Political debate in this country has always been, not to put too fine a point on it, robust. Some of us are old enough to remember the Keating era, when the air above Parliament House was blue with the boisterous slurs and smears being hurled across the dispatch box by the great man, who was never happier than when calling John Howard a maggot-sucking hookworm or slamming John Hewson’s head in a car door.
More recently we had Mark Latham, who would often demand a suspension of standing orders in order that he could tell members of the Coalition frontbench how fat their mothers were. In fact, this tradition of aggressive debate stretches all the way back to before Federation, when Sir Henry Parkes wrote to Queen Victoria to tell her to "faff off you dozy sow".
So let’s not pretend that fruity verbiage is anything new in our public discourse. And let’s not pretend that we don’t quite enjoy it. I myself am a great lover of political hurly-burly, and can think of no better way to spend an afternoon than switching on Question Time and watching grown men and women hoot at each other every time one of them tries to finish a sentence. It’s what makes democracy great, and gums up the works just enough that we don’t get too many things actually happening and giving us headaches.
But frankly, lately things have taken a somewhat nasty turn. It’s all gotten a little bit out of hand, hasn’t it? It’s all got a little bit personal, a little bit hurtful, a little bit "close to the bone", a little bit "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will cause me to develop a lifelong drinking problem". When the Leader of the Opposition stands up in front of a banner reading "Juliar is Bob Browns bitch", what sort of message is that sending to our young people? That it’s OK to disrespect women? That it’s OK to make awkward puns on people’s names? That it’s OK to draw poorly on signs? No wonder our country’s going down the drain.
And it only got worse in Parliament, as the Opposition claimed that Julia Gillard was "delusional" and her government had "schizophrenia" — incredibly reckless claims, since any psychologist knows that the worst thing you can do with the mentally ill is to rub their noses in their disease. Couldn’t the Coalition have humoured the PM? Kept her calm until the professionals arrived? Not made any sudden movements? No, they let their baser instincts get the better of them, and now her delusions will no doubt be worse than ever. I’m sorry, Tony Abbott, you may have meant well, but you get a big fat ZERO on mental health.
Not that the Government was any better, referring to Abbott as a "hollow man". Hollow? This was, at best, a gross exaggeration — the Liberal Lion may have a few more internal cavities than average, but he’s hardly "hollow". I would have thought there was barely room to swing a cat inside Tony Abbott, to be honest, what with all those sinews and energy drinks and such. And even if there was, why would you want to swing a cat inside Tony Abbott? Why would you want to do anything inside Tony Abbott? Why did Julia Gillard feel the need to bring up the Opposition Leader’s interior, forcing us all against our will to go mentally spelunking in his deepest nooks? WHY? Probably the schizophrenia, but is that an excuse? The answer, as always, can only be maybe, proving what uncertain times we live in, when the leader of our nation is batty as Jenolan Caves and the alternative leader might have squirrels living in him.
How did we come to this? I remember an Australia, not so long ago, that was led by men and women with respect for each other, and a certain quiet dignity in the way they carried themselves. Remember Kevin Rudd? Probably not, it was a long time ago, but I remember him. He wouldn’t have called anyone a bitch, or a hollow man, or a schizophrenic, or a climate sceptic. He would have conducted himself impeccably and used words befitting his office, good, clean words that got the message across firmly without offending anyone or being particularly comprehensible.
And I remember how on the other side of the house we had Brendan Nelson, a man so sensitive to the feelings of others that he would burst into tears at the mere suggestion of cruelty or callousness, or sometimes at a light breeze coming through the window. Those were the days. Men of integrity. If only they hadn’t been knifed by those they had once called friends, we could have gone on like that forever, listening to our prime minister witter on blissfully in the background while the Opposition Leader occasionally shook his fist vaguely in the PM’s direction. A peaceful life.
That’s all done with now, isn’t it? In spite of Rob Oakeshott’s assurances, a kinder, gentler polity has failed to eventuate in the new era. The day Rob stood before the nation, bright-eyed and fresh-faced, and said various things, we all sat rapt, watching in awe, dewy-eyed, as we wondered whether he would ever shut up.
Well, now we know: he did shut up. Not only did he shut up, he buggered off and grew a beard. And isn’t that a poignant metaphor for our nation? The beautiful face of the Australia we once knew, marred by the beard of incivility and hatred. The beard of anger and prejudice. The beard of vitriol and Barnaby Joyce.
When will we get rid of this beard? When will Australia finally have the inner moral fortitude to give itself a shave? Shall we ever more see our body politic stick out a smooth, naked chin and say, "yes, we may have our differences, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fake a certain level of good manners when in public"?
The language of the public sphere has mutated. From robust yet respectful, it has become ugly, trashy, and a little bit embarrassing. If we are ever to take pride in our democracy again, we need to find a way to make our leaders settle down, take a deep breath, and resemble slightly less two drunken great-aunts fighting over a chicken leg at Christmas.
It must be possible. Let’s start by showing them the way. Set an example. Leave a polite note of gratitude and/or fawning praise in the comments below. Let’s show the pollies how nice being nice really is.
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