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Politics ugly with imperfections


is a Canberra-based writer and an award-winning political journalist

View more articles from Paul Daley

<em>Illustration: David Rowe</em>

Illustration: David Rowe

If formal character tests were part of preselection processes for prospective federal MPs, Federal Parliament would be roomier for it.

The same might be said, of course, for other professions. The law, the media, the priesthood, medicine, accountancy, academia, the arts, building and construction (especially domestic building, come to think of it) and, unfortunately, even the judiciary are full of examples of bad character.

Part of growing up is discovering the world's imperfections. Prepubescent boys of my generation had to come to terms with the fact that I Dream of Jeannie wasn't real. Never mind having to deal with Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

(My household looks forward to the day the truth may be told about these last two characters. The six-year-old is fearful of the freaky intruders, a situation not helped by an elder brother who growls in an East End accent: ''Hey, I'm the flippin' Tooth Fairy - give 'em all to me now or I'll suck ya brains out through ya blinkin' ear hole.'')

The point is that, yes, we learn that unfortunately every walk of life is host to some not-very-nice people. But we expect more of our politicians - odd because the community's expectation is disproportionate to its poor perception of them.

Until recently, I could have argued here that politicians are largely underpaid and overworked; spend too many long periods away from their families; are expected to work miracles with the bureaucracy; and abide by the principle that the voter is always right. But right now the heart of Australian politics is empty and cold. I'll spare you a rant about how the process is undermined by ''pollster culture''; pollsters who tell our leaders that the punters hate them because they are so cynical, so they respond with empty lines written by the same pollsters to allay perceptions that the leaders are too cynical.

The most popular federal politicians in Australia at the moment are those who speak plainly and honestly about the principles that guide them, even if - perhaps especially if - it puts them at odds with their parties. There are few, although Malcolm Turnbull is chief among them.

The latest serious allegations about the Speaker, Peter Slipper, may well have fatally undermined the Gillard government. But, just as importantly, they erode what little public faith remains in big-party national politics.

Voters are naturally repulsed by the suggestion Slipper may have misused his already overly generous travel entitlements or effectively abused his public position by allegedly making sexual advances on Commonwealth employees in his office.

Slipper's career had long been characterised by tawdry allegations of impropriety. When the Gillard government bought his vote by making him Speaker, it chose to live (metaphorically) as dangerously as Slipper apparently does (literally). Voters want somebody to take responsibility. Instead, what you are given is a schoolyard lesson in moral relativity.

Tony Abbott reckons Slipper became Julia Gillard's man when Labor chose him as Speaker. Gillard insists it's now all a matter for Slipper who, in any event, she never really knew very well. Abbott counters that he tried to force Slipper out of conservative politics. Gillard says rubbish - the conservatives kept preselecting him.

Truth and responsibility are buried deep under this steaming pile of bull-rhetoric.

While politics is ultimately the casualty, Labor will pay the heaviest short-term price for its dealings with Slipper. It is not hard to conflate the Slipper scandal with the ugly allegations about Labor MP Craig Thomson that won't go away. And the truth there is undeniable: the wide boys of the NSW Labor Right chose to preselect Thomson after the first credible allegations of impropriety surfaced. Only a fool could have failed to spot the potential heinous threat he posed to Labor's integrity and, perhaps, survival on the floor of the House.

On Anzac Day I spoke at a big service in a small town. The street in front of the lectern was crowded with people who stood in the rain to listen as the bugler played the Last Post.

Good politicians, local and federal, spoke - but not of politics. They spoke about loss, tragedy, meaning and hope - things that resonate with the human condition, the past and the present. The people responded with tears, handshakes, solemn nods and smiles.

It's not that hard.

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