On the day Ben Chifley was elected leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party in July 1945 the Opposition leader Robert Menzies wrote expressing “very warm congratulations”.
He continued, “At the next election I shall, of course, do my best to get rid of you [but] as at all times, I know that our mutual respect and regard will be maintained. The character of the personal relations existing between us has always been a source of great pleasure to me”.
The historian A.W. Martin records that Chifley replied that he “would not feel that you were doing your duty if you did not do your best to get rid of me”. He added that nevertheless he “wished to thank you for the many kindnesses and courtesies which you have extended to me, both in and out of Parliament”.
Menzies lost to Chifley at the following election and, in 1949, when the tables turned, Argus journalist Clive Turnbull wrote Australians had witnessed “a clean federal election”.
“The conduct of Mr Chifley and Mr Menzies has been exemplary in relation to both the public and each other.”
How will history record the election year of 2013? We already know the answer to that question and I am very aware of the deep disillusionment many feel about the state of politics.
Last year I tabled a National Council of Women petition, which called for:
“A more civil and dignified approach to parliamentary debate at the federal level and for greater respect to be demonstrated to the office of the Prime Minister”.
The petition was triggered by a speech I gave where I said that, for most of the time, Parliament is a “functioning, calm and respectful place” and that members are doing their best to represent constituents and good work is being done.
But that’s not what people see. What they see is Question Time and the media sound-bullets designed to wound as deeply as possible.
I often look up at the young Australians who come to watch Question Time and wonder, “What must they think?”
I have some idea, because when one of the schools in my electorate comes to Parliament House I drop by to say hello and answer questions. Sometimes I find student’s role playing in a model lower house chamber. What’s alarming is that the teachers tell me their behaviour and language changes, in keeping with what they have seen in Question Time. It’s behaviour and language that would not be tolerated in the classroom or the schoolyard, or any workplace, but it is seen by these students as the signature of Parliament and the acceptable face of Australian political discourse.
Question Time has set the tone and behind it roils a tsunami of bile and prejudice that plays out on talkback radio, email campaigns, Twitter and Facebook.
Now I am no shrinking violet and I understand politics is a contest of ideas. I know that contest can, and sometimes should be quite willing. And I get that the hung parliament has poured rocket fuel on the contest because for two years the Opposition has believed it was one missed heartbeat away from taking office.
But I am profoundly worried that the institution of Parliament is being debased and what that might mean for our future. I am also deeply concerned about the tone and pitch of public discourse in our country.
Jack Waterford makes the point that it was ever thus (Canberra Times, 6 October 2012) and for most of our history that is probably true. But as Menzies and Chifley showed, it isn’t always true. My own experience of Parliament, outside Question Time, reinforces the belief that I can, respectfully, disagree with my opponents without personal attack.
But I think, at the moment, we have hit an historic low in public debate. No side of politics can claim to be pure when it comes to apportioning blame for this but, from where I sit, the endless, vicious, personal attacks on the Prime Minister are the low water mark in a very deep well of vitriol.
Having been on the receiving end of a fraction of the abuse the Prime Minister cops, I am often amazed by her forbearance. I have been appalled by what people believe they can say to me, usually from behind the ramparts of the new coward’s castle, the anonymous online world.
And there’s the rub. Because although everyone likes to point the finger at politicians for the poor state of public debate in this new interconnected age, everyone gets a say. And a lot of the worst of what is said is online, or on air in rabid conversation with radio shock jocks. And bad behaviour seems to come with the reward of shouting your way to the top of the queue or being re-Tweeted to the silent roar of the online mob.
Today we all have a responsibility to try and lift the standard of debate and return a little civility to the marketplace of ideas. It begins with the way we choose to talk to each other, in any forum.
Of course politicians have to show leadership and I will do my bit by trying to keep my contributions sharp but civil. I entered politics because I have a strong and enduring faith in the decency of the Australian people and believe in the power of our legal and political institutions to enhance that. We are a nation founded on the principles of the Enlightenment: a nation that has been at the vanguard of social reform, which has wrestled with and overcome its fears. And most of this has not been fashioned my making new laws but through good leadership, on all sides of politics, over generations.
My fear is that if we don’t reset the pitch and tone of public discourse, we will stunt or shatter the aspirations of our people, particularly the girls and women who may one day want to join me in Parliament.