At a Centenary of Federation event more than a decade ago, a reflective Paul Keating observed that nothing is more important to a country than the way it thinks about itself.
Politics in Australia these days is at such a nadir.
It will move to a position where ideas and visions are intelligently dissected and debated in full public glare, or will descend into a narrow argument about personalities, character, shenanigans and all the irrelevant stuff that goes with contested politics.
What’s been played out over the past few weeks and months is, of course, far from unusual. Scandals about politicians’ behaviour are of legitimate public interest.
Corey Bernardi, Craig Thompson and Peter Slipper have nothing to complain about. For years there have been lines of public figures banished from view – and conjoined commentary has been harsh and personal.
It happens in business, sport and every other area of human endeavour.
Alan Jones’s tawdry foray into character assessment of Julia Gillard was also harsh and very, very personal. It was a disgrace. And so was his attempted justification.
He was condemned in varying forms by politicians, business and journalists.
The worst response was from government ministers who attempted to tar Tony Abbott with the same grime. It was cheap, poor taste and bad politics. It showed a collective lousy judgement. They were standing in a dung heap.
The best response was from Julia Gillard. She offered none. She also sensibly declined his entreaties.
As we know, the caravan moves on rapidly in politics. But what is at issue is whether as a society we can lift ourselves above the petty tone of debate that seeps through politics these days or whether we can have a fair dinkum discussion about public policy.
I’m not talking about uncorrected false allegations about national debt or spending, with sloganeering and one-liners. I’m talking about argument, scope and a bit of long-term vision.
An example of how it should work was the lively cross-fire on this site a few weeks ago between Alan Kohler and Malcolm Turnbull on the costs and structure of the NBN. No quarter given – but arguments civilly put to the test.
There’s no doubt that the daily machinations of politics have a legitimate place in news and commentary. It’s all part of what makes the system tick – and it sells eye-balls.
After all what would scribes do with their manic time without the fortnightly polls or the cheap shots from politicians or their partners on twitter or to a camera?
Last week for example we were grateful to learn from an orchestrated nationwide tabloid front page blitz that "the real Tony” has a loving wife and family. And this was followed by the said wife Margie giving an affirming – and admirably crafted – televised speech.
They wouldn’t have done it any better in America.
On the other side, the long-hyped speculation around Julia Gillard’s leadership has been quietly put in the bottom drawer, for now. A re-reading of still oven warm acres of opinion on this from the Canberra Press Galley group-think mob reminds us of that word "judgement”.
So what’s next as the cheap news from the carnivalle?
How about election timing? There is little doubt that the Liberal Party has a serious view that Gillard will call a snap poll for March. There’s no way they will be unprepared.
The argument will run that the Government cannot afford another budget – too many wildly optimistic unfunded promises on things including Gonski, NDIS, dental care and so on that sit alongside a predicted collapse in revenues. They’ll go hard in MYEFO later this year, and dash to the ballot box.
There will be counter arguments from the ALP – what about the Opposition’s own black hole already on self-record and the small matter that the Gillard Government has a deal with those pesky Independents to go full term?
These things will make for easy headlines and opinion space. And it means, again, that the generational issues of Australia’s role as an independent nation on the edge of East Asia, of national sovereignty, of competitiveness and productivity, of social harmony, of population growth as the driver of GDP and so on will be lost or airbrushed away.
So will anything really change in politics over the next weeks and months? Watching cable and breakfast TV, laughing at the tabloids, and listening to the wireless in recent times, you’d have to be on the side of the pessimists, wouldn’t you?
Of course, what we think of ourselves – to return to Keating’s point – is more often than not set up and argued and shaped and patterned by the nation’s Prime Minister. It’s the real point of the job. The rest is a sideshow, a game.
The only question now is: do either the incumbent or the alternative have the courage and imagination to lift their sights and be up to that compelling task?