Advocating Alternative Political Resolution

I proposed the idea of alternative political resolution (APR) in a 2015 blog post about potential future developments in mediation. Now I’d like to explore the idea in more detail in light of the Global Pound Conference Series and related discussions about shaping the future of dispute resolution. I imagine APR as a process by which politicians with different views engage with each other, confidentially, with the help of an impartial third party, and work out policy or legislation solutions that satisfy all sides of the political debate.

In my previous article I suggested that since alternative dispute resolution (ADR) has become an effective alternative to the adversarial litigation system, APR could become an effective alternative to adversarial political systems. Politicians represent the variety of views of the population and, through intelligent debate, are supposed to make collective decisions that reflect the values of both the majority and minority of representatives as well as addressing their concerns. Yet it is not uncommon these days to see politicians blaming and criticising each other rather than constructively discussing policy and legislation.

My impressions are primarily based on adversarial politics in Australia, the USA and the UK, which feature two opposing major parties and a high level of polarisation.  Admittedly, there are countries with different political systems and more constructive political debates but this article focuses on APR rather than electoral reform.

I have observed two habits that, I believe, hinder the effective functioning of government: blaming opposing politicians and sticking to fixed, often simplistic positions on issues. Now I’d like to explore how APR could help to make politics less adversarial, more collaborative and more interest-based.

From blame to cooperation

The culture of blame seems to be driven by a need for political survival – politicians keen to convince the public to vote for them and not for their opponents. But what could be the causes of this culture that APR might address?

Perhaps adversarialism is less prevalent in parliaments with proportional representation and more political variety. Without clear majorities, political parties are forced to be more cooperative with their opponents, to form coalitions and negotiate mutually satisfying solutions. But vicious political competition is present not only in two-party systems so perhaps there are other factors at play.

The adversarial culture is heavily fuelled by mass media and a preference for sensationalism over critical thinking. The media, politicians and the public are closely interconnected. Here, APR could play the role of a catalyst to influence all three, promoting a change in the political culture from denouncing opponents to constructively discussing problems facing society. Even influencing one can influence the others – for example, a public demanding more constructive politics through APR should make the media less sensationalist and give politicians more room to be cooperative with their opponents.

Once opposing politicians engage in a collaborative APR process on an issue, they will naturally have more joint ownership of the problem and should be more motivated to cooperate rather than to seek to undermine each other. However, one could argue that cooperating with opponents rather than competing reduces a politician’s chances at the next election. After all, they want to convince the public that they’re the best candidate and that their rivals are incompetent. This is quite common in a two-party system where the opposition party, rather than cooperating, wants to discredit the government and replace them after the next election.

So why would politicians choose cooperation over competition? Apart from the public demanding it and the media emphasising it, I believe that through cooperation politicians will be able to demonstrate their competence, personal views and values, thereby gaining more public support, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum. Politicians will focus on why we should vote for them rather than why shouldn’t vote for their opponents.

From fixed positions to underlying interests

Perhaps politicians stick to fixed, simplistic positions because they have to strictly adhere to their party line, even if it differs from their personal views. To discuss issues in-depth risks saying something inconsistent with the party line or something that could be pounced upon by the media. This has created a culture of awkward, extremely controlled and filtered communication that understandably irritates and disillusions the public.

APR could provide the confidential space for politicians to talk more openly to each other and constructively discuss the interests that form the basis of their public positions. APR could even reconcile seemingly opposing core values. For example, so-called “left wing” and “right wing” politicians could explore the depths of their ideologies and perhaps find common ground or mutually acceptable outcomes.

Voluntary or compulsory?

As in voluntary ADR systems, one politician could offer APR to another, who has a right to refuse it. However, if it becomes clear that parliamentary debate has led to a dead-lock or has degenerated to blaming, the speaker could refer the bill or issue to compulsory APR.

What kind of APR?

In order to promote constructive discussions of issues and exploration of solutions, facilitative mediation may be an appropriate model. On the other hand, a mediator who is familiar with the subject matter may have a more influential and constructive role in the process. For example, there could be panels of evaluative mediators for specific government portfolios: economics, foreign policy, education, healthcare etc. For example, the treasurer and shadow treasurer could take part in APR, mediated by someone specialising in budgetary matters.

When it comes to broader issues of public policy, quite a few politicians may be involved in the debates and so a multi-party facilitation process may be the most appropriate, involving representatives of all the parties and independents as well as, perhaps, co-facilitators.

Public or private?

So far I have discussed confidential APR processes, which should allow politicians to communicate freely without the fear of media or public criticism. However, if we are to encourage a more constructive, cooperative political culture, it would be important to conduct some APR processes in public. This would demonstrate to the public how differing political positions could be explored constructively, unpacking interests and coming up with mutually acceptable solutions rather than bargained trade-offs and compromises. This, in turn, could stimulate more critical thinking amongst citizens and encourage participative democracy instead of the political sensationalism so prevalent today.

I have begun to unpack some of the details of APR, which require a multi-disciplinary approach involving politicians, ADR practitioners, lawyers and other professionals. Some of the ideas may seem simplistic or unrealistic but I think it’s time to question the status quo of adversarial politics, just as adversarial litigation was questioned by proponents of ADR. I hope to stimulate discussion of the above and other aspects of APR, to flesh out professional processes that could be promoted and eventually introduced into our political systems.

Written by Alex Azarov.


Alex Azarov
is a Sydney-based professional mediator with an interest in international conflicts and dialogues. Most recently, he worked in Ukraine on a project connecting and supporting local dialogue initiatives. Prior to that, he mediated tenancy disputes in Brisbane and had also worked as a tenant advocate at a community legal centre in Sydney. Alex hopes that one day we might live in peace with each other and our environment.

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