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Bringing civility back to the parliamentary cockfight

  • 31 October 2011

Last 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