Federal Politics


Drawing curtain on grisly year

WELL, the really, really good news for most Australians is that Federal Parliament has ended for another year.

And now for the bad news: 2013 is an election year.

This means that those of you who've been sickened, angered, annoyed, disappointed, enraged or just plain bored by the tone of the least edifying parliament since, perhaps, 1955 - when Doc Evatt dropped his marbles in the chamber daily and the background soundtrack was the cry and counter-cry of ''liar'' - will find that next year will be pretty much be the equivalent of a 365-day, 24/7 political cage fight.

It's instructive that a decade after Labor split and was trounced at that most acrimonious of elections in 1955, Menzies - still prime minister - served as pallbearer at Evatt's funeral. Then again Menzies had been pallbearer at Ben Chifley's funeral in 1951 too.

While the rich metaphoric potential of Menzies helping to literally bury his erstwhile political opponents might seem irresistible today, all of this actually points to a human civility that underpinned public life from the 1950s to the noughties - with some exceptions, of course - in a way that it no longer apparently does. Well, not in this parliament, anyway, where personal hatreds between MPs - on opposing as well as the same sides - are palpable.

Speaker Anna Burke seemed to precis the tone and the consequences when (in front of a delegation of visiting Italian MPs who'd surely be used to the most rambunctious parliamentary behaviour) she said: ''This is not amusing. It really is not. It is absolutely disgraceful that you treat your parliament with such contempt.''


Burke sin-binned three opposition MPs, including the charming Sophie Mirabella, who managed to heap contempt upon contempt by sneering, ''Liar,'' as she left the chamber.

Nah. They don't get it on either side.

Come on down, Steve Gibbons, who that very morning tweeted: ''Libs are led by a gutless douchebag & narcissistic bimbo who aren't fit to be MP's [sic] let alone PM & Dep. Bth shld b sacked.''

Well, if my seven-year-old ever calls her brother a douchebag at least I'll know who to blame.

In Parliament's better moments, members and senators like to speak of the nobility of their cause, of the ethic of service that underscores commitment to public life. Doubtless, that is often heartfelt.

But such small moments of nobility have been swamped for the most part by the ugly realpolitik of a hung 43rd parliament in which the Prime Minister, repeatedly branded a liar for introducing a carbon tax despite an earlier assurance not to, is now accused on the basis of the flimsiest evidence, of criminality.

The details of such vague alleged malfeasance relating to Gillard's connections with (unbeknown to her) crook elements of a union when she was a solicitor in the 1990s, are incomplete, complicated and based on numerous assumptions. That's why, for the most part, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott seemed content to let his deputy, Julie Bishop, his House of Reps attack dog Christopher Pyne and shadow attorney-general Senator George Brandis, prosecute the flimsy case.

Until last Thursday, that is, when ''new'' parts of almost 20-year-old paperwork lent a slightly stronger, but no less circumstantial edge, to the case against the Prime Minister's powers of recollection and, by strong implication and innuendo, her professional legal conduct.

Only then did Abbott (having set upon a course in late 2010 of chicken-wing tackling the minority government into the ground at every turn only to realise in the second half of 2012 that Australia really was tired of all the aggressive stonewalling) finally buy in.

She should resign, he said, echoing Pyne et al.

The high point of the 43rd parliament might well have come two years ago when the independent, Tony Windsor, predicted with boy-ish optimism: ''Some people with various political agendas may find that difficult to handle, but there have been some positive indications that some of the substantive issues that the Australian people want addressed can be addressed in this particular parliament … As time goes on, I think members from both sides of the parliament will recognise that there are very real opportunities in the nature of this particular parliament which will give all backbenchers, all members of parliament, a degree of freedom that they have not experienced in the past.''

Misplaced political partisanship will ensure that more Australian soldiers will die in Afghanistan before the election. The ''tough on crime''-style poker game between the major parties on border protection, meanwhile, ensures that Australia's refugee problem is erroneously portrayed for domestic consumption as a crisis that warrants hard-hearted, punitive incremental policy responses that discredit our international reputation.

But then the government introduced its legislation for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which will overhaul the services available to some 400,000 disabled Australians and their carers at an estimated cost of $15 billion.

It is a hugely ambitious and important program. Anyone with a disabled child or relative understands the anxieties relating to their future care.

A fundamental tenet of a civilised democracy rests with the way those who are disadvantaged at birth or by accidents are treated. Sadly, in Australia, many live in poverty and uncertainty.

It is critical that the initiative does not become caught in the potential political snares that will accompany negotiations with the states and between the major parties federally over funding.

Abbott's Coalition has given in-principle - though at times heavily qualified - support to the NDIS. For its part the government has not adequately outlined where it will find the money to fund it and achieve an election-year surplus.

Like the recommended Gonski reforms to education, there is a public expectation that the parliament should rise above the partisanship that all too often is attached to the wrong policies.

We'll see.

Amid all of the politics last week it was encouraging to hear Abbott vow that 2013 would, for his Liberals, be the year of ''policy''.

Bring it on - and then some - and we'll believe it when we see it.

Gillard's government has improbably, for Abbott at least, made it to the end of the 2012 parliamentary year. He's doing his best to ensure 2013 will be different.

Gillard, meanwhile, may be starting to believe that that which doesn't kill you as a political leader almost certainly makes you stronger.