Brit trick is an insult to the system
In recent days John McTernan, the director of communications for the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has indulged a taste for insult. Here are some samples of his writings via the medium of Twitter:
''You're happy to call me a revolting thug but so self-righteous when I call you a buffoon. Diddums.''
''Ah, so now we're clear, you're just a graceless buffoon.''
''What a surprise. Abuse from a moron.''
''Interesting that you back off your smears quickly but then try to smear me. Hmm.''
''Wow. Omniscient as well as obnoxious. Some combination.''
McTernan's scorn was directed at several people, all nonentities. He also indulged his thin skin when he called a radio presenter, 2GB's Ross Greenwood, to launch into what Greenwood later described as an ''absolute tirade'' laced with incessant use of the ''F bomb''.
None of this is edifying from someone who holds a conspicuous position for the Prime Minister. It is perhaps no coincidence that Australian politics, as practised by Gillard and her government, has become more unedifying since McTernan arrived from Britain late last year as the government's chief spin doctor.
There was a time, a year ago, when Gillard was seen as robotic but likeable, weighed down by the stress and misfortune of having to manage a minority government. Gillard no longer enjoys that benefit of the doubt, and she has lost it because of a long sequence of missteps.
The first came last November with her appointment of the unctuous and danger-prone Peter Slipper as Speaker of the House, replacing the respected Harry Jenkins. Slipper was recruited just as the Liberal Party was finally getting rid of him and his excess baggage.
In December, Gillard delivered an address to the Labor Party national conference which fell flat and was seen as petty for airbrushing Kevin Rudd out of existence.
In January came the distasteful action by a Gillard press secretary who orchestrated a mini-riot against the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, by hotheads gathered at the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra.
In February came Gillard's decision to retain the services of the insult machine, Anthony Albanese, as leader of government business in the House, even after he had voted to oust his own Prime Minister during Rudd's deluded bid for the leadership.
In March the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, launched personal attacks on mining magnates and tarred the opposition as puppets of billionaires and mining companies who had used their wealth to influence politics. As if the unions had not spent multimillions of dollars bankrolling Labor's 2007 and 2010 election campaigns and shaping the public debate.
April saw a ramping up of the rhetoric of class warfare, a divisive tactic at the best of times, which appeared orchestrated from the Prime Minister's office.
In May, the rhetoric turned into action when the 2012-13 budget delivered a multibillion-dollar swing from wealth creators to wealth consumers as Labor directed subsidies to its electoral base, while Swan portrayed the Liberals as the party of the rich.
In keeping with this message, Gillard let fly with her sneer that Abbott should ''get off Sydney's north shore and go and talk to some real families and get himself in the real world''. Naked class politics.
The most grotesque irony came last Monday when Craig Thomson, in concluding a statement to Parliament in his own defence, a statement blighted by more than 30 claims that were either untrue, misleading or deliberate misdirections, turned towards Abbott and said: ''You have damaged democracy and you continue to damage democracy, and you should hang your head in shame for that. What it shows of the Leader of the Opposition, that man, is that not only is he unfit to be a prime minister, in my view he is unfit to be an MP.''
More of the same came on Friday when Albanese said Abbott's call for Thomson to step down from Parliament for his own sake was a breach of section 28 of the Crimes Act, which covers extortion: ''It shows yet again his complete disregard for the rule of law … I think he needs to have a good look at himself. The opposition need to consider the damage that is being done to the political fabric of this country by the nature and the tone of the debate that is going on.''
Albanese played a crucial role in putting Slipper into the speaker's chair. He has orchestrated the protection of Thomson in Parliament. He has led the politics of personal attacks. He has made a mantra of saying that Abbott, but not Thomson, is unfit for public office.
In 20 years of covering politics, I've never seen anything like the conduct of Albanese and Thomson in the Parliament this year. They have made the gutter their permanent address.
It is ugly, and it has been blowing back on Gillard, but it is not new. Similar tactics were used by another desperate Labour government, the government of Gordon Brown, now seen as a disaster for Britain. It departed in 2010 leaving behind a debilitating legacy of debt and deficit and an electoral map starkly divided by class.
Which brings us back to Gillard's imported director of communications, McTernan, a ministerial adviser in the Brown government. Before that, he was an adviser to former British prime minister Tony Blair.
It is possible McTernan's arrival in the job seven months ago coincided with a period of toxic bumbling by the Prime Minister and her staff. At the other end of the spectrum of possibilities, there could be malign intent within Gillard's office to ramp up the class war and the personal insults, tactics which bear the mark of an imported British disease.
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