There was a moment in which Labor could have risen above the disgraceful comments of the pitiable Alan Jones, but that moment has passed.
Do not blame Julia Gillard for this – the death of a parent is close to the top of the list of psychological traumas most individuals will face in their lives. Performing on the world stage while dealing with such grief shows remarkable grit and determination, and if she has consequently taken her eye off maintaining party discipline, who could blame her?
But with their leader distracted and hurt by Jones' depraved comment, Labor's leadership team has opted for an undisciplined race to lower themselves, as close as possible, to his level.
True, nobody in caucus will utter anything as callous as Jones, but by rushing to conflate his views with those of the Liberal Party, they have shown nothing like the statesmanlike qualities that many Australian voters pine for (okay, statespersonlike).
Treasurer Swan writes in The Punch this morning: "As Treasurer, I can tell you that when people like Alan Jones and Tony Abbott – or any number of other doomsayers like Terry McCrann or Piers Akerman – constantly trash our country and our economy, it makes life a lot harder for business."
As rhetorical tricks go, that's a pretty basic one. Guilt by association. Even making that kind of comment diminishes Swan much more than his list of opponents. To the converted, it sounds like common sense. To the unconverted, on whom the next election rides, it sounds like bitter paranoia.
Swan's comments follow Anthony Albanese's even wilder words: "Tony Abbott has engaged in personal attacks and vilification of the prime minister that have sent a sign to people on the conservative side of politics that there’s nothing too low, nothing out of bounds, nothing that goes too far in personal attacks.”
Attorney General Nicola Roxon added: "This is actually a sign of what the Liberal Party has slipped to in Australia."
I have heard rants from Labor front-benchers first-hand behind closed doors – and it's understandable that they regard their Liberal Party opponents and the right-leaning 'hate media' as being one and the same. But taking that private performance public is making the same mistake – in nature, if not in severity – that Jones made.
All of us are entitled to make disgraceful jokes and paranoid comments with friends (or even with journalists) behind closed doors, but taking the same sentiments into a public forum – be it a Liberal or Labor conference, or a mass-media performance – is something else altogether. Jokes and comments in private are where we test the boundaries of what is decent, and discover what is indecent, but they are not, in themselves, political acts. Taking them to the wider public is.
Let's imagine for a minute that the people involved were different – that it was Wayne Swan who had suffered a bereavement and then an ugly attack, and the prime minister coming to his defence. In such a scenario, with the party's leader operating at full capacity rather than in the midst of grief, would she have given the order to unleash Labor's best attack dogs? I don't believe she would.
For all the criticisms of her policy platform, Gillard has brought real leadership to Labor – balancing factional disputes and the Rudd challenge, while shepherding a remarkable amount of legislation through a difficult and hostile parliament. Were Gillard on top of her game right now, I believe she'd have the judgement to tell Swan, Albanese, Nicola Roxon and others to pull their heads in and to rise above the grubbiness of the Jones performance.
But that order has not been given. Labor is left looking like the 'election machine' it is accused of being. And, in the end, they seem to be strengthening Alan Jones's image as a hero of the people, when he should be wallowing in disgrace – his repeated apologies notwithstanding.
Jones returned to air this morning. The Australian reports some of his fiery first words:
"Above all and through this program, because you [the audience] are my best researchers, I've sought to make it known to the public the extent to which this government has betrayed the public interest.
"[Labor members] don't like this and they don't like the criticism and a lot of this stuff about me is an attempt to silence and destroy Alan Jones. Well I've got news for these people. I don't back off and I don't frighten easily. You have picked the wrong target."
Well done Albo. Well done Mr Swan. Well done Ms Roxon. You've put wind in the sails of a man who should have been left to quietly sink.