With the silly season upon us, it’s easy to feel a little bit bored with politics. It’s the end of the first year of a Federal Government’s term, school’s out in Canberra, and there are two years to wait for the next election. Most of the Government’s work is going on quietly behind the scenes and the Opposition is trying desperately to score points that aren’t really there to be scored. Makes watching Neighbours re-runs and reading the Herald Sun seem like viable entertainment options.
Looking back at 2008, though, it’s hard to deny that it’s been a corker of a year for politicians behaving badly. Let’s count down the Top 10 Wingnuts and Tragics of ’08.
10. The demon spawn that wasn’t
Everyone’s used to the odd insult being thrown around in Parliament — the legend of Paul Keating is largely based on his ability to cut down opponents with a spontaneous and withering riposte — but in 2008 the House of Representatives was witness to one of the most bizarre attempts at intimidation ever, when Labor MP Belinda Neal announced that Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella’s unborn baby "would turn into a demon if you have such evil thoughts". Top marks for originality, Belinda, but a "fail" for tact and taste.
9. John Howard’s victory lap
John Howard, never one to wallow in hubris, has spent most of 2008 doing a victory lap after his humiliating defeat at the 2007 election. It’s been the equivalent of a retiring AFL footballer walking around the MCG after losing his final game 230-17. But on a zimmer frame. And with the grandstands empty.
Most of Howard’s victory lap has been around the US — where people actually like him. There are countless obscure conservative organisations across that land who are more than happy to give Our John medals for defending democracy and celebrating capitalism. Our John is more than happy to give long, insipid acceptance speeches about his legacy. And most Australians are more than happy for Our John to become Their John and stay there forever.
8. Steve Fielding’s 15 minutes
On 1 July, when the new and finely balanced Senate was unleashed, Family First’s Steve Fielding got a sniff of relevance, liked what he done smelled, and let it go straight to his head. One of his first acts was to oppose the alcohol tax legislation that his Party of goons had been spruiking for ages because… well… only God knows why. Then he took up the case of Britt Lapthorne, the Australian backpacker who was apparently murdered in Croatia, grilling the chief of the AFP on behalf of families and the Pentecostals, and achieving exactly nothing in the process.
Leave it to Today Tonight, Steve.
7. Hockey asks, nation answers
Liberal Party leadership aspirant, Joe Hockey: "Will everyone please stop bashing up the Liberal Party at the moment?"
After Kevin 07’s embrace of the social intertubes during last year’s campaign everyone seems to have jumped on the bandwagon. The problem is that Web2.0 is only really Web2.0 if those social networking tools are used properly, otherwise it’s just Web1.3. And no matter how many Facebook and Flickr badges Christopher Pyne puts on his website it’s still about as interactive as a parking meter.
One of the first runners out of the gates was ex-Foreign Minister Alexander Downer. In between hosting shifts on an Adelaide radio station, going for lunch, and brief stints in Parliament, Downer started a blog that served only to drop oh-so-casually the names of worldwide political figures. In the space of about a dozen posts we read all about how Dolly is, like, bestest friends with "Condi" Rice, Madeline Albright, Jacques Chirac, Ban Ki Moon, and Chris Patten.
Before too long Kevin was on Twitter, and Malcy was too. Turnbull does his own Twittering from his own BlackBerry while Kevin has a "team" do his for him. That said, 85 per cent of Malcolm’s Tweets are "Look at me! I’m on public transport!" announcements.
5. Rise of the political staffer as wet nurse
Most voters probably hold the quaint and outdated notion that elected representatives form their own opinions, do their own work, and strongly believe in the message they communicate.
Ex-solicitor and graduate of Harvard Business School, Julie Bishop, showed that she takes the responsibilities of deputy leadership of the Liberals, along with the ethics of academia, so seriously that she had a staffer whip up a book chapter on her behalf. And in a remarkable coincidence, "her" vision of the Liberal Party’s guiding philosophy is exactly the same as some obscure ex-pollie from New Zealand.
4. Peter Costello’s neverending death throes
Will he? Won’t he? Well, he will if it’s handed to him on a silver platter with a 21 gun salute and royal decree; he won’t if he has to show the slightest hint of guts and fight for something he so desperately (and pathetically) wants. It’s much, much easier instead to sulk petulantly and carp from the sidelines. Oh, and write a book that can’t decide what it wants to be: memoir of a significant career in politics, or an advertisement for a future tilt at the leadership.
3. Malcolm’s opposition of power
The political scene changed when Malcolm Turnbull came to the leadership, and many people thought the Liberals’ prospects might too. But a good couple of months after the rise of Turnbull there’s not a lot of evidence that the electorate is interested in the prospect of a Turnbull government.
But maybe Malcy isn’t worried about winning government because he’s happy with opposition. He shamelessly took credit (from opposition) for banks passing on a greater percentage of interest rates cuts than called for by the Government, because his opposition is clearly the most powerful and influential opposition in the history of oppositions. They might as well be in government they’re so powerful.
Malcom’s so sure of his power in opposition that he gets a bit sulky when the Government won’t play all nice and bipartisan (like on the financial crisis) despite there having been a clear winner and loser in November ’07.
2. Kevin Rudd’s rollercoaster
Kevin Rudd’s first year in government has attracted mixed reviews, and by late in the year the voters who had invested so much of themselves in a Rudd victory were looking for a sign that they hadn’t been betrayed. So what does Rudd give them as a Scrooge-esque Christmas present? A big shit sandwich.
Monday’s announcement that Labor would set a national target of a 5 per cent reduction in greenhouse emissions on 2000 levels by 2020 was a massive kick in the teeth for those Australians who had foolishly believed Rudd’s spin that he was serious about, not just tackling climate change, but setting an example for the rest of the world to follow. If a House of Representatives seat is held by 5 per cent or less it’s considered marginal, and the greenhouse target isn’t any better.
But the number one moment in federal politics 2008, with a bullet, is actually many moments put together. It’s the man, the legend, the political blogger’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s…
1. Brendan Nelson
Observing politics simply doesn’t get any better: a decimated political force, lacking direction and discipline, led in the wake of a crushing defeat by a decimated political force, lacking direction and discipline.
After a disastrous few months of bumbling, including an embarrassing response to Kevin Rudd’s apology to Indigenous Australians in Parliament, Nelson was struggling to score double-digit approval ratings. So there was anticipation in the air when Brendan Nelson was asked by a journalist how he was going to turn around his abysmal polling, and his Terminator-like answer surely struck fear into Kevin Rudd’s heart: "You watch." And, boy, did we watch a train wreck.
This was not the only one of Nelson’s short, snappy and meaningless answers to journalists’ questions. When asked what the Liberals had to offer in a by-election that Labor did not, Nelson replied dramatically with the name of the Liberal candidate. Again, Rudd must’ve been shaking in his Dunlop K26s.
Brendan tried desperately to communicate with middle Australia — he listened but they didn’t, but his mindless repetition of themes simply became a drinking game. He tried to keep Rudd accountable by liberally (pun intended) applying his Blanchett Test, his Pub Test, and the brilliant Solar Panel Defence and Hockey Distraction, but simply couldn’t get any traction.
So it was an inevitable, but truly a sad day for Australian democracy when Brendan Nelson’s leadership died. It’ll be decades before we score another Brendan.
Merry Christmas and a happy new year, newmatildans. May 2009 be as fruitful for political wingnuttery as 2008!
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.