Cry Canberra's year of havoc

In the moment parliament sat down in February the dogs of war were unleashed... and politicians on both sides of the aisle have spent the better part of 2012 trying to recapture them.

If ever a week has felt like a year, it was this one. If ever a week has been the perfect microcosm for a year, it was this one. If ever a week was the straw that broke the aching camel’s back, it was this one. This final parliamentary week: it wasn’t the one we deserved, but surely it was the one we were destined for. And it came, like so many other promises, to nothing.

In a week littered with questions, the way a stray dog is littered with fleas, there was a glaring omission from the lines of inquiry: A single question that has come to rest on the lips of most ordinary Australians. A question of more pertinence even than those well-publicised queries about so-called slush funds and mystery phone calls and budget black holes. A question of only two words, but infinite depth and even more importance. What next?

In order to answer this holy grail of a question, the collective gaze must regrettably be turned backward. Not 20 years back to when Tony Abbott was a university brawler. Not 17 years back to when Julia Gillard was a crooked union lawyer. No, think back just ten short months, to the parliament’s last clean slate: the first session of 2012.

Proceedings started civilly enough with the opposition lauding the government’s tribute to the recently deceased Sir Zelman Cowen and emphatically supporting the government’s congratulatory statement to Queen Elizabeth II in honour of her diamond jubilee.

But as soon as then speaker Peter Slipper opened the floor to questions without notice, the dogs of war were unleashed – and politicians on both side of the aisle have spent the better part of 2012 trying to recapture them.

Abbott, in the first question of the year, asked the prime minister why she had broken her promise on the introduction of a carbon tax.

Gillard, characteristically quick and diffusive in response, took the front foot.

"In answer to the Leader of the Opposition's question: it is clear that he means to go on as he did in 2011, with misleading claims and continued negativity, as we ready our economy for the future, including for a clean energy future,” she said.

And so began 2012. So began the descent.

This grubby, personal war between the government and the opposition, over the year, grew to become bigger than any single person involved. There are no clean hands, nor easy consciences. It’s no accident that the state of politics in this country is scraping the very bottom of a rusted out barrel – it is the result of a series of ruthlessly calculated, poorly executed manoeuvres designed for a single purpose: the demolition of the opposing party. Whatever the cost, however muddy the victory.

If instability alone was the goal of each party, then they can enjoy the holiday season warm in the knowledge they have succeeded admirably. The nation’s political system sits on a tipping point – and will likely hover there until the election.

If the end game, however, was in finally seeing a head roll – which the wartime rhetoric of both sides might suggest – the question has to be asked, for what benefit? If Gillard fell on her AWU sword, the Coalition would likely find itself up against a widely more popular Labor MP, perhaps Kevin Rudd, while the government would be gifted an ideal scapegoat for a back-catalogue of perceived policy missteps.

Alternatively, if Abbott were to depart, all of the government’s effort to drive down his personal popularity with relentless attacks on his so-called misogynist ways would have been in vain. Moreover, it would pave the way for the reinstatement of the vastly more popular Malcolm Turnbull and spare the Coalition the flak of a leadership spill after being so openly critical of Labor’s internal reshufflings.

Much as the government might proclaim to loathe Tony Abbott and the opposition decry Julia Gillard, their respective best hopes in next year’s election could very well be the leader of their opposing party.

That much was evident by the time the final parliamentary week of the year rolled around. It was clear, for everything that had changed – the speaker, the government’s position on the carbon tax, the Member for Dobell’s political allegiance – just as much had stayed the same.

If the year’s first session of parliament was endemic of the slow disintegration into bickering, the year’s final session was proof that all vestiges of civility were gone.

After a torturous week of relentless rhetoric and feigned finger-pointing in the house and especially in the media – both parties drip feeding their on-the-record statements, in the hope the nation’s journalists would do their dirty and potentially defamatory work for them in transforming innuendo into allegation – Gillard and Abbott once again stared each other down from either side of that now famous wooden divide.

The prime minister suspended question time in favour of giving the opposition leader fifteen minutes to "back it up or shut up” on allegations of her misconduct as an AWU lawyer. Abbott took his time in the sun, as did Gillard soon after and yet little more light was shed on the matter – let alone policies. There was rarely a moment of silence in the chamber, and yet very little was said. Debate was as usual dominated by question of who knew what, when? Who said what and will they say it again? He said, she said. I heard, they said, you knew. On the vicious cycle spins.

And so ended 2012. So much the same, so much changed and so much more vitriolic.

In getting from the beginning to the end of the parliamentary year, the nation has been treated to nothing short of a carnival of well-intentioned lunacy. There’s been truth hunting, mud-slinging, carbon taxing and lewd texting. We’ve had misogyny, ambition, corruption, depravity and sexism. Delusions of grandeur, threats of dissension and calls for resignations. As far as dinner theatre goes, there was rarely a more electrifying show in town. As far as the governing goes, the national regard for parliament quickly declined from forced respect, to farce to frustration.

It was a sentiment best captured by Speaker Anna Burke during one of the final parliamentary sessions of the year. When the Speaker interjected, as has sadly become custom in her role as glorified referee, she spoke not only for her own frustrated self, but a frustrated nation.

"This is not amusing,” she said.

"It really is not.

"It is absolutely disgraceful that you treat your parliament with such contempt.”

These are the sentiments that need to line parliamentary Christmas cards this festive season. The year is over and so is the joke.

As bookends on a year that will live in infamy for any number of unsavoury reasons – the carbon tax backflip, the misogyny speech, the failed Kevin Rudd leadership challenge or simply for being the year the wheels fell of the whole damn thing – the first and last parliamentary sessions are windows into what was. The hope, however, is that the 2013 parliamentary year doesn’t retroactively cast them as crystal balls, providing a glaring and horrifying preview of what is yet to be.

The dogs of war are groaning for burial, our political debate now more carrion than meat.

Let's hope 2013 brings less dirt and more debate.