Alas poor policy, we knew it well

Australia political discourse has rarely been inspiring but the events of the past few months are evidence of an entire political establishment that has lost its way.

To famously quote Shakespeare – and less famously paraphrase Lindsay Tanner – ‘a plague on both your houses’. And plagued the houses are. While on first glance, it might appear the English wordsmith’s great tale of woe has only the vaguest of parallels with the current state of Australian politics – a parallel Mr Tanner attempted to draw with limited success – a closer inspection reveals Canberra could well be the stage for a tragedy worthy of the bard himself.

They may be lacking the Capulet and Montague monikers, but Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott certainly have more in common with Romeo and Juliet than entrenched, hereditary divisions. The impending sense of doom, the fated destiny of destruction, called forth by the ideologically opposed leaders’ every encounter rings as true in the halls of Canberra as it did on the streets of Verona. But while Shakespeare turned tragedy into poetry with his unparalleled wordsmanship, it is precisely the lack of eloquence and basic civility that seems set to sentence the political establishment to rot in the burning sun. The latest is enough to make ‘moving forward’ look like F. Scott Fitzgerald.

There is a certain irony to the fact political leaders seem only capable of said eloquence and civility when attempting to ascribe some sense of reasoning to the slow, insidious disintegration of political discourse that has afflicted the nation in recent months. Granted, the political establishment – this one particularly, but also those before it – has not historically been renowned for its exceptional level of banter or congeniality, but equally it has never so consistently aimed for, and hit, the depths at which it currently languishes.

This is a new political reality – a harrowing portrait of modern government, the nation’s first race to the bottom. Aspiratory political one-upsmanship is but a memory, and in its place a monument to petty one-downsmanship has been erected. The discourse of governing has become so trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of baseless finger pointing and forced apologies, so bogged down in personal attacks and menial back-and-forth, that the very foundations of the democratic process are slowly shifting. Contradictions are the new currency and scandal – be it of the misogynist, homophobic, sexually duplicitous or morally ambiguous variety – is the oxygen.

In the space of just a few months – months during which Big Brother returned to Australian television screens, a Kardashian has visited the country and The Shire set the course of Cronulla tourism back about two decades – it’s our leaders who have been most damaging to the good Australian name, dragging it continuously and unapologetically through the thick mud of political disappointment.

The list of gaffes, scandals and other such nonsense reads like a 'how to' guide for misplaced pride, deep-set prejudice and unwavering stupidity; Cori Bernardi’s linking of same-sex marriage to bestiality, Tony’s Abbott’s alleged university assault, Peter Slipper’s lewd descriptions of female genitalia and even the prime-minister’s now infamous misogyny diatribe, to name just four. Singularly, they are alarming, if not dismissible. Viewed through a wider lens, however, the incidents appear to be endemic not of a government, not of an opposition, but of an entire political establishment that has lost its way. Certainly they are no longer isolated incidents of temporary fallibility. Most insulting of all, neither party has realised if they stood back and gaffer-taped their mouths shut, their opposing caucus would likely self-implode – and quickly.

The result of all this hot air is a dire one: the lowest common denominator approach to governing has become the rule, rather than the exception. And no one seems to possess a definitive explanation as to why this happening. Or how to stop it. And in its inexplicability lies its deep-set power over politicians and in turn, the electorate.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd, the man ousted by his own party amid a flurry of damning character assassinations labelling him everything from a false messiah to a psychopath, proffered something vaguely resembling an explanation last week, cloaked as it was in silent vitriol and unfettered ambition. Mr Rudd told ABC television he believed there was a yearning in the electorate for a "common vision for the country’s future, and if we can’t have a common vision for the country’s future at least a policy based division on what that might be".
Similar calls to refocus on policy and governing have been made by many politicians, including the prime minister and the opposition leader. Such decrees, however, fall flat when delivered in the same breath as backhanded digs at political combatants. These calls to arrange a ceasefire of personal mortars, to realign the political discourse, have in fact become an entrenched part of the broken-record discussion that has sidetracked the establishment.

The release earlier this week of the government’s mid-year economic and fiscal outlook only highlighted the establishment’s continual tumble down the rabbit-hole of baseless rhetoric. What should have provided a platform for frank, policy-based discussion instead descended into an all-too-familiar farce, lacking all vestiges of depth and civility.

Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey took to Perth radio to decry Treasurer Wayne Swan for misspeaking on tax revenue, but soon descended into familiar attacks on the government’s failure to stop the boats and well-trodden Liberal soliloquies about the ‘knifing’ of Kevin Rudd. Meanwhile, Tony Abbott’s remark that the government was inexperienced in the field of child-rearing provided the kindling for the latest fire of moral indignation.

Ideologically opposed politicians were offended. Demands for an apology were made. Morally smug outrage simmered to boiling point. The scene was a familiar one. And so was the ending. Petty he-said, she-said politicking triumphed and policy was overlooked.

Mr Rudd’s decree that "the season has come for us to rise above the muck”, faded into distant memory, as the unrelenting screams of Mr Abbott’s baby gaffe, reverberated through baby monitors across the county.

So who is to blame for this sad state of affairs? Blame the hung parliament. Blame the first female prime minister. Blame Alan Jones. Blame Tony Abbott’s penchant for budgie smugglers. Blame the end of the mining boom. Blame China. Blame the bloody surplus.

Mercifully, blame still isn’t hard to come by in Canberra. Only last week Sophie Mirabella took a pot shot at the media for exacerbating the degradation of the political establishment by claiming she was hesitant to use the world ‘shameful’ for fear of attracting the ire of bloodthirsty commentators. The 24-hour news cycle may have a nasty habit of breeding shortsighted policy – or no policy at all – but it alone cannot be blamed for the complete devolution of politics.

And so like scripted players on a worn, old stage, we seem fated to be sent to the polls, displeased and uninspired. Mr Abbott’s prediction that the coming election will be the "filthiest and most personal in living memory” now seems less like crystal-ball gazing and more like a destiny of mutually assured doom.

Contrary to unpopular and advertisement-free opinion, it won’t be shame that we die of; it will be disbelief and boredom. An aching tiredness with this futile, tit-for-tat behaviour from political children who should know better.

Thankfully, the electorate is slowly but surely starting to demand better. Discussions of accountability and policy are permeating the everyday conversations of Australians and as a result, somewhat ironically, it is the complete disengagement of politicians with their constituents that has lit a fire under the nation, and urged it to engage with the political process. This from the bottom, groundswell movement for quality and policy is the last hope for a country so sorely lacking determined, thoughtful leadership.

If it fails though, you have to think that come election day, given the choice between Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and the great Australian tradition of donkey voting, the ass is a dead certainty.