Bringing civility back to the parliamentary cockfight


'Parliamentary civility' by Chris JohnstonLast week, chatting with the Queen at Government House, Tony Abbott commented that in Australia, we play our politics tough.

Certainly, Abbott seems to: he remarked, testing the boundaries of how to converse with royals, that the Queen had outlasted many Australian prime ministers and might get to outlast a few more yet. The Queen replied diplomatically that minority government must present special problems.

Australian politics these days is brutal, but was it always so?

I have adult memories of Australian parliamentary politics back to Menzies. I worked as a public servant under the McMahon, Gorton, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard governments.

For all the political passions of the day, the Whitlam and Fraser years were civil compared with now. Under Hawke and Keating, things went downhill: we regularly saw the ruthless baiting and derision by a triumphalist government of a hapless, divided opposition. Today, the boot is on the other foot.

There is a deeper issue here than ups and downs of parliamentary style and culture. Parliament is a team sport, and you barrack for your team. But what we see now raises some basic questions about civility and demagogy in Australian politics.

'Civil' is a rich word. Civil affairs relate to government; civil liberties to the people. To be civil is to be polite or courteous. When social philosophers use the term civil society, the adjective conveys all three meanings: a civil society enjoys a government which respects the civil liberties of the people, and which functions in a polite and courteous way.

By this definition, Australia has a way to go to being a full civil society towards Aboriginal people. We took a turn for the worse in the 1990s when governments began treating asylum-seekers in cruel discriminatory ways. After 9/11, the civil liberties of all Australians came under attack from a fearful and angry government. These days, a fragile balance has returned in these areas.

According to the Macquarie Dictionary, a demagogue is 'a leader who uses the passions or prejudices of the populace to further his or her own interests'. Demagogy pretty much describes the style of Opposition politics these days.

We see tactics designed to bypass Parliament, to exploit and mobilise the passions and prejudices of the people, to make parliamentary law-making seem transitory and irrelevant. Parliament, especially Question Time, has become a theatre for verbal violence, aimed at influencing public perceptions through dramatic media coverage of personalised confrontations.

We see persistent efforts to cement in the public mind a perception of the present government and leader as hopeless, 'dysfunctional' and 'toxic'.

Such tactics, sadly, work. There is a remarkable disconnect between public judgements as to the policy achievements of the present government, and as to the quality of its leadership.

Two recent Essential Polls found that large majorities of voters — between 51 and 89 per cent — are satisfied by current government policies on a range of important matters that affect our daily lives, such as health funding, pension increases, managing the economy to keep interest rates and unemployment down, GFC stimulus spending, and abolishing Work Choices.

Only on asylum seekers and carbon pricing — the issues where parliamentary demagogy is most sustained — is Labor losing the policy argument. Yet on two-party preferred, Abbott leads Gillard 58 per cent to 42 per cent (or more) on polls taken around the same time.

This is worrying evidence of the success of a demagogic style of politics. That said, polling experts note that such large contradictions usually lessen come election time, when voters make more serious choices between parties and leaders. For Julia Gillard's sake, I hope so.

Much has been written this past year on what ails our politics and political coverage. Who is to blame for declining parliamentary standards — politicians, the media or the people? I suggest we all are.

The media encourage head-bashing politics, because civil politics is boring. The people have become less forgiving and more openly emotion-driven, and maybe expect politicians in their own image; dignity, compassion and restraint are out of favour. Many politicians, though they know better, are giving the people and the media what they want: rancorous confrontations and barbed insults.

Most of the people in our Parliament are well-educated in manners. When they choose to set manners aside, it is deliberately calculated. Part of being 'a good parliamentary performer' is the ability to put the other side off their stroke, make them miss the ball.

The 'tough' way in which Australian politics is now played corrodes civility and potentially erodes our democracy. It reduces public respect for Parliament and makes people feel that Parliament is failing. It could tempt people to more extreme street politics. All these things have happened before in Europe in the 1930s. Verbal violence desensitised people, and real violence followed.

Some of the rhetoric in the recent carbon tax debates, in Question Time, in censure motions, and outside in the public galleries and streets, was pretty frightening.

Civility in politics might be a bit boring, but a lot of Australians would dearly wish to see its return.

There are still many role models of a civil style in politics. Tony Windsor, Bob Brown, Christine Milne, Malcolm Turnbull, Simon Crean, Stephen Smith and Greg Combet spring to mind. They make their points quietly and in balanced ways.

Parliament needs to rediscover its classic role as a venue for civil conversation among intelligent people of differing views, united in a search for public-interest solutions to national problems. 


Tony KevinTony Kevin is the author of Crunch Time, a book exploring Australia's inadequate policy responses to the climate change crisis. 

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott



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politics - uncivil

barb ogilvy | 31 October 2011  

Somebody once said, "beware of the civil servant who is no longer civil!" Think it was Sir Winston Churchill.

Trevor J Bates | 31 October 2011  

The abuse of the opposite party leaders is unfortunately not confined to Abbott's statements about the Julia/ I have rarely heard Julia answer at Question Time without abusing Abbott. Both sides need to have a change of heart.

