All in all, a pretty grubby year

All in all, a pretty grubby year

2012 has been the year institutions faltered, from the Catholic Church's handling of sex abuse claims to Parliament's personal abuse

The political year has been remarkable for its intensity and for its aggressive personal abuse. Various end-of-year assessments have condemned it as a grisly year full of personal abuse and character assassination.

Four conclusions are reasonable. The reputation of politics and political leaders has fallen drastically. Politics is on the nose. Many social institutions have shared their fall, including churches, trade unions, the defence forces and the media. The wider community should not be smug. Australia-wide it has been a good year for the Coalition parties. Labor continues to struggle. But in federal politics Labor has made a comeback.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former Speaker of the House Peter Slipper.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former Speaker of the House Peter Slipper.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Has the Coalition peaked?

The highlights and lowlights of the year illustrate my conclusions.

In February Kevin Rudd attempted a comeback against Julia Gillard. He resigned as foreign minister to challenge. For all his brave talk he was thrashed. His reputation was trashed even further by senior government ministers but in the end the outcome enhanced Labor stability. In the aftermath Senator Mark Arbib, an anti-Rudd organiser, resigned and was quickly replaced by former NSW Premier Bob Carr, who became the new Foreign Minister.


State Labor's demise took another huge step in March when Queensland's Anna Bligh was overwhelmed by Campbell Newman. This was the biggest of state Labor's defeats and reduced its parliamentary party to a rump. Newman has since undertaken radical cuts to public services and, unfortunately for the reputation of politics, his administration has quickly become known for jobs for the boys, self-interested lobbyists and ministerial resignations.

The longest-serving federal party leader, Senator Bob Brown, announced his retirement in April. This followed a period of exaggerated anti-Green rhetoric from a government determined to lessen any impression of a Labor-Green alliance. Senator Christine Milne became the new leader at a time of uncertainty for the Greens, despite their hold on the balance of power in the Senate.

The new financial year saw the implementation of the highly controversial carbon and mining taxes, two elements of Julia Gillard's trifecta of things to be done. It set the scene for the impact of the allegedly fearsome carbon tax to be put to the test. This cleared some air for Labor and shifted the rhetorical debate somewhat. The revised mining tax appeared initially to generate little revenue.

Shortly afterwards, in August, the major parties eventually agreed to offshore processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. This return to a ''Pacific Solution'' followed some of the recommendations of an expert panel appointed to break a parliamentary deadlock.

Education financing debate peaked in September when the government announced its response to the Gonski Report. The sensitivities of school funding bogged down any action in inter-government and inter-party disagreements. This issue is symptomatic of a several major policy areas, including the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Murray Darling Basin, where progress is hindered by lack of money and the failure of governments to cooperate. Both sides of politics are trapped by the search for a budget surplus, given so many calls on government funds and persistent cost-of-living pressures.

In the same month the Sydney shock-jock Alan Jones, a Coalition favourite, was revealed to have told a university Liberal audience that Gillard's father had ''died of shame'' at his daughter's alleged lies. Gillard was livid and Jones was universally criticised to varying degrees.

Negative political and community reaction against him was so immense that he was disowned temporarily by his station 2GB as advertisers withdrew their support.

Coalition deserter Peter Slipper resigned as Speaker in October, having been earlier stood down amid sexual abuse allegations by a former staffer. He became yet another Independent. Neither of the major parties emerged well from the court revelations as they kept their eyes firmly fixed on Slipper's vote. His sleazy behaviour complemented the misuse of union funds surrounding Labor MP Craig Thomson, who had himself moved to the crossbenches.

The parliamentary battle over Slipper, together with the Jones affair, had one extraordinary unintended consequence. As the government defended Slipper's right to due process, Gillard delivered a fiery attack on Opposition Leader Tony Abbott for misogyny and sexism. She was initially criticised by the Canberra press gallery for defending the indefensible (Slipper), but as the speech went viral online around the world the first judgments were overturned and Gillard emerged, if not triumphant, at least ahead. Abbott's confidence was dented amid renewed discussion of sexism in politics, leading later in the year to his deputy, Julie Bishop, making the running against Gillard over allegations of professional misconduct 20 years earlier.

In the same month, October, a Labor member's gay marriage bill was comfortably defeated. For most of the year intense debate had covered not just the substance of marriage politics but whether the parties should allow a free vote (Labor did but the Coalition did not). The churches campaigned vigorously against marriage reform.

These churches, especially the Catholic Church and its recognised spokesman the Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell, were in the news in November when, just as state enquiries were under way in Victoria and NSW, the Gillard government announced a royal commission on child sexual abuse. The concentration was on institutions and organisations rather than individuals. Shortly afterwards an inquiry into sexual abuse in the defence forces, including the Australian Defence Force Academy, was launched.

The losers in the year's political events have often been public institutions such as Parliament and the political parties. But this has also been a year in which the finger could equally be pointed at traditional community institutions for their own appalling behaviour.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.

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