THESE past weeks have given me cause for optimism about the state of Australian politics. Doubtless, thousands of readers will conclude that I am stark raving mad. How is it possible to perceive a political environment hallmarked by ''relentless negativity'' and ''sleaze and smear'' in an even remotely positive light?
The tumult and shouting of Parliament masks a not-inconsiderable bipartisanship. Just last week, as political watcher Malcolm Farr notes, 11 bills requiring cross-party agreement passed through the House of Representatives.
Across 2012 a hung Parliament witnessed a record 195 bills. Julia Gillard has yet to lose a meaningful vote after more than two years in office. Yet right-wing commentator Piers Akerman says, ''Gillard has only a record of broken promises, failed policies and evasion. That any people still believe her is the miracle.''
Even commentators sympathetic to Gillard and cognisant of Australia's healthy outlook find it difficult to discern a single redeeming feature of the 43rd Commonwealth Parliament. Thus, in an otherwise perceptive piece, Age columnist Martin McKenzie-Murray mused that Parliament was ''stained by filth, cynicism and intellectual infantilism'', itself derived from a proclivity towards ''entrenched political hatreds or loyalties''.
Instead of lamenting politics and its practitioners, we should celebrate parliamentary hostilities. The truth is politics is necessarily imperfect, messy and, yes, sometimes brutal. The beauty of representative democracy is that Parliament and parties institutionalise conflict, minimising and, in Australia's case, largely eradicating political violence.
In any case, partisan brutalities have ever been thus. One of the more heated passages in Australian political history occurred in 1909 when the ''Liberal Protectionist'' leader Alfred Deakin and the ''Free Trade'' and ''Conservative'' parliamentary factions, headed by Joseph Cook and Sir John Forrest, agreed to a ''fusion'' of the non-Labor groupings. Henceforth Australian politics conformed to a ''Labor versus the rest'' model.
Shortly afterwards, the newly aligned ''Liberal'' forces defeated Andrew Fisher's minority federal Labor ministry on the floor of Parliament. Deakin formed a new ministry in June 1909, but at the next election, in April 1910, Fisher became the first majority Labor prime minister in the world after a landslide victory. The nine-month period between ''fusion'' and the election was hallmarked by vitriolic debate and personality politics. Labor attacked and obstructed the governing fusionists at every opportunity.
Deakin was the target of unprecedented abuse. Then Laborite Billy Hughes memorably responded to former NSW premier Sir William Lyne's denunciation of his old friend Deakin as ''Judas'' by sarcastically declaring, ''I do not agree with that; it is not fair - to Judas, for whom there is this to be said, that he did not gag the man whom he betrayed, nor did he fail to hang himself afterwards.''
The labour movement press was less temperate. The Worker, a publication of the Australian Workers Union, had this to say of the prime minister (and up until then, Labor's ''progressive'' ally): ''Office is [Deakin's] vice, and is as indispensable to him as opium is to the Chow and grog to the drunkard.''
This abuse reached a crescendo in Deakin's home state in the pages of the ALP's official newspaper, Labor Call. One scribe alleged that ''Deakin could, if required, deliver a funeral oration over a sewer rat which would bring tears to the eyes of [his conservative rival George] Reid's dry dog. He is all gab and no spine.''
Victorian Labor politician Frank Anstey, who campaigned against the protectionist Hume Cook, alleged the Deakinites were ''living liars, livers of the double life, pretenders of one thing and doers of another; white sepulchres, public deceivers, foul frauds and miserable sycophants''.
Rhetorical violence was routinely practised by both sides during the 20th century. Yet whether it was the titanic debates over military conscription during World War I, the trauma of the Great Depression or the heated emotions produced by the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government, our democracy has survived and prospered.
Instead of lamenting politics and its practitioners, we should celebrate parliamentary hostilities.
Partisanship is a sign that politics matters after all. Conversely, my hunch is that the same folks who lament the supposed ideological convergence of the major parties are also the first to complain at the slightest whiff of partisanship.
Perhaps a little perspective might help. The current 18-month Syrian civil war, roughly coinciding with our domestic political rancour, has claimed the lives of an estimated 45,000 people, at least half of which were civilians slaughtered by their own government.
As David Malouf noted in the lead-up to 1993 election, we ignore the ''quiet'' significance of parliamentary democracy at our peril. Elections, Malouf said, were a ''festival of democracy'' and, for that reason, his favourite national day.
Instead of indulging fantasies of some pre-Abbott/Gillard age of enlightenment and engaging in self-flagellation, we need to acknowledge that political conflict and robust debate are a healthy sign. They show democracy works.
Nick Dyrenfurth is a lecturer in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University and author or editor of several books on Australian political history, including Confusion: The Making of the Australian Two-Party System.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the '1972' dismissal of the Whitlam Labor government.