to push unelected ideas that often exacerbate discrimination, harm, and even deaths in marginalised communities.

The case of the Northern Territory's approach to indigenous affairs is a case in point. A topic that requires sensitive, nuanced discussion often becomes a flashpoint for heated, divisive debates. The complexity of the issues, from land rights to cultural preservation, demands a level of discourse that transcends petty political point-scoring. Yet, more often than not, these discussions devolve into polarised arguments, with little room for the thoughtful consideration needed to address such complex matters effectively.

In addressing this decline in civility, it is crucial to look beyond mere surface-level solutions. Calls for politeness and decorum, while well-intentioned, do not address the underlying issues. What is required is a fundamental shift in how political discourse is approached—a move away from the adversarial, winner-take-all mentality to one that values dialogue, mutual respect, and the recognition that complex issues require complex solutions.

This shift is not just the responsibility of politicians; it is a societal imperative. The public, the media, and educational institutions all play a role in shaping the political landscape. By demanding higher standards of our political representatives, by valuing depth and nuance over sensationalism, and by fostering an environment where diverse viewpoints are not just tolerated but encouraged, we can begin to reverse this trend.

This decline of civility in politics is a complex issue with far-reaching implications. The Northern Territory, with its unique challenges and opportunities, serves as a microcosm of this broader trend. Addressing this issue requires a concerted effort across all levels of society. Only through a collective commitment to elevating the quality of our political discourse can we hope to revive the lost art of civil political disagreement.

The decline in political civility, as witnessed in the Northern Territory and beyond, is not just a superficial problem of manners and etiquette; it reflects a deeper crisis in the democratic process. The implications of this crisis extend far beyond the walls of parliament and the confines of political debates. They seep into the fabric of society, influencing how citizens perceive their leaders, engage with political processes, and interact with each other on contentious issues.

The effects of this decline are particularly noticeable in the Northern Territory, a region known for its distinctive political and cultural landscape. The Territory’s diverse population, including a significant Indigenous community, faces unique challenges that require thoughtful, inclusive political discourse. The decline in civility hampers the ability of political leaders and institutions to effectively address these challenges. When political discussions become battlegrounds, dominated by hostility and disrespect, the opportunity for genuine dialogue and understanding is lost.

This breakdown in civil discourse also has a broader societal impact. It contributes to a growing sense of disillusionment and cynicism among the public. When citizens witness their leaders engaging in petty squabbles and personal attacks, their trust in the political system erodes. This disillusionment can lead to decreased civic engagement, lower voter turnout, and an overall weakening of democratic processes.

Additionally, the example that political leaders set has a trickle-down effect. It influences how individuals in society discuss and engage with contentious issues. In the Northern Territory, where discussions around Indigenous rights, land use, and cultural preservation are particularly sensitive, the need for respectful, informed discourse is vital. The decline in political civility risks polarising these discussions further, hindering the possibility of finding balanced, fair solutions.

The recurring patterns of history have repeatedly shown that discriminatory actions often engender a cycle of retribution and backlash. When the scales of privilege tilt excessively to one side, there is an inevitable and stark swing to the opposite extreme, as those affected seek to restore a sense of equilibrium. It is in these moments of dramatic oscillation that individuals are most exposed to harm. Tragically, it is often the ordinary citizen who bears the brunt of this tumult, sometimes even at the cost of their lives, during these periods of retaliatory upheaval.

There needs to be a concerted effort to redefine the norms of political engagement. Politicians, as public figures, must lead by example. This means prioritising substance over sensationalism, engaging in debates with respect and openness, and actively listening to opposing viewpoints. Political leaders must remember that their primary role is to serve the public interest, not just to advance party agendas or personal ambitions.

The media also plays a crucial role in shaping the nature of political discourse. In the Northern Territory, as elsewhere, media outlets must strive for balanced reporting, providing a platform for diverse perspectives and avoiding the temptation to sensationalise political conflicts. Responsible journalism can help steer public discussions towards more productive, informed debates. The growing calls to defund the national broadcaster are evidence of the real and perceived bias in news reporting.

Educational institutions have a part to play as well. Schools and universities foster a culture of respectful debate and critical thinking. By equipping students with the skills to engage constructively with differing viewpoints, educational institutions help nurture a new generation of informed, civically engaged citizens.

The public must demand higher standards from their political representatives. Civic engagement should not be limited to voting; it should also involve active participation in political discourse, holding leaders accountable, and advocating for a more respectful and constructive political environment. In the Northern Territory, this can take the form of public forums, community discussions, and direct communication with elected representatives to express concerns about the tone and substance of political debates.

Furthermore, engaging with Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory in these dialogues is vital. Their perspectives and experiences can provide invaluable insights into many of the region's most pressing issues. By involving Indigenous voices in a respectful and meaningful way, political discourse can become more inclusive and effective.

The adversarial nature of politics, the influence of special interest groups, and the echo chambers created by social media all pose significant obstacles. Overcoming these challenges requires not just individual efforts but systemic changes. Political parties, for example, could adopt codes of conduct that emphasise civility and respectful engagement. Similarly, electoral and parliamentary reforms that encourage more collaboration and less confrontation could be explored. This doesn't mean the public funding of parties; however, access to funding for political forums, town halls, and public debates could be investigated. This could help foster a more informed and active citizenry.

In the Northern Territory, specific measures might include workshops and training for politicians and their staff on effective communication and conflict resolution. Additionally, community-led initiatives could be supported to facilitate dialogue between politicians and the public on contentious issues.

By collectively committing to a higher standard of political discourse, fostering inclusive and respectful engagement, and implementing practical measures to support these goals, we can begin to restore civility to the political arena. Such efforts are not just beneficial for the health of our democratic institutions; they are essential for the well-being and progress of our society.

From the author.

 The opinions and statements are those of Sam Wilks and do not necessarily represent whom Sam Consults or contracts to. Sam Wilks is a skilled and experienced Security Consultant with almost 3 decades of expertise in the fields of Real estate, Security, and the hospitality/gaming industry. His knowledge and practical experience have made him a valuable asset to many organizations looking to enhance their security measures and provide a safe and secure environment for their clients and staff.


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