Ah, McCain, he did it again and again
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Ah, McCain, he did it again and again

If you were a fan of the recently departed US senator John McCain, you will have seen the video clip of him at a large election rally defending his opponent.

A supporter says he's worried about Barack Obama mixing with domestic terrorists. He's picked up on an outrageous rumour mill designed to frighten Americans away from Obama. McCain tells him and the audience that they can trust Obama, they do not have to fear him as president. Plenty of the crowd are annoyed because he refuses to join the attack on his opponent.

John McCain should serve as a reminder that there is nothing to be proud of in cheap personal denigration or fakery.

John McCain should serve as a reminder that there is nothing to be proud of in cheap personal denigration or fakery.Credit:AP

Another supporter displaying a racism born of ignorance says she doesn't trust Obama, he's an Arab. McCain shakes his head, speaks to her and the audience: "No Ma'am, he's a decent family man, citizen, with whom I have a number of disagreements on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign is about."

In a friendly, calm and dignified way he refuses to use jingoistic fakery against his opponent. He reminds supporters that the argument is about policies.

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I can't help but wonder what the people who dreamt up the outrageous "Mediscare" campaign and knowingly participated in it think about themselves when they see that video or hear about McCain's remarks. It's a mirror into which they, no doubt, do not wish to look.

Put next to McCain's remarks on Obama, Bill Shorten's taunts of Malcolm Turnbull being the multimillion-dollar mansion man who just wanted to look after his rich mates offers an ugly contrast.

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That's not to say that the ugly cheap shots in Canberra are all from one side. I can remember – perhaps I should say will never forget – one interjection from my side in the House of Representatives and with regret admit it took gutter politics to a new low. But that guy wasn't experienced and wasn't a leader. Bill Shorten is both.

I hope that in Canberra, state parliaments, the media and our general lives we can give McCain long-lasting credit for the example he set. You don't honour a great man by posting a picture of yourself meeting him on social media. You honour him by following his example.

Perhaps we can inject him into our lexicon with the phrase: "Now that was not a McCain moment." We could use it to remind those who let themselves and all of us down by engaging in cheap personal denigration or fakery that they have nothing, nothing, to be proud of.

Here's one example. Turnbull's decision to hold off on pursuing a republic until the death or abdication of the current monarch was attacked by the chattering point-scorers as walking away from his beliefs. He's a committed republican but recognised that on both sides of Parliament and in the community there are differences of opinion.

And he recognised that both monarchists and republicans have great respect and affection for our current monarch. He wasn't interested in grandstanding but wanted a result. Another vote promised might garner some short-term political support but another vote lost would set the cause back badly. However, cheap point scorers want a dog fight, not an outcome.

Remember, Tony Abbott was rightly criticised for his "captain's picks": decisions made by a leader ignoring the views of his or her team. So it was somewhat surprising to see some commentators being gleefully critical of Turnbull for not falling into the same trap.

Seeing the role of the leader and government as being there to implement your views is adopting a diminished concept of democracy and government. When leaders say they'll govern for all of us, they're meant to mean it. So it's a bit rough to be critical, to call them weak and suggest they have no spine when they listen to a range of views and work to find solutions that we can all live with.

Over the years numbers of people have mentioned to me, in a condescending tone, that they couldn't enter politics because they couldn't compromise their views. If anyone thinks they can have their own way all the time, they are truly in need of professional help.

Of course there will be times when people and parties are just diametrically opposed and we're left with a straight contest. But even then it's worth remembering that you rarely win opponents over by telling them they're stupid. If you expect people to say, after you've attempted to humiliate them for their views, "Oh yes, I see I've been a fool," you're going to be sadly let down.

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Seeking to humiliate people, denigrating their views, is no way to win them over. It's just posturing for publicity. It demonstrates that you're in the debate for yourself, not to find the best solution for all the rest of us. Prominent advocates for action on climate change recognise how far that cause has been set back by so many taking a denigrate-or-destroy stance.

If we don't treat each other with respect, there's little hope for a decent democracy. Instead of denigrating opponents, we should be listening to their concerns, as they should listen to ours. Give-and-take is a necessity of life. If we always label it as backflip or backdown, or worse, we damage an essential element of a civil society. We push our politicians into the boxing ring when we want them at the negotiating table.

The boxing ring makes passable infotainment but lousy policy. Our media are governed by the click bait that colour, controversy and conflict offer. They're cheering for the boxing ring. The rest of us should be on the side of decent government and that means much less of the boxing ring.

Turnbull understood this reality. Pity so many don't.

Amanda Vanstone is a Fairfax Media columnist and a former Coalition minister.

Amanda Vanstone is a former Howard government minister, and regular columnist.

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