Canberra's very own Hunger Games

Australian politics has descended into a vitriolic, inhuman workplace made up of former apparatchiks willing to do whatever it takes to gain power. Parliament's new low is a bigger issue than the Labor leadership.

Forget all this rekindled non-stop make-believe Labor leadership talk in our weekend newspapers and on non-stop TV – there’s a much more substantive issue at hand.

It’s this: We are at an historic low in our nation’s parliament. The place smells.

The institution has never been so tainted or as far removed from civility and normal human behaviour as it is now. It’s split from real life.

It’s littered with people with no regard for civic service. For them it is simply a stage for personal bile, vitriol and animosity. It’s just a game without end, and it pays.

Extraordinarily, it’s a workplace that sanctions (and rewards) behaviour that would not be accepted in any boardroom, any other workplace, any courtroom, or any school or assembly.

No doubt that there are politicians who dispute this harsh assessment. They would say they are acting out of high purpose and with good or great intention.

They would say that many decent laws are passed, and that constituents all over the country are helped in a hundred big and small ways as the real work goes on behind the public glare and scrutiny.

They would point to numerous committees where all parties contribute, without public rancour or petty politics. And they would point to the traditional hardness of Australian politics, including the tough parliament at the time of the 1975 dismissal.

That would all be a fair call. Politics is not meant to be a country woman’s association afternoon tea party. It is meant to be a robust fight for ideas and values.

But in Australia in 2012 it has become more than this. It is an unedifying slimy mud wrestle – whatever the cost – for the grand prize of gaining or hanging onto government. It’s a place filled with too many former apparatchiks and space fillers seeking the political win and the political thrill.

The debates are so personally vitriolic and targeted that they descend into unwatchable farce.

Unfortunately, cable TV and the national broadcaster beam these sounds and pictures of Question Time, censure motions, and something called "suspension of standing orders” directly into our homes and workplaces.

I confess I find it intensely satisfying to hit the mute button and just look at the sight – you get a message of contempt and unbounded derision. It’s the bulging eyes and throbbing neck veins that give the game away. If you don’t believe me, just try it this week.

Why has it come to this, and where will it lead?

There’s little doubt the blank media canvass and low-tone speculative journalism provide an incentive for politicians to grab space or a headline. Any publicity, as the old saying goes.

Politicians can say and do almost anything and not be seriously tested against past positions and words. It’s just part of the rolling smokescreen, and often seen as 'good politics'.

There’s also little doubt, in my view, that our compulsory voting system in Australia contributes to the dumbing down of argument as the pollies spruik the lowest common denominator messages.

Elections are won by grabbing those who couldn’t give a toss about public policy, people who are not engaged with big issues. So the permanent election campaign of the modern age is little more than a bunch of sound bites aimed at around 20 per cent of the electorate as the politicians don their hard hats and coloured vests and troll through shopping centres and workplaces.

Ask yourself: why would anyone of real calibre and intelligence aspire to be a federal MP? It’s become a barren space, so why risk an existing career? Leave it to the hacks.

What’s also certain is that this toxic environment will roll on – and intensify.

The Craig Thomson affair is little more than illustrative. Enough has been written about the allegations and potential impact on the individual. I just think of the supposed role of parliament and the separation of State and law. And I look at demands for this MP to resign his seat – based on allegations.

Of course, it all feeds a media filled with clean hands and high design. Why, even a Z-grade TV tabloid show thought it was news to troll the cities for prostitutes until one came forward with the killer blow. Don’t blame them – they were just responding to the toxicity generated out of the big building in Canberra.

Next up will be Speaker Slipper. He’ll share the stage with Thomson. And – be certain – it will drag on, and on. The boats won’t be too far away again. The bile-filled live press conferences will follow. (The ABC’s Barrie Cassidy put the week into graphic context last Friday with a hard-headed assessment on The Drum web site. It should be compulsory reading.)

And 'this rotten government and this rotten prime minister' will be reminded they are simply play things and accidental by-products in today’s Canberra game. God help us over the next ten years.

Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.

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