Bipartisan ethos complicit in fall of Slipper and Thomson
"Neither Slipper [left] nor Thomson is a victim but, as audacious as this may sound, nor are they entirely responsible for their own predicaments".
The texts, the credit card receipts, the mobile phone bills. The cases against federal MPs Peter Slipper, for alleged sexual harassment of a staff member, and Craig Thomson, for the alleged misuse of union members' money on prostitutes and election campaign expenses, seem pretty damning, although not conclusive.
But even if both men are vindicated, is forgiveness for their accusers possible? If the offences of both men are proven, can they find forgiveness? Both scenarios are all but impossible because we have created a political culture where human lapses are unpardonable.
Despite all of us being broken people in a fallen world, the political culture rewards only the ambitious, even the ruthless. The humble, even the hesitant, are "losers".
If you blink, you're done. Sure, there'll be some human debris along the way - that's the game, son - but keep your eyes on the prize. Alas, it is not the prize of the civil rights marchers on the bridge in Selma or the anti-apartheid activists in the shanty towns of Soweto and Sharpeville or the Polish dock workers or the poets and playwrights of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia.
Neither Slipper nor Thomson is a victim but, as audacious as this may sound, nor are they entirely responsible for their own predicaments. They have conformed to a bipartisan ethos that accentuates status and position - the leadership, the cabinet, the ministry, the speakership - over service.
Slipper seems a confused and fragile man. This is incidental, but he is also an ordained priest in a tiny breakaway Anglican church that places a premium on ceremony. The speakership, from which he was forced to resign, held a particular allure, as did his preference for the robes and baubles of office. It was all of a piece.
More pertinent is that the speakership represented his making it in politics. His resignation speech was that of a man who had not only lost his job but his dignity and prestige. (Ironically, many conceded that in the 18 days he had actually occupied the speaker's chair, he had comported himself rather well.)
Thomson is the product of a culture of entitlement that metastasised in the Labor Party for 25 years. There are dozens of Thomsons who saw - indeed still see - union office as what the author and former Labor minister Rodney Cavalier calls the "saloon passage into Parliament". It's the career path, the notion of an ever-upward trajectory, which still matters in modern Labor. And while you're on your way, please feast on its perquisites.
Beyond these two specific cases is a broader issue. Even if the numbers in Parliament were not so finely balanced, we would still be fighting over Slipper and Thomson - ostracising them, traducing their reputations - because personal foible has become one of the few real points of party differentiation.
To forgive, in religious doctrine, doesn't mean restoring the offender to a position of trust or authority. Nor does it mean to excuse him or her from a time of reflection and penitence. But it does hold out hope - even certainty - of redemption, of the second chance.
Unfortunately in politics, to forgive doesn't mean acknowledging even privately, that there but for the grace of God go I. (One federal Liberal MP admitted that many of his colleagues would be embarrassed if their own text messages were made public.) It means letting the other side off.
In an age of broad philosophical convergence, you cannot relinquish this distinction.
We have a mining tax that doesn't actually tax, a carbon price that just five years ago both Labor and Liberal agreed was necessary, a little tinkering at the edges of the health insurance rebate, an agreement from both sides that even wealthy private schools should get more money, some argy bargy over whether the upper middle class deserves $5000 or $3000 in subsidies for their second child.
Is there really that much to argue about?
Instead of the naive cry from the braying crowds on Q&A every Monday night that we should all just agree, what we need is civil but clear disagreement.
It is a paradox that when the distinctions were sharper the culture was healthier. True, it was not more polite - as Peter Hartcher proved on these pages recently - but the issues were more substantive. The taunts were the asides to the debate, not the core of it.
In the 1980s, there was robust argument over privatisation, welfare, labour market deregulation and immigration. And yet Paul Keating's line promising that John Howard would "wear a crown of thorns", after an oblique reference to Keating's personal life, is one of the few lasting occasions of personal enmity.
And yet, there is little doubt that innuendoes were exchanged, affairs were conducted and expenses were rorted. But politics did not depend on creating a climate where personal lapses become the dominant issue and forgiveness all but impossible.
Andrew West is the presenter of the Religion & Ethics Report on ABC Radio National. He will be a regular contributor to this page.