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Muddying waters on way to polls

It was no doubt keenly noted in the Prime Minister's office that even though Barack Obama enjoyed a decisive 55 per cent to 45 per cent advantage over Mitt Romney among women voters in this year's presidential election, Romney actually polled well among married women. It was unmarried women who did him in. They make up a majority of American women and they voted for Obama by an election-deciding, two-to-one landslide.

It has also been widely noted that Obama's central election strategy of running against Romney's character, not his politics, was vindicated by victory. The mud stuck.

It was well planned. On April 13, the President went to George Washington University to deliver a major speech about tackling the budget deficit. Sitting in the audience was Paul Ryan, the chief architect of the Republicans' budget policies.

Ryan would receive the full blast of what the President was about to say. He singled out Ryan's deficit reduction plan: ''These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can't afford the America that I believe in … Up to 50 million Americans would lose Medicaid coverage … It's not going to happen as long as I'm President … This plan is less about the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America.''

Ryan was stunned. He later told Bob Woodward of The Washington Post the President had portrayed him as an extremist for attempting structural reform of unsustainable healthcare spending. Ryan was not merely shocked by the fierce language of the President, he was shocked by the lies. The President had mischaracterised Ryan's Medicare reforms and plucked from nowhere a figure of 50 million people who would lose their medical coverage.

The tone was set. The politics of compromise ended that night. And the President was just getting started. In June, his re-election campaign spent $200 million in an early blitzkrieg of character assassination against Romney. Attack ads portrayed Romney as a tax-avoiding plutocrat who extracted profits from companies while cutting a swathe through their workforces. Romney was also portrayed as out of touch with working women.


It was a cruel parody of the truth but Romney never recovered. A supposedly unifying president led one of the most self-consciously divisive, negative and personal campaigns in the history of the modern presidency. There was no ''hope and change'' waffle. It was fear and loathing.

None of this augurs well for Australian political debate over the next year. Even before the Obama campaign, the politics of the personal, of character assassination as government policy, were already in full play by the Gillard government.

This is the context for the Prime Minister's sudden, shoot-from-the-hip decision to hold a royal commission into child abuse, with no proper consultation about its sprawling mandate, in an area of state responsibility, when the NSW and Victorian governments have already begun investigations.

It fits a pattern of Gillard's selective outrage. Her concern that child abusers have been protected and covered up for years within the Catholic Church is no doubt genuine. It is not questioned. It reflects community outrage. But it also needs to be noted that her haste stands in overwhelming contrast to foot-dragging over truly gothic revelations about union corruption and her cynical promotion and protection of the former speaker Peter Slipper.

The pattern of Gillard's conduct makes it clear she would have calculated the potential usefulness of the Catholic Church twisting in the wind of a royal commission while the most prominent Catholic politician in Australia, Tony Abbott, leads the Coalition in an election year.

A cynical view? Yes. Also pragmatic and based on pattern behaviour. In January, it was the Prime Minister's office that started the year with a staffer setting an angry mob onto Abbott with a phone call and a lie while Abbott was near the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.

It continued with lies repeated so often that the government might have even come to believe them - that Abbott, when he was health minister, stripped $1 billion out of spending on hospitals. And that Abbott has described the science of climate change as ''crap''. Both are lies and both have been repeated hundreds of times by the federal ministry.

Then there was Gillard telling Parliament on October 9 that ''my father did not die of shame''. No one in Parliament ever said he did. She was willing to use her father's death, something an honourable person would never do under any circumstances, to smear Abbott with guilt by association.

That was just a prelude. ''It is misogyny, sexism, every day from this Leader of the Opposition,'' she then thundered, without bothering with such fripperies as evidence.

It was a handy diversion from Slipper and revelations Gillard's accommodation of dubious dealings by union officials had been taking place for years before she entered Parliament and had continued and broadened after she became Prime Minister.

In recent months, the strategy of character assassination as diversion has been ramped up from tactical to obsessional. Even the government's invitation to staffers for Christmas drinks depicted an ugly Abbott as the Grinch who stole Christmas. The opposition's Christmas drinks invitation naively featured a Christmas tree.

Smear by association, with no time off for holidays. The Gillard message, explicit and implicit, is emerging. The next federal election is about stopping a hospital-stripping, climate change-denying, scaremongering, women-hating, Cardinal Pell-supporting, political and social Neanderthal.

So much easier than running on your record.

Little wonder that Griffith University's latest constitutional values survey, released over the weekend, found the public's faith in the federal government had collapsed from the 50 per cent who, in 2008, believed the federal government was the most effective level of government to just 29 per cent in 2012.

And who has been leading the country, and setting the tone, for the bulk of the past four years?

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Twitter: @Paul_Sheehan_


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