A nation distracted by 'bimbos', brats and bruisers

After a descent through carbon tax infighting to IR acrimony and media hyperbole, plenty of topics are waiting for serious debate before the federal election.

Seven months ago I dared to hope that the vicious turn national politics had taken could be reversed (Can we turn the tide of vitriol in Canberra? May 15). It was a sentiment I'd heard from dozens of business leaders, everyday voters and a number of MPs.

News cycles had come to be dominated by angry debates that got the nation nowhere. Was 'Ju-Liar' a liar? Did Craig Thomson or one of his colleagues pay for prostitutes with union money? Did Bill Shorten do that thing that nobody could say he might have done? And so on...

The acrimonious turn in the national mood really began with the arrival of Tony Abbott as opposition leader in late 2009. Bi-partisan moves of his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull, which had angered so many of his colleagues (support for the CPRS, mostly), were over and a ruthless political warrior took his place.

To be fair to Abbott, he achieved the goal set for him by the 42 Coalition MPs who, in the second round of voting in the December 2009 leadership spill, voted against the 41 MPs who wanted Turnbull to stay. (Joe Hockey had also thrown his hat into the ring for the first round of voting, which returned 35 Abbott votes, 26 Turnbull votes and 23 for Hockey).

He forced Rudd to back down on the CPRS, took his party to within a whisker of forming government from the hung parliament distribution of seats produced by the August 2010 election. And he then carried on grinding Labor's primary vote to historic lows.

The 'carbon tax', was a godsend for Abbott – even though it was designed as a cap-and-trade ETS, the stipulation by the Greens on the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee that it begin with a three-year fixed price, made it "function a bit like a tax", as Julia Gillard put it.

But then it is wrong to say the bitter mood in political debate was all down to Abbott. Rumbles of dissent on his own backbenches had to be stomped on – young turks Jamie Briggs and Steve Ciobo couldn't help themselves, reviving the 'ghost of WorkChoices' by speaking out on the need for IR reform, when Abbott was hell bent on keeping his party's IR track-record "dead, buried and cremated".

That brought loud jeers in Question Time from the Labor benches, but also brought alarmist, hyperbolic claims from union leaders. No sane person would believe Abbott was leading the party back to the WorkChoices regime, but that was the overblown union rhetoric.

And journalists, often, haven't helped.

At the height of the recent Julie-Bishop-vs-Julia-Gillard AWU conflict, a press conference held by Trade Minister Craig Emerson to demand Bishop be sacked for "lying to the Australian public" included not one, but five questions from journalists relating to a tweet from Labor backbencher Steve Gibbons. He had earlier called Bishop a "narcissistic bimbo", was reprimanded by the prime minister, and had unreservedly apologised. He's soon to retire from politics. Where is the story?

Seven months ago I suggested that "politicians, unionists and, importantly, journalists must look back at that [2009] turning point and find the circuit breaker" to return the debate to important issues.

That hasn't happened – indeed, things have become considerably worse through the Peter Slipper scandal and the AWU brawl.

But then all is not lost. Who knows what seismic shift could occur over the summer to focus minds and hearts on topics such as education and training, infrastructure, migration, tax reform, the changing face of agriculture, and the aspects of productivity that have nothing to do with IR.

There are vexed issues of how to pay for disability reforms while attempting to balance the budget, and how to deal with asylum seekers in a more humane and effective manner as part of a regional solution, and how to engage with Asia in a way that doesn't suggest we're stuck in 1983. All of these need to make more frequent appearances at the top of new bulletins or on the front pages of print/online media.

And there are plenty more such topics if we can ignore the tweets, twits, 'bimbos', brats and bruisers, and pay a bit more attention to serious policy thinkers. There might just be time to squeeze in a few serious debates before the election.

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