Divisive public discourse and the dumbing down of policy debates into abusive slogans are dragging our nation backwards. They are not unique to Australia. It’s as if we are methodically working our way through the Donald Trump’s playbook. Every week the President of the United States and leader of the free world tweets hatred: “Shady James Comey”, “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer”, and his old favourite, “Crooked Hillary Clinton.” Really, is this truly making America great again?
Here in Australia, the prime minister, who attacked his predecessor, Tony Abbott, for his obsession with three-word slogans, has economised, dropping out one word to describe the opposition leader as “Shifty Shorten”, “Electricity Bill” and “Blackout Bill.”
Labor, too, has travelled the low road, attacking the prime minister for being wealthy, showing no respect even for the office of the prime minister by describing its occupant not as “Prime Minister Turnbull” or “Mr Turnbull”, but just “Turnbull.” Yet the prime minister’s own side coined his most derogatory description – “Mr Harbourside Mansion.”
Does this denigration matter? You bet it does. These are the nation’s leaders and leadership aspirants. They set an appalling example to the people they seek to lead. They promote rancour not harmony. They hope to profit politically from a divided Australia.
Labor denigrates “the big end of town” as if only the small end of town is worthy. Try googling Bob Hawke and “the big end of town.” You won’t find him making any such references, telling me as a new staffer in the mid-1980s never to use such divisive language in any of his speeches.
Across the parliamentary aisle, government ministers shriek “class envy” and “class warfare” whenever Labor announces a policy to close down tax shelters utilised by the better off.
No matter if closing down shelters is for the purpose of repairing the budget. They are sacrosanct in the modern era when conservative politicians seek to appeal to the most basic instincts of their key supporters. Broadening the tax base to lower the rates is just so, well … old school.
NewsCorp legitimately criticises the Twittersphere’s sloganeering as small-minded tribalism substituting for rational debate, yet posts on its front pages cartoon caricatures disparaging progressive politicians as clowns and crooks.
Just last Saturday, in its flagship, The Weekend Australian, NewsCorp ran a piece from a regular columnist – a former union official no less – inviting ALP members to discover “their inner commie.” Hmm, ALP members and supporters are, in the minds of the Murdoch media, communists. And that’s not small-minded tribalism?
The spectacle of politicians demeaning each other – aided, abetted and applauded by the mainstream media – is not the mark of a robust democracy but of a declining civilisation. In America, President Trump needs only 26 per cent of eligible voters to support him in a total turnout of 60 per cent on polling day 2020 and he will likely be re-elected.
The question for Australia is whether we want to hold hands with the United States as it journeys down Memory Lane to the 1950s or whether we are energetic and courageous enough to create our own future.
That future will be built upon recognising the legitimacy of everyday people going about their daily lives without feeling the need to claim membership of an oppressed minority in order to gain political attention. Our future will rely on mutual respect between business, workers and those who claim to represent them.
How often do you hear our leaders say the public is disgusted with the parties’ Question Time schoolyard antics, only to go back in the next day and double down on that same behaviour? It’s as if slagging off at each other to the delighted whelps of the backbench is an addiction they just cannot kick.
My call to lift the standard of political behaviour will be seized upon by some as criticism of Bill Shorten. They miss the point. It’s a plea to both sides of politics to return to the robust but basically civil behaviour that characterised the parliamentary exchanges of Hawke, Peacock, Howard, Crean, Beazley – and yes, even Keating, who overwhelmingly deployed humour to make his political case.
Having promised a “kinder, gentler polity” back in 2010, Tony Abbott proceeded to rip the place apart, but it’s no excuse for the 45thparliament continuing in the tradition of abusive hyper-partisanship. As a nation we are much better than that.