Shock, horror — Pollies are are changing their minds | OPINION

"And then there’s cigar-smoking Joe the Liberal heavyweight who now presides over such homicidal policy because it doesn’t affect him." Picture: FAIRFAX

"And then there’s cigar-smoking Joe the Liberal heavyweight who now presides over such homicidal policy because it doesn’t affect him." Picture: FAIRFAX

There’s just so much to love about the Nine News report on the student protests against higher education fees from 1987 that suddenly re-emerged this week.

Peter Harvey, for example, with his celebrated, impossibly low, authoritative tones coming (as they almost always did) from Canberra.

His awful brown suit, matched only by the dated fashion of the student protesters he was covering. But the star turn comes undoubtedly from a young Joe Hockey, pledging to “go out onto the streets and to protest ... in our campaign for free education”.

Touche.

As archival footage goes, it’s a good get. But here’s the question: beyond the obvious entertainment value, why should we care about this?

The implicit charge — frequently made explicit by an array of internet warriors — is one of hypocrisy.

There’s socialist Joe the student unionist who thought deregulating tertiary fees was “suicidal for student welfare”, and there’s cigar-smoking Joe the Liberal heavyweight who now presides over such homicidal policy because it doesn’t affect him.

We’re being asked to conclude that one of them is disingenuous or has sold out to the other. What we’re not being asked to conclude is that someone’s position might change over the course of 27 years.

Or that the world might have changed sufficiently in that time to make someone feel a change in position is justified.

In short, we’re being asked to hold Mr Hockey to an inhuman standard that demands he adopt one position on all things throughout his life irrespective of circumstance.

On that score Labor’s shadow assistant treasurer, Andrew Leigh, might empathise. He has spent a good chunk of this week sitting in Parliament watching the Abbott government throw his own prose back in his face.

Mr Leigh, it appears, was once a fan of deregulating university fees in precisely the way Mr Hockey wasn’t.

This he committed to print in book form in 2004, a year after he had written an op-ed spruiking co-payments for GP visits much as the Coalition has now proposed.

The government seems to think this is some sort of miraculous, decisive gift.

But, again: why should we care?

Like Mr Hockey, Mr Leigh was a student at the time. Is it possible that a decade of exposure to new ideas and experiences might have led him to change his view?

It’s a substance-free, opportunistic way of arguing that the Abbott government has chosen — and now that the Hockey-as-free-education-warrior vision has emerged, we can expect the Labor opposition to return the favour.

Neither Mr Leigh’s nor Mr Hockey’s volte-faces are scandalous. In fact, they both sit comfortably with the broader world views they have most recently expressed.

Mr Leigh writes about inequality and the stubbornness of privilege in exactly the manner you might expect of someone who has since abandoned ideas such as university fee deregulation.

Mr Hockey famously spoke about ending the “age of entitlement” even as his party was defending middle-class welfare.

The idea that they should be embarrassed to have once thought differently, or that this exposes them as partisan hypocrites, merely exposes our political culture as one of confected warfare, where changes of heart are automatic evidence of dishonesty rather than of reflection.

We should instead be demanding that our representatives change their views over time.

And it follows they should have the freedom to be persuaded without attracting some kind of summary judgment for it.

Politicians should be people whose positions swing and evolve.

If we have inhuman demands of them, we might just find that inhuman brutes, impervious to thought, are the only ones capable of meeting our requirements.

Waleed Aly is hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.

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