Jack Waterford June 02, 2012
The deputy Speaker, Anna Burke thinks the level of civility in the House of Representatives has never been so low. There's a personal vitriol, ferocity and intensity of debate she has not seen before in 14 years of Parliament.
And it's not just between parliamentarians, it seems. There's a new nastiness and venom in emails from constituents, she says. I don't read her mail, but, from the mail I see and get, she's right. I can remember times when hostilities slowed, or ceased, at lunch and dinner. And times when there was great personal anger and bitterness - against Malcolm Fraser, for example, after 1975, at least until we understood that he was a bit of a sook.
But there's an edge to the present contest that really seems to have extra added sting. It's evident in the chamber, on radio talk-back, in blogs and even in dinner table discussion. It's not equal opportunity. Nearly all is directed at Julia Gillard, and it seems personal, rather than business, in terms of anger, sheer hatred, and fury. There's a lot of people who simply do not, do not seem able to like her. That's not unusual for a political figure; what is unusual is how passionate and visceral the dislike seems to be. And how irrational, plainly masking something else.
Some, by their language are only just restraining themselves from striking her. Some, by their language, seem, to be actively egging others on to do just that.
There are a lot of people who dislike Tony Abbott too, just as, in the past, there have been a lot of people who have intensely disliked the persons they have imagined John Howard, or Mark Latham, or whomever, to be. But even when the criticism, or the distrust, has been scathing, it has seemed rather more impersonal than the rage at Gillard.
It's nothing Gillard has said, or, strictly speaking, done. It's not even, strictly, what she stands for, if that is simply a fairly classic ambitious Labor moral vacuum. There's plenty of them around, and most, even as leaders, have never aroused anger as she has.
Her manner of speaking, or dressing, or behaving in Parliament has detractors as well as fans, but, generally, the traffic on such accounts is a part of the gam. She has always been a volunteer, and, it does not, in the end, make a great difference. Anyone who has had close dealings with her will testify to her friendliness, capacity to relax and get on with strangers, to get the point, and to say, in small groups, most of the right things. She does not lack spontaneity.
She does not have an active following - in the sense of a can-do-no-wrong fan club - in the way there is a group of people for wrong she simply cannot do anything right. This is not insignificant, but not indeliberate: Gillard is where she is because she moved to the middle in politics unconcerned about the way that she, and the policies she now advocated, distressed the left of her party and ultimately made them abandon it. A significant proportion of this Australian non-Labor vote feel no emotional attachment whatever to Labor.
That's she's a woman, and our first woman prime minister, must make a difference, but I am not convinced that her polarising effect comes simply from sexism. It shouldn't; there are many people, including men, whose wanting her to succeed comes in part because she is a woman, and, in any event, not only have women been around in numbers in politics for years, but any number of successful women - Nicola Roxon, Tanya Plibersek, and Julie Bishop - do not excite the animosity she does. One must, however, acknowledge that the repeated use of the word ''bitch'' is evidence for the proposition that her feminity is an additional cross - perhaps insult - for her enemies to bear.
The ire, it seems, is because she is there when others believe they should be there in her place. Tony Abbott may not have gone into the last election convinced he would win, but there was a time when he seemed to think he had won. Labor, at the least, had a minority of seats. So did he, but he assumed that it would be easier for him to secure the support of independents. He was outmanoeuvred, but has never accepted or admitted the legitimacy of Gillard's right to govern.
Fresh events - the seduction of Peter Slipper, the disgrace of Craig Thomson - are used to underline the attack on her very right to govern. So important is this point to Abbott that he is continually careless about the words he uses to insist
that Gillard should simply do the decent thing and die.
A time will come when the Coalition will regret many of the forms of words they have used to define circumstances when ministers, or members, must step down, or, perhaps, resign from Parliament.
Abbott has done more than his share of work to make the attack on his rival personal and bitter. But he is not the only one who has felt betrayed, and furious that Labor continues to govern, either unaware of its lack of right to do so, or, perhaps, conscious of but contemptuous about the popular will. Because many such people live in environments of largely like-minded people, there are circles in which conversation about the iniquity of this not only leads to visceral fury, but a conviction that the nation is running down the drain, and going broke. Not least because those dreaded socialists back in Canberra have borrowed us into bankruptcy, handing out money hand over fist to their favoured constituents, and determined to drive every productive industry, particularly mining and agriculture, into the ground. Facts are rarely useful in countering such strongly held impressions.
Those feelings get extra added curdle from the carbon tax ''lie''. Tony Abbott can claim much of the credit for using this ''lie'' to such effect, and of developing it to the point where Gillard now has major problems of credibility, and authenticity. Why should we trust her on anything? the suspicious say.
It is not to the point that there are differences between a promise of future intention and a lie. Nor any point in explaining why she changed her mind, or how her continuing pursuit of an emissions trading scheme means that there was not that much of a lie involved. These are points which have been made by outsiders rather than by her - indeed without much help from her.
Gillard simply failed to defend herself when Abbott was making the charges. She failed to effectively take the electorate into her confidence. Nor did she use the formidable public relations machinery available to her in government to put her case. The lasting hits on Gillard's credibility went by default. Significantly too, the public doubts about Abbott come not from government attack, but public instinct. Gillard has been quite unsuccessful in hurting him.
Some of the more modern suits seem to think that politics is essentially a cerebral and rational activity. They forget how much politics is of the heart, the emotions and the passions. They sometimes seem to think that one needs only to explain things once, and that everyone who is rational will be convinced and that everyone will remember. In fact it is just the right ideas and policies that need to be explained, justified and resold continually. That is politics.
Perversely, many such politicians also hold much of the population in contempt and think that the business of political iteration, reiteration and explanation is a matter of the constant and dreary repetition of meaningless slogans and phrases. There's not a person in Australia who does not know a dozen Gillardisms - about ''moving forward'' or ''working families'', for example, but without any lasting memory of what, if anything, she was trying to sell.
Ten years from now, independent observers will admit that the Gillard government was economically conservative, reasonably far-thinking in its energy policies, and uncommonly nimble and able in coping with the global financial crisis. They will give Gillard reasonable credit for her education and training policies and infrastructure development. But they will, if anything, be even more critical than observers are today about her lack of political nous and wit - her inability to develop, explain and sell policies to the broader public. They may well contrast this incapacity, and want of public credibility, with her success in getting her legislative program through Parliament and in charming small groups.
Gillard now sees a moment of truth coming - that is, if her party has not already panicked and determined to deny her a last chance. The carbon tax arrives on July 1. Abbott has been predicting that this will be the moment of doom, the point at which the economy simply chokes. In fact, Gillard, her party and the Treasury confidently expect, nothing much will be different, on July 1 or in the days after. Suddenly, they hope, the scales will fall from the people's eyes. They will realise that they have been misled by Abbott and that all of his doomsaying has been nonsense. Their general belief of him, and his critique of Labor, will collapse, and they will come to embrace Gillard and give her, and her government, credit for the great job they have been doing. This, in the dream, is her triumph.
I should not be surprised if all of the prophecies of doom prove false. This should do damage to Abbott's credibility. But, somehow, I doubt that it will make much difference to the fate of Gillard or the Labor Government. It's too late. It's gone on too long. Opinions, right or wrong, have become too settled. And if there were anyone there - in the still vast publicly-funded Labor machine - able to exploit the opportunities, one would have expected that one would have seen them in action already.