Federal Politics


Personal politics fails the public

There is one week left in the parliamentary year and thank goodness for that.

On Monday morning I read how Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, a man that I have not conversed with beyond basic salutations, had decided I was ''deranged''. This type of barb is not exceptional, nor does it worry me, as I am sure I am guilty of casting similar insults, but it is a very sad reflection of how far our political debate has descended.

Still, I take solace that Combet's free character assessment of me comes nowhere near the vitriolic flourish John Maynard Keynes once dumped on David Lloyd George, whom he referred to as ''a goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity''.

This is not a policy debate and I agree with Kevin Rudd on his Q&A appearance on Monday night that it is generally filed by the public in the intellectual wheelie bin. Yes, nearly all politicians if they had their comments from Hansard and other public fora investigated would not be overly proud of what they read.

There are a few notable exceptions, Senator Ursula Stephens is one. I think it would be rather difficult to find her portfolio of political sledging and, possibly, our own Senator Gary Humphries is another. Ursula's unblemished record does not appear to have been a profound benefit to her career, however.

The problem is that policy that was peppered with the salacious and colourful has now devolved to the salacious and personal - and devoid of policy. The result is that the public has basically switched channels and if voting was not compulsory then I think politicians would be shocked at what the public's response to our relevance would be.


Politics is always going to be robust and you cannot be too precious about the taunts of close political combat, but there is the line where they go from clever, even witty, to nasty. To call the carbon tax the channelling of the deepest affections of Nimbin's Big Day Out is an attack on policy but to call an opponent a dope smoker is probably something you would not say in any other workplace. The test is what my opponent's children would feel if they heard the comment I made. It is a test that the vast majority of us in politics have failed at some stage or another, or continuously.

The capacity of a member or senator to hold another to account is not precluded by a greater sense of consideration. Former NSW Labor government minister Eddie Obeid is to be the subject of forensic questioning in the Parliament in regard to his deals and any association he may have had that would have brought a pecuniary benefit from his actions, or the actions of former state Labor minister Ian Macdonald, in granting coal leases or other associated property transactions.

The public would have little faith in a Parliament that did not pursue this course but we have to stick to the task and not to personal asides. You can pursue an issue of competency or legality without the unnecessary impugning of the person with unrelated insults.

While it would be so easy to denigrate the political debate to personal puerility, this is not what the Australian public expects of its politicians. As I have said earlier this week, the public is starting to put a pox on both houses and ask questions about our inherent integrity and whether we are of the character to represent their views, our nation's future and the public good.

These puerile, personal insults disenfranchise voters as we are not elected to reduce politics to a minefield of schoolyard taunts. In the complexity of public life neither can we be too precious as politicians, taking insults from both your opponents and commentators is part of the game, and has been forever.

The Chicago Times first critique of the Gettysburg Address called it ''slipshod'', ''loose-joined'' and ''puerile''. The trick is not to make insults in all that you do or it will be the only thing you are remembered for.

The unfortunate reality though is; nothing will change.

>> Barnaby Joyce is the Nationals' Senate leader and the opposition spokesman for regional development, local government and water.