Bile is killing public debate
Ben Chifley and Sir Robert Menzies. ''The conduct of Mr Chifley and Mr Menzies has been exemplary in relation to both the public and each other.''
On the day Ben Chifley was elected leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party in July 1945 the opposition leader Robert Menzies wrote expressing ''very warm congratulations''.
He continued, ''At the next election I shall, of course, do my best to get rid of you [but] as at all times, I know that our mutual respect and regard will be maintained. The character of the personal relations existing between us has always been a source of great pleasure to me.''
The historian A.W. Martin records that Chifley replied that he ''would not feel that you were doing your duty if you did not do your best to get rid of me''. He added that nevertheless he ''wished to thank you for the many kindnesses and courtesies which you have extended to me, both in and out of Parliament''.
Menzies lost to Chifley at the following election and, in 1949, when the tables turned, Argus journalist Clive Turnbull wrote Australians had witnessed ''a clean federal election''.
''The conduct of Mr Chifley and Mr Menzies has been exemplary in relation to both the public and each other.''
How will history record the election year of 2013? We already know the answer to that question and I am very aware of the deep disillusionment many feel about the state of politics.
Last year I tabled a National Council of Women petition, which called for: ''A more civil and dignified approach to parliamentary debate at the federal level and for greater respect to be demonstrated to the office of the Prime Minister".
It was triggered by a speech I gave where I said that, for most of the time, Parliament is a ''functioning, calm and respectful place'' and members are doing their best to represent constituents and good work is being done.
But that's not what people see. What they see is question time and the media ''sound-bullets'' designed to wound deeply.
I often look up at the young Australians who come to watch question time and wonder, ''What must they think?''
I have some idea, because when one of the schools in my electorate comes to Parliament House I drop by to say hello and answer questions. Sometimes I find students role playing in a model lower house chamber. What's alarming is that the teachers tell me their behaviour and language changes, in keeping with what they have seen in question time. It's behaviour and language that would not be tolerated in the classroom or the schoolyard, or any workplace, but it is seen by these students as the signature of Parliament.
Question time has set the tone and behind it roils a tsunami of bile and prejudice that plays out on talkback radio, email campaigns, Twitter and Facebook.
I know that the contest of ideas can and sometimes should be quite willing. And I get that the hung parliament has poured rocket fuel on the contest because for two years the opposition has believed it was one missed heartbeat away from taking office.
But I am profoundly worried that the institution of Parliament is being debased.
My experience of Parliament, outside question time, reinforces the belief that I can, respectfully, disagree with my opponents without personal attack.
But I think we have hit an historic low in public debate. Neither side of politics can claim to be pure when it comes to apportioning blame for this but, from where I sit, the endless, vicious, personal attacks on the Prime Minister are the low water mark in a very deep well of vitriol.
Having been on the receiving end of a fraction of the abuse the Prime Minister cops, I am often amazed by her forbearance. I have been appalled by what people believe they can say to me, usually from behind the ramparts of the new coward's castle, the anonymous online world.
And there's the rub. Because although everyone likes to point the finger at politicians for the poor state of public debate in this new interconnected age, everyone gets a say. A lot of the worst of what is said is online, or on air in rabid conversation with shock jocks.
Today we all have a responsibility to try and lift the standard of debate and return a little civility to the marketplace of ideas. It begins with the way we choose to talk to each other, in any forum.
My fear is that if we don't reset the pitch and tone of public discourse, we will stunt or shatter the aspirations of our people, particularly the girls and women who may one day want to join me in Parliament.
>> Gai Brodtmann is the Member for Canberra.