The dogs of war replace Canberra's civilised pack

The dogs of war replace Canberra's civilised pack

BACK in the early years of the Howard government, I was interviewing the prime minister in his Parliament House office when a staffer interrupted to let him know a VIP plane had been organised to take him to Perth later that day. He paused for a moment or two, then suggested the staffer ring Kim Beazley, then leader of the opposition, to check whether he wanted a lift home.

It struck me at the time as unusual, given that Beazley's political raison d'etre was to remove Howard from office. But it wasn't. There was no tougher, more uncompromising fighter on the conservative side of politics, but John Howard was always prided himself on being civil, especially when it came to political combatants.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

It was, of course, another time. Howard had a healthy majority and Beazley enjoyed the overwhelming support and affection of his colleagues, leading Labor to honourable defeats in 1998 and 2001 (the tensions and acrimony would come later). It was also a time when all the top jobs in public life were occupied by blokes: PM, governor-general, and Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Howard's instinctive magnanimity came back to me after watching this week's face-off between Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard in Parliament. The contrast between the way politics was played then and now could hardly have been more stark.


This was more visceral, more raw, more deeply personal than even the enmity between Paul Keating and John Hewson - a mutual dislike that was reflected in Keating's declaration that he was going to ''do'' Hewson slowly, so he could see the ''ashen-faced performances'' and watch him squirm.

Keating, of course, had a more serious political opponent than Hewson. He faced, and was conquered by, his real nemesis in the 1996 election - after which he graciously gave Howard a guided tour of The Lodge before vacating the PM's Canberra residence. Can you imagine Gillard doing the same for Abbott should he lead the Coalition to victory this time next year?

Part of the explanation for the extreme nastiness that pervades politics now is, of course, the hung parliament. Labor's precarious hold on power inevitably means that both sides see every issue and every day through the prism of extracting political advantage, leaving both sides regularly guilty of pettiness and hypocrisy.

While Gillard's survival strategy has involved stooping to such distasteful acts as installing a sullied traitor from the other side of politics as Speaker to buttress Labor's numbers on the floor of the House, Abbott's strategy has been no less ignoble - to make the Parliament so dysfunctional that Gillard has no option but to call an early election.

This has involved the use of hyperbole that paints Gillard's administration as not just bad, but as the worst in Australian history. It explains why, when Abbott is accused of drawing upon Alan Jones' hurtful words when he insisted the government ''should have already died of shame'', his defence is that he has used the phrase dozens of times in the past.

There is, of course, another cause of the toxicity: the leadership tensions that linger overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, on the Labor side of politics. The willingness of some Labor MPs to destabilise Gillard at every opportunity complements the combustive atmosphere that is integral to Abbott's political strategy. Two destructive forces feed off each other, fanned by the media.

Finally, there is the personal relationship between Gillard and Abbott, which in another age on Sunrise was warm and friendly. The Liberal leader might still hold some conservative attitudes about the place of women in society, but he is no misogynist. He abiding disdain is confined to just one woman, the Prime Minister (and maybe her ''handbag hit squad'' of Nicola Roxon, Tanya Plibersek and Jenny Macklin) - and it is reciprocated.

What won't be clear for some time is how this week's events will impact on the voting public. Will Gillard's decision to so comprehensively unload on Abbott resonate with the broader electorate, and women in particular? Or will the insider Canberra view - which casts her as a hypocrite for seemingly defending Slipper, a man who expressed truly misogynistic views, while attacking Abbott - prevail?

If history is any guide, the spectre of unruly, tit-for-tat squabbling will reflect more on the government than the opposition in the next crop of opinion polls, but what will endure is an open question.

On any measure, Gillard delivered a powerful speech that will reinforce her reputation for resilience. Seemingly taken off-guard by Abbott's motion to remove Slipper, she seized the opportunity to get a lot of what she really thinks about Abbott off her chest. The opening line set the tone: ''I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not … not now, not ever.''

Her problem is that it is impossible to divorce the attack on Abbott from the platform that is Slipper. In truth, Gillard wasn't defending Slipper and his crude text messages. Those close to her say she recognised that his position had become untenable. Rather, she was arguing that ''common sense and proper process'' should rule when it comes to removing the Parliament's most senior office-bearer - and that Abbott's tactical ambush should not be rewarded.

The point was developed by Daryl Melham, who earlier in the day announced his resignation as secretary of ALP caucus, prompting ill-informed speculation that it was a vote of no-confidence in the leader - speculation he felt compelled to deny. ''Do not be too smart by half. These principles are bigger than Slipper; they are bigger than anyone in this chamber,'' he told Parliament.

But the even bigger point was that the debate was a reminder of a bad judgment in recruiting Slipper as an insurance policy in the first place. As I wrote on these pages last November: ''By embracing a flawed maverick from the other side of politics to slightly bolster her numbers - rather than backing Labor's next most qualified alternative, Anna Burke - Gillard has opted for pragmatism over principle and, in the view of several of her MPs, surrendered the high moral ground.''

The pragmatists on Labor's side insist the result could be a lot worse because Slipper will sit on the crossbench and is extremely unlikely to assist the side that vilified him. Time will tell. They can also point to the private pressure from the independents that persuaded Slipper to go of his own volition as evidence that the hung parliament continues to work.

As for those agitating for Rudd, they appear (once again) to have damaged their cause by going off half-cocked and antagonising colleagues who believe the government has turned the corner. Rudd's only hope of a return to the leadership remains that Gillard is given every opportunity to make Labor competitive and fails - not that she is sabotaged from within.

And the poisoned state of politics in general? Gillard and Abbott would not have had the opportunity to discuss it on the flight to Bali for yesterday's memorial service, even if they were of a mind to do so. For logistical reasons, they travelled on separate VIP planes.

Michael Gordon is national editor.

Michael Gordon is the political editor of The Age.

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