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Pray for a bit of dignity in politics

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The row over Speaker Vicki Dunne's plans for a Christian commencement service for the ACT Legislative Assembly suggests the centenary year will be a testy one in territory politics.

The first sitting has not even begun, but hostilities have, in earnest. And some in the national capital may be surmising whether this quarrel has echoes of Peter Slipper's push for entry procession pomp, when he was speaker of the House of Representatives.

Mrs Dunne says she will be ''a modern Speaker'' in the Assembly and believes the February 11 ceremony is an ''innovation'' for the territory. The Canberra Liberal says the Assembly has never reached out to the community through faith. But is that necessary, or even appropriate? Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and former speaker Shane Rattenbury object to what they say is the institutionalising of a religious ceremony into the proceedings of the Assembly.

However, the service is to be held off-campus, as it were, at St Paul's in Manuka, and MPs are being invited, not ordered, to attend. Any MLA ought to be able to organise such an event, and not be ridiculed for the effort.

Federal MPs are invited to an ecumenical service to mark the commencement of each parliamentary year. This year it will conducted at the nearby Presbyterian church of St Andrew where the sermon will be delivered by Baptist clergy. The event is routinely attended by Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, who are regular church-goers, and not by Julia Gillard. Each choice is respected.

Rather than being a row about religion or religious views, the kerfuffle over Mrs Dunne's proposal appears to be centred on political advantage. And it indicates the Canberra Liberals will be very determined to flex their political muscle this year on behalf of the voters who very nearly put them into government at the October election.

Given the support they enjoyed at the poll, it's not unreasonable for the opposition to remind the Labor government and Greens balance-of-power MLA Mr Rattenbury of the concerns of Liberal voters. The power play over the church service is nevertheless unfortunate and portends a feisty and scrappy year in the Assembly. In federal Parliament, the prospects for dignified and restrained debate appear even more remote, given the robust exchanges between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott and the pressure cooker environment of an election year.

Whether the proposed church service at Manuka is, as Mrs Dunne says, an ''innovation'', is debatable. But Canberra is a tolerant community where people of faith are free to gather for religious observances. Those who do not follow a religion or faith should not feel pressured to fake it. However, given the reality of our adversarial parliamentary democracy, now might be a good time to say a prayer, if that's your custom, that the ACT and the nation will be better served by our political leaders this year.

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