Can we turn the tide of vitriol in Canberra?

Australia's national politics has moved from the noble to ignoble in just a few short years. Stuck in a rut of sleaze and abuse, hopes of ending the farce with a cleansing election seem a little simplistic.

What kind of circuit breaker do we need to change the vicious political culture gripping the nation? To many the solution is obvious – bring on an election and let Tony Abbott seize power.

Gone would be the lies, gone the union sleaze, gone the kind of personal rumours that yesterday forced Bill Shorten to 'deny' a still unpublished story. And gone would be the exclusive 'insider' briefings that made fools of Australian journalists during the recent Rudd leadership challenge.

Yes, Super Tony would sweep all this aside with one flourish of his cape.

If only it were that simple. While it's true that Labor and the union movement in particular have brought the current storm upon themselves, and Paul Howes is right to say this threatens to wipe unions off the map, there is something deeper at work, and it is not only Labor's side of politics that is to blame.

More on that in a moment – but first, let's not gloss over the labour movement's sins. Joe Hockey is probably right that the Shorten's denial was made to counter rumour mongering from enemies within the union movement – the allegation against him was whispered to this columnist by a Labor figure around six weeks ago. I still cannot publish the rumour, even if the digging up of irrelevant personal sleaze was my brief (which it is not).

And what to say about Craig Thomson? Whether or not he was set up by fellow unionists, the fact that he's calling upon his half brother as a witness – a man he allegedly employed in contravention of the Health Services Union's own regulations – sets a new standard for political farce.

We may never know the truth, but there is one encounter with the HSU I can personally relate that makes Thomson's claim of a set-up not inconceivable. In 2004 a colleague invited me to drinks with a number of HSU officials at the Hotel Lincoln – the same pub at which, according Fair Work Australia's report on the Thomson allegations, Thomson put $1200 across the bar for his half-brother's leaving do.

The drinks I attended stick in my mind for only one thing – as a small group of officials raised their beers glasses, I asked: "What's the toast?" The reply was that a factional rival within their own union had just been hospitalised following a motorcycle accident – they were celebrating his temporary removal as a political foe. Nice.

It was only a half a dozen or so officials making that toast and it's hard to know how far that culture extended, but Thomson's claims – recorded in the FWA report as "threats made against Mr Thomson by at least one other official of the HSU who, in 2004, threatened to ruin Mr Thomson's life, to destroy his political ambitions and to 'set him up with a bunch of hookers and ... ruin him" – don't, to this observer, seem far-fetched.

Against this tawdry backdrop, former Queensland premier Peter Beattie has declared that Thomson should be suspended from parliament if he cannot give a good account of himself in a planned half-hour address to the House of Representatives next week. Thomson is expected to use parliamentary privilege to name the people he claims set him up.

Beattie either knows what Thomson is about to reveal (that is, that he will give a good account of himself), or is adding his own pressure to remove Thomson's vote from Labor and bring down the government – perhaps reasoning that losing power from the floor of the House of Representatives would be less damaging to Labor in the long-run than going full-term and being wiped out at an election.

So back to the circuit breaker. It's unlikely that Tony Abbott winning power will do much to turn the tide of vitriol in public life.

Paul Howes told the ACTU Youth Congress in Sydney yesterday: "We've had five years of a Labor Government and we've had no growth in density."

No, unionists have been too busy knifing each other, plotting leadership coups and, we're urged to believe, turning prostitutes into political assassins.

That's with Labor in power.

With the Coalition in power, some of that animosity will be refocused on the man who has done so well in demonising Labor – Tony Abbott. Union 'density' will likely increase (though watching union officials' actions in past years, perhaps this generation of leaders is dense enough).

The Labor movement will take to the streets in numbers not seen since the anti-war and anti-WorkChoices marches of the Howard government years.

And Labor will, no doubt, release its own sleaze files. The Greens (if they can avoid the mud slinging) will mop up primary votes ... and so on. In short, the currently intense rancour seen in public life will get worse.

What a different world from mid-2009 when a matter as important, and difficult, as carbon pollution reduction, could be a matter of bipartisan agreement between Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull – a statesmanlike agreement that both parties had trouble digesting, and that played a key role in both men being deposed.

Somewhere in late 2009 things turned nasty. Politicians, unionists and, importantly, journalists must look back at that turning point and find the circuit breaker. For now, I simply don't know what it will be.

Follow @_Rob_Burgess on Twitter.

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