Monday, October 15, 2012


Last Tuesday, Julia Gillard gave a passionate speech about sexism in Parliament. 

It was strong, forthright, and failed completely to address the serious issue of criticism of the Speaker (who she was defending). 

Because I'm a man, I am, by dentition, unable to refute her claims. However, as I hope this column makes clear, I think it's unlikely she's won many votes as a result . . . 


The title of the bright red book jumped out from the shelves: The Passion of Politics. How quickly that’s come out, I thought, assuming it was about the anger and fury displayed in Parliament exactly a week ago. The cover image of an emu kicking a kangaroo seemed to encompass what politics has been reduced to: noise and rage; the screaming grunts of 140 characters on twitter; the yelling of obscene insults and labels like “misogynist” and “hypocrite” across the chamber. Fervour without peer and debate without argument. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Thankfully, the book isn’t about the feverish squalor into which the political sphere degenerated last week. Instead it’s about theory and ideology; the sort of concepts and ideas that we expect our representatives to embrace. Academic Lindy Edwards mounts a solid argument as she tries to suggest, for example, that Kevin Rudd’s arguments against Friedrich von Hayek were based on a coherent political philosophy. After watching last week’s theatre I fear, alas, that Edwards has it the wrong way round. All too often the point of departure is guessing what might work politically; what policies or rhetoric will hit the electorate’s sweet spot. It’s only subsequently, once this has been discovered, that the politicians will search around for a theoretical justification for whatever’s likely to bring in the votes. Ideology is subverted for political ends. Rudd did write about ideas, but the suspicion of most of his colleagues is that his underlying motivation was more about demonstrating his own leadership credentials than explaining any underlying political philosophy.

This is the charge that now lies at Julia Gillard’s feet. She began last week excusing the utterly indefensible. Slipper’s misogyny was unpardonable. Getting rid of him was both inevitable and important for the country. It wasn’t just about whether Labor had the numbers to keep him propped up on a toppling throne – doing away with him is central to the legitimacy of the disorganised rabble that sit on the hill, clamouring for their personal share of gold from the public purse. The very idea that he could have continued as our third most important elected official was both ridiculous and disgusting. It displayed the squalor that now engulfs the political process. Yet, until the two independents finally acted, Labor and, unconscionably, inexplicably, the Greens, were actually prepared to back him.

It’s disconnection from reality. Such people have forgotten why they ever stood for Parliament. Tactics acquire primacy over principle. Gillard’s speech reinvigorated her base, but it won’t secure one additional vote. And the cost is immense. A party that props up Peter Slipper jettisons any shred of self-respect. It’s now official: this government will do absolutely anything to cling onto power. No bar is too low.

And Tony Abbott? Is it any different on the other side of the House? In this case Labor’s charge is the reverse of Gillard’s problem. She’s accused (by him) of abandoning policy to retain government. He’s charged (by her) of concealing his real intentions from the voters under a cloak of reasonableness. She insists that he is motivated by ideology and will introduce seriously regressive policies. These will increase inequality and inspire a new wave of social conservatism. Her charges bite, particularly the assault on Abbott’s sexism, exactly because he did stand alongside Alan Jones and in front of those posters. A picture is worth a thousand words. That one was repellent.

Gillard’s problem is she stands for so little; Abbott’s problem is he stands for too much. In this policy vacuum – where both sides promise nirvana – we are reduced to using money as the means of deciding between the desirability of their respective offerings. Abbott’s rhetoric is strident and negative. “Stop the tax”, he screams, channelling the incoherent rage of those angry at the direction in which society is moving, even if they’re unable to articulate the root cause of this resentment. So why is Gillard unable to combat this disjointed assault? It’s difficult not to conclude the failure is deeply personal. If last Tuesday’s speech revealed her inner anger and frustration, it was as negative as Abbott’s and also exposed emptiness. Gillard is propelled by genuine fury, but what use is that?

Use money to examine her record and the stark failure of Labor becomes apparent. Illogicality is rampant. Take the case of our most highly paid public servant. No, not the PM, not even the head of her department. Not the Chief of Defence, the Governor of the Reserve Bank, nor some good custodian of knowledge and wisdom. Instead “come on down Ahmed Fahour, head of Australia Post”, with take-home pay of some $2.78 million (or an increase of 25 percent last year). As CEO Fahour is implementing a restructuring to re-vamp the institution, but relativities do make it look as if the government’s not really in control of what’s going on. Ideas of equality vanish in a puff of smoke when confronted with this reality. And this is why it’s impossible to believe Gillard’s blather that she is following a considered strategy.

Central to this is Treasurer Wayne Swan. The business tide is turning and globally even the IMF has abandoned its usual demands for austerity and fiscal rectitude. It’s becoming increasingly evident the economic model that served us in the past must now be jettisoned yet no politician’s offering any alternative. Uncertainty is stalking the isles of department stores. Consumers, the engine of economic growth, won’t spend. Employment growth is stalling. Inequality soars. People fear our resources are running out while the world population is booming. The planet is, unequivocally, warming. Everyone can see problems are building up but no politician is offering a clear path that might take us into a plausible future. Swan is as out of his depth selling his economic strategy as Gillard is at explaining the philosophy that’s supposedly propelling her government. 

Ideology should be at the root of politics, but today the glib phrases win out. Voters aren’t dumb. The electorate’s beginning to notice.


  1. By dentition ? By the arrangement of your teeth you can're refute statements. So you're mute ?

  2. Aaah,er, yes . . . sorry.

    I had intended to write 'definition' . . .

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