Judith Ireland June 01, 2012
Do you ever get the feeling that the best thing for Australian democracy would be to get rid of the federal Parliament? I don’t mean having another election. I mean closing the whole thing down and turning Parliament into a huge Fitness First or Bunnings instead.
The parliamentary week has ended with labels like ‘‘unedifying’’, ‘‘farce’’, ‘‘sad’’ and ‘‘worst ever’’ flying about in a scatter gun of damnations. True, question time was allowed to proceed without interruption for four whole days in a row, but every day there was a new meltdown here in Canberra.
We had the Leader of the Opposition and his parliamentary sidekick sprinting from the House to try and save themselves from a vote they’re trying to convince Australia is ‘‘tainted’’. Apart from the rules and procedures aspect, Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne plain ignored the fact that such behaviour makes Parliament look like an out-of-control year 9 maths class on a Friday afternoon.
We also had MPs telling each other to ‘‘go back to Tasmania and rot’’ and heckles about a ‘‘dead man’’ – the latter precipitating a lecture from a close-to-tears Anna Burke about being more sensitive about suicide.
Then, on Thursday, Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister of this great land, resorted to ageism to have a go at Bronwyn Bishop.
‘‘I note that the younger members of the Opposition backbench really liked that point of order,’’ Gillard observed, after Burke had shut down another one of Bishop’s interruptions. For her part, the B-Bish followed up with a comment about the PM’s schnoz: ‘‘I acknowledge that the Prime Minister wins by a nose’’.
Away from question time, we had Abbott observing to his Coalition colleagues that Gillard wouldn’t ‘‘lie down and die’’ and Tanya Plibersek being forced to remove ‘‘satirical’’ posters from her office bearing pics of Abbott saying: ‘‘I’m threatened by boats and gays’’.
As Parliament wound up, Burke said that in terms of ‘‘personal vitriol’’ and ‘‘ferocity,’’ the last few weeks have been the worst she’s seen in 14 years. Former Democrat senator Natasha Stott Despoja reckoned she couldn’t remember this level of nastiness. ‘‘Even visiting recently I was shocked by the venom of some of the discussions in the place,’’ she said.
On top of the venom, it became increasingly apparent as the week wore on that the government had (once again) thoroughly mismanaged another policy announcement.
As much as Labor talked about the jobs and training opportunities the Roy Hill project would provide for Australia, questions about who was told what, when and what the PM really thought about the Gina thing wouldn’t go away ... even though (or maybe because) Gillard was determined not to answer them.
On the opposition front, the Coalition just kept holding doorstops to argue that the carbon tax will ruin every business, family, man, woman and child come July 1, if not before.
With Gough Whitlam being honoured with a $7 million building refurbishment in Sydney – his government labelled Australia’s ‘‘own touch of Camelot’’ – and John Howard making it into the Queen’s top 24 with an Order of Merit, it was difficult not to draw the conclusion that our current political situation has totally tanked. Where are the Gough and John equivalents today?
But even though the misdeeds and incompetences pile up on a daily basis, we should avoid too much water cooler chat about the sky caving in. Because it isn’t.
Before we bulldoze Parliament to make way for the running machines and the pump classes, the Parliament itself is still functioning.
Bills are being passed in their hundreds, despite the gag motions and stunts. As Rob Oakeshott argued: ‘‘we are also seeing private members bills at a level no Commonwealth Parliament in history has been able to get up.’’
There may be a few clouds over the office, but Anna Burke is bringing an honest and down-to-earth approach to the Speaker’s chair, as someone who is firm but prepared to listen to argument. And this week, among the muck, Gillard delivered a punchy, stand-up line to the miners: ‘‘you don’t own the minerals’’. Something that almost sounded like a cohesive political narrative.
As for the uncreative and unintelligent barbs flying back and forth in Parliament, this is politics in a minority government. Not a political science symposium. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t hope for better. But it’s worth noting that politicians past weren’t hilarious, clever or courteous all the time.
As Alexander Downer put it: ‘‘I do think that former politicians tend to look back and think of better times. Maybe we all do that a little bit in life.’’