OPINION: Australian politics has always had a streak of larrikinism unknown in New Zealand or other Westminster-style Parliaments.
Party factionalism, fierce, uncompromising partisanship, practices skirting the edges of corruption, and often toppling into it, all produce bare- knuckle brawling rarely found elsewhere. They also produce ugly personal abuse that cheapens and lowers the quality of public debate.
The row that erupted between the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, in the Australian Parliament this week over the Speaker, Peter Slipper, is a perfect example. No-one emerged from the mud-slinging looking good.
The episode began when Abbott sought a vote to remove Slipper from the Speakership. The Opposition loathes Slipper - not for any of his well-attested personal and political flaws but rather for the fact that late last year he deserted them to take the Speakership and increase Gillard's wafer-thin majority in the House. The immediate cause of Abbott's motion was the release, in the course of a sordid sexual-harassment case, of hundreds of texts by Slipper revealing a vile and derogatory attitude towards women. According to Abbott, the texts, many of which are not fit for publication, made Slipper unfit to be Speaker.
In this, Abbott was clearly correct. In making the charge, he was, however, on shaky ground. For one thing, Slipper's general obnoxiousness has long been known but he was nevertheless for years not only a welcome ally of Abbott's but also a friend.
Further, although he is loyally supported by a political staff composed mainly of women, including a chief of staff described as one of the most formidable women in politics, and by his wife and four daughters, Abbott himself has at times in his political career shown an ambivalent attitude towards women.
He has also shown no inclination to distance himself from repugnant personal attacks on Gillard. Indeed, in his speech for the removal of the Speaker he talked of Parliament "dying of shame", a clear allusion to the phrase used recently against Gillard by the odious radio shock-jock Alan Jones and about which an uproar erupted last week. Abbott's assertion later that the use of the phrase was unintentional is not believed by anyone.
Seizing on Abbott's vulnerability, Gillard attacked. The speech she made was undeniably electrifying and in the close quarters of the Australian House of Representatives, where the opposing leaders are not far apart, Abbott was visibly discomfited. Using the ample evidence of the past, and skilfully misrepresenting some points, she turned Abbott's charges of misogyny against him and by all accounts won the debate.
But the performance was a disturbing one. It looked like an act of desperation. For while the speech may have been a tour de force of rhetoric it sacrificed principle to politics and was made in defence of the indefensible. The Speaker was unquestionably unfit for his job and had to go.
But rather than Gillard saying so, it took the intervention of two independent MPs, both of whom supported him in the vote of no confidence, to make it plain to him that his position was untenable and persuade him to resign a few hours later.
As a political spectacle, the episode was unbeatable. But it dragged politics into the gutter. The only hope is that after it, politicians will realise the damage they are causing to public discourse and reform their ways.
- © Fairfax NZ News