Date: July 01 2012
THE MORE cynical observers of the national debate insist that in the end we get the politicians we deserve.
I've never been sure about that. Ultimately, when it really comes down to it, we actually just get the politicians that the major parties - and the Greens - give us. And then maybe we get the Parliament they deserve.
Okay then, let's get get involved - stack the branches, build a public profile via the local school or kinder council, seek pre-selection and get in there and change it.
Most of us don't have the appetite for front-line involvement in parliamentary politics. But that does not mean we deserve to be failed so abysmally by those who make up the Parliament elected to serve us.
Last week was the nadir of the 43rd Parliament of Australia. For a combination of reasons Australians are appalled and angered by the continuing calamity involving asylum-seeker vessels in the waters to our north.
Some blame the federal government. Some blame the federal opposition. Many rightly blame the Indonesian government for failing to stop the boats leaving its archipelago.
Our motives vary.
As one leading politician told me: ''The country is divided between people who are genuinely appalled at the human tragedy of the accidents that are happening. They have deep compassion for these people. Others, let's face it, are disturbed and upset by the ugliness of it all. But they blame the people who choose to get on the boats. They do not want to be made to feel guilty for their decisions to endanger themselves. They just want it to stop.''
It's a harsh observation. But one that is, I'd say, disturbingly accurate. Listen to enough talkback and read the avalanche of tweets and blogs that proliferate after each boat tragedy, and you will get an insight into the very mixed emotional reactions of Australians. Some of it ain't pretty.
But motives aside, the fact remains that the country is crying out for action - action that our current Parliament simply won't, and probably now can't, deliver. In the end our politicians, not least the leaders, will wear the opprobrium for putting politics ahead of solutions that could save lives that will, on current trend, be lost in coming days and weeks.
The government and the opposition are not poles apart. Both believe in offshore ''processing'' (an ugly bureaucratic terms if ever there was, that seems more appropriate to the administration of cattle than human beings). But despite the Gillard administration's compromise to add Nauru to its preferred Malaysian option, the Parliament will not deliver.
Human rights concerns about Malaysia's treatment of asylum seekers genuinely underpin the opposition of some Liberal MPs. But the distasteful reality remains that others are motivated more cynically by denying a prime minister with a shaky hold on power any semblance of political authority.
Ostensibly the opposition does not want the asylum seekers to be assessed and held in Malaysia because that country is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees. But there is an apparent hypocrisy at the heart of this ''policy'': the Coalition supported Nauru as an appropriate venue before it had signed the convention.
The bottom line appears to be that the Coalition's approach, if not that - in fairness - of all its members, is driven by a tactical imperative of denying Gillard any opportunity to play stateswoman.
As independent member Tony Windsor told the House of Representatives during the debate on a bill to allow Nauru and Malaysia to deal with the problem, ''there's still the smell of politics written all over these proceedings''.
Indeed. Even if politicians from the major parties were also crying out for compromise.
It's rare in these bitterly partisan days to witness federal MPs descend into tears as they address the House of Representatives and the Senate, to sprinkle their arguments with words such as ''morality'', ''justice'' and ''compassion''. In a Parliament that is tarnished with sleaze and where the argument between Gillard and Tony Abbott is defined by a ping-pong game of integrity, it is rarer still to see others get fired up to the point of near punch-up by suggestions that politics has transcended principle.
Except this time, of course, it's a little more serious - for the suggestions are everywhere, fairly or otherwise, that blood is on the hands of the intransigent.
Ever since Gillard cobbled together a government after the 2010 election, Abbott has been crying out for another election.
The government has been able to point, in its defence, to a functioning Parliament that has passed a swathe of significant legislation. But on what many MPs and voters consider to be the most important issue of all, the Parliament has now failed.
Today the MPs are back home for the long winter parliamentary recess.
They will be harangued over their failure last week.
But it seems unlikely that anything will change, at least until Parliament resumes in six weeks.
Some things are certain, though.
Judging by the rate of unauthorised arrivals there will be more boats.
And there will be more horrible deaths at sea. And the pressure will heighten for them to find a solution that transcends politics.
Whenever out-of-town friends visit Canberra I take them, when possible, to the memorial down by Lake Burley Griffin to the SIEV X - an asylum seeker boat that sunk in Australian waters in 2001 killing 353 people. It's a striking, interactive memorial comprising totems that tell the story of each of the dead.
It is not unusual while walking around that memorial to find others who are moved to tears by their encounters with it.
Visitors shake their heads and struggle to answer their children's questions about how and why other people and their offspring could die like this on the edge of such a civilised country as ours.
It is heart-rending. But no more so, of course, than hearing the distraught Liberal MP Michael Keenan recounting to Parliament how some Australians on Christmas Island are haunted by the experience of looking into the eyes of those who drowned in front of them in the 2010 tragedy.
Blame the Parliament. But not all of the politicians.
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