Do We Want Drama Or Decorum?


After weeks of allegations against Julia Gillard in Parliament over the AWU slush fund, cries are being issued far and wide for a saner, politer, more factual Parliament. What happened to decorum, we keep asking? But if it’s politeness and the facts we’re after, what keeps us watching? What’s the appeal of seeing someone dragged through the mud or cleverly insulted? And if we’re wanting real — the real Julia, the real issues and the real deals do we even know what real looks like?

We’re still waiting for the real Julia. Unfortunately, both for us and for her, I’m not sure we can handle the real thing. Last Monday, after another hammering in question time over her now notorious ex-boyfriend Bruce Wilson, Julia Gillard made an artful series of volleys aimed at Julie Bishop, her assailant.

In her delightfully choreographed defence, Gillard covered her innocence in the affairs of JFK, Harold Holt and the fabrication of the moon landing and ended with her assurance to those of us listening rather than watching, that the silent leader of the opposition was indeed present in the house. It was game, set and match in a tournament of interpersonal political tennis, and for a fleeting moment Big Brother Canberra made entertaining viewing.

But are we getting tired of the game? So much has been written lately about bad behaviour in parliament and on the part of politicians in general, that it would seem that we are. But there’s something about the verbal punch-ups that both gets our attention and contributes to our cynicism. Like we’ve got an itch to scratch but we’re always just to one side of it; the relief never comes but we just keep on scratching.

It’s no wonder then that there have been so many attempts to get some kind of real response from Gillard about the AWU scandal. No wonder that Neil Mitchell, Leigh Sales and John Faine among others all seem to want to get to some genuine scrap of feeling here. Because anything else is just sport. And at least with sport you’re allowed the occasional real tear. In contemporary political life all emotion is now muted or manufactured.

Michelle Grattan suggested last week that what we really wanted to hear from Gillard about the affair was something more personal and less guarded. I don’t know anything about what Julia Gillard’s relationship was like with Bruce Wilson, none of us do really, but when I imagine what a genuine response might be like, when I try to picture the cartoon thought bubble above her real head, I imagine its contents to be something like:

"I was young and stupid with lust. I thought I was boring and he made me feel exciting. That had never happened to me before and I‘d thought it never would. I wasn’t thinking clearly about a lot during that time. I’m not sure what I remember from that time and what I don’t. He broke my heart, trashed my reputation and took forever to publicly defend me. I’m embarrassed by how I was then, and having to go over and over it all again here feels grossly unfair and incredibly humiliating."

Well of course she can’t say that, even if it were true. Because in general we’re not mature enough to bear a political leader who betrays significant vulnerability. We may think we want her to speak the truth, but there’s no real forum for that kind of truth. There’s nowhere safe to speak it.

Even in our own private lives we’re often so guarded. And that’s really the kicker. Because we so regularly fail to present our real selves, to say clearly when we’re angry, hurt, in love or fearful and why, we can spend a lot of time being resentful at being unheard and unrecognised. This leaves us open to an interest in petty point scoring and abusive time wasting. Since we’re not willing to name our own hurts, we at least want to see someone else taken down. Like people with aggressive dogs who can’t seem to rein them in, we let our politicians fight our dirty little battles for us, while the real issues are allowed to sink to the bottom of the ocean.

Because of course while we’re busy making space for debasing political tennis matches, there are real issues that could be claiming our attention. These pressing concerns, which include the devastating warming of the planet and the forced destitution and institutionalised isolation and despair of people coming to our shores seeking asylum, are not simply current political issues, they are our own personal ones as well. They make up part of the world for all of us. They are part of the world we have helped to create.

But there’s no point in calling for more decorum. This isn’t about the need for everyone to pull their socks up and play nice. The fact that the antics currently being played out in Parliament are a distraction from life threatening crises is not an accident. It’s a reflection of how most of us learn to divert our attention from our own responsibilities. We keep score, blame, dismiss, gnaw at the sore spots we see in front of us and focus on the spectacle of other peoples’ bad behaviour.

So while we’re waiting for something "real" to come out of the mouths of our politicians, while we’re bemoaning parliamentarian behaviour and crying out for a return to greater politeness and the facts of the matter, do we really know what we’re asking for?

While we may have moved from the blanket denial of I did not have sexual relations with that woman, to I screwed up royally , we are still miles away from authenticity. And authenticity is what is required to do real work with real people. Without it, we’re either keeping score or keeping mum. And neither of those options leads to keeping up.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day. 

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