PATRICIA RYAN | 31 October 2011  

Sorry, civil is not boring. Civil is civil, is how to talk so the issues are presented. Civil involves wit and patience and the talent to give the broad picture. The problem with the uncivil behaviour of our current pair of transitory leaders, but most distinctively the Opposition leader, is that uncivil is equated with toughness. This is a false assumption. Uncivil is uncivil, is how to yell down everyone and argue tiresomely only from your own narrow position. No wit, no broad picture. Not even very tough. Tough is about standing by what you stand for and using civil language and the broad picture to send that message. Civil is ultimately much more interesting than uncivil because not everyone can lead with conviction, but anyone can get into a schoolyard fight and get naïve folk to think they’re the ant’s pants. The Queen’s reply to the Opposition leader in this article is a nice example of civil. She is putting the bullyboy boxer in the picture, it’s not all about being some tough guy. Not even half.

SYDNEY MELBOURNE | 31 October 2011  

An excellent article! I concur almost completely! But to say it is the fault of politicians, media and the people seems naive and untrue. It is the fault of the people and our inability thus far to create a system that works better. There are civil media outlets - less successful than the demagogic, and civil politicisations less successful than the demagogic and it is the people that choose and determine which succeed. It takes a mature people to accept that moderating controls are good for us not constraining, that the chair in parliament could enforce civility as could (perish the thought) media controls. Neither is popular and without risk, but without them we have what the Economic Rationalists love, a free market in information and the blame for what is most popular lies wholly with the consumers and the system of delivery, not the suppliers or the messengers for they will always appear to fill the demand for emotive theatre or (demagogy) - it is a valid profession after all and democracy is nothing if not a popularity contest. Churchill so admirably summarised it with "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Still, it behoves us to look at more civil governments across the world, study them and understand how they come to hold on to civility in the age of media circus. The internet and shifts away form mass media might come to the rescue in coming generations, and maybe not. We will see.

Bernd Wechner | 31 October 2011  

Civil/uncivil? Maybe, but my instincts say it's more about ego. The sight of Tony Abbott strutting around like a duck with his elbows poked outwards makes me cringe. I can't believe the Opposition can grin and bear it. Can you do better than this schoolboy Tommy tough-nuts?

AURELIUS | 31 October 2011  

It was not Abbott using racism to try and flog refugees off to Malaysia so why not pick on Gillard's useless cruelty?

Marilyn Shepherd | 31 October 2011  

Rediscovering the classical role of politics?? I wonder whether Tony is with us!?!

The Opposition has gone bonkers, Tony! They are not aiming at civility. They say they are 'educated'. One wonders, when you remember the "mad monk" haranguing the crowds in front of Parliament House with placards calling Julia a bitch, witch, etc etc and he says he did not know what was behind him!

These people are not educated, they are just dumb, thick demagogues.
I happened to go to listen to Question time, some weeks ago, just before Carbon Price legislation was passed. Same thing! The "mad Monk" got up, just talked non-stop and asked a couple of questions, while mocking her, laughing, moving his head from side to side. Julia just got up and answered quietly, calmly, tried to be heard while the baboons on the opposite side jeered! I couldn't believe it! It took three "Order!" by the Speaker for her to finish answering. At the end, I just didn't understand what she said due to the noise and the comments next to me from shocked & amused spectators.

Just think, Tony, about the Birmigham riots recently and how THAT Parliament worked. We again, couldn't believe it! they actually listened to each other, thanked each other for their opinions, made suggestions and agreements for several hours.

We will never have that here again. I would like to be proven wrong, of course!

Nathalie | 31 October 2011  

I have disengaged from the political process no longer reading or following public issues. If I represent even a tiny fraction of the thoughtful people of Australia then we are headed down a road to demogoguery and a repeat of mid twentieth century Europe.

graham patison | 01 November 2011  

FYI -- not civil is "incivil", not "uncivil".

Civilian | 01 November 2011  

On the money Kevin. I made a similar point in this months Aurora, the magazine of the Maitland Newcastle diocese - but less eloquently!

Michael Elphick | 01 November 2011  

To Civilian, with great civility.
Although the use of words is determined ultimately by usage, and 'incivil' may be in wide use within civilian circles, 'uncivil' is surely the more widely accepted form of the privative adjective formed from 'civil'.

The correct form of the cognate privative noun, of course, is certainly 'incivility'.

Dan McGonigal | 01 November 2011  

I love a good debate, alas it has been a long time between drinks.The rooster in this cock fight won't get my vote, I squirm every time I try to listen to Mr A, whether he talks, eats a banana, shakes hands with a factory worker, or debates in parliament, He is everything we need in a leader (NOT.) A great article, thank you.

Elisabeth K | 07 November 2011  

Civil society cannot prosper when such uncivil, incivil or not civil behaviour is exhibited in the parliament and propogated by the media.

Paddy Dewan | 15 November 2011  

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