Consensus Politics – Mirage or Reality?

Julia Gillard has just scraped back into office as Prime Minister after the independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott announced they would support Labor to form a minority government.  Their support will give Ms Gillard the narrowest of margins in the 150-member House of Representatives, bringing to 76 the number of MPs willing to support a minority Labor government.  It brings a welcome end to the impasse which has meant the continuation of a ”caretaker” situation well beyond the election – and a lack of capacity for substantive decisions to be made.

“Consensus Politics” is a term that has been used extensively by some during the 17 days of uncertainty – presumably in the hope of bringing about a different style of politics.  The phrase was first used to describe the practice of government in Britain between 1945 and 1979.  Since Gillard’s rise to the top job, Rudd’s style has been unfavourably contrasted with her “consensus approach”.  What will be played out over the coming weeks and months will provide evidence one way or the other about how serious various individuals and factions actually are about adopting a different style of politics.

The old style of adversarial politics is often derided in society of course, with numerous commentators describing the behaviours of some politicians as being better suited to the playground.  Of course, while there is nothing inherently unhealthy in disagreement, in politics it often plays out as bitter adversarial disputes and not generally conducive to sensible policy making.

We are usually quick to jump on the ‘let’s belt up the politicians’ bandwagon.  Far from defending that type of destructive behaviour, I do wonder though how different we are in an organisational context?  My contention is that we are actually not that different – it’s just that in politics it’s usually more public for the rest of us to sit back in the lounge chair and judge.  The stance often taken in organisations is just as adversarial and self serving – however it usually occurs behind closed doors or by stealth.

We all need to reflect on how we behave every day in our own workplaces.  As some in politics are calling for a more conciliatory approach, I am also calling for a less combative and individual focus in organisations.  The old command and control style of management and leadership is also still alive and well in organisations today.  We have just dressed it up to look more collaborative and empowering.  At the heart of many organisational cultures is the belief that people need to be closely managed and supervised.  Instead, we need to start trusting our people and engendering a level of belief in their abilities and potential to such an extent that they also believe it – and then get out of their way.

So in conclusion, is consensus politics a mirage or reality? Only time, focused attention, hard work and lots of real dialogue will get us there.