Standing up for Canberra

Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament 2012

There is a deep disillusionment among many parts of the Australian community at the moment that currently wishes a pox on all our houses. Recently, I attended the triennial conference of the National Council of Women of Australia and was presented with a petition calling 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 went on to say: The increasingly crude, juvenile, disrespectful and overly combative behaviour of many members degrades parliamentary process, creates an inappropriate behavioural model for our youth and causes ridicule in the eyes of world nations.

The petition was triggered by a speech I gave to the ACT arm of the council earlier this year in which 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 their local constituents and good work is being done'. But I added that, at times, parliament can be unbearable, and it is question time that makes it so. During question time, I often look up at some of the young Australians who come to watch us and I wonder, 'What must they think?'

I understand that, as a contest of ideas, politics is conflict. I know that the contest can, and sometimes should, be quite willing, and I certainly get the fact that the hung parliament has poured rocket fuel on the contest. But what I have witnessed in question time is a menacing tone that journalists and colleagues of long standing tell me they have never seen before. The Speaker seeks to bring civility to question time, and she does her best, but that menacing tone is still there. There is often a deeply sinister undertone. Indeed, the current nature of public discourse in this country I find profoundly unsettling because politics is now almost never about a contest of ideas; it is entirely focused on the personal. I am worried because the decency in debate that protects society from its most base urges has cracked. In the process, that belittles people and denigrates the institutions that bind our society.

There are parts of our society that are clearly uncomfortable with a female prime minister and with female leaders. Question time, the recent debate about sexism and the tone of recent debates has very much highlighted that. Question Time has also set this tone, and behind it roils a tsunami of bile and prejudice that plays out on talkback radio, in email campaigns and on Twitter and Facebook. It is not just the abuse that is the issue; it is the role-modelling. When one of the schools in my electorate comes up to Parliament House for an education tour, I drop by to say hello and answer their questions. Sometimes I find the students in the public galleries and sometimes I find them role-playing in the model lower house chamber.

What is deeply disturbing is that teachers tell me their students' behaviour and language can get quite fresh, in keeping with what they have seen or heard at question time. This behaviour and language would not be tolerated in the classroom, in the schoolyard or in any workplace, but it is seen by students as a signature of parliament and the acceptable face of Australian political discourse. However, it does not need to be so.

Here in parliament we need to moderate the pitch and tone of the debates we engage in. We need to show that a contest of ideas about what is best for our nation's future can be conducted with civility. I became the member for Canberra because I have a strong and enduring faith in the decency of the Australian people. I believe in the power of our legal and political institutions to enhance that. Our nation is founded on the best principles of the Enlightenment. Our nation has been at the vanguard of social reform and has wrestled with and overcome its fears. Most of this has not been fashioned by making new laws but through good leadership on all sides of politics over generations. Nations reflect their leaders. Leaders can call out the better angles of our nature or stir the darkest fears and hatreds that lie in every human heart.

I want decent and civilised debate on issues that matter in Australia, devoid of personal attack, particularly on the grounds of gender. I call on leaders on all sides of politics, in the media and in the community to invoke the values and spirit of two of Australia's greatest Prime Ministers, so beautifully articulated in a sign along the RG Menzies Walk.

The day Menzies resigned as Prime Minister of Australia in August 1941 he sent a short note to John Curtin, Leader of the Labor Party, thanking him for his magnanimous and understanding attitude: Your political opposition has been honourable and your personal friendship a pearl of great price. Curtin replied: Your personal friendship is something I value … as a very precious thing.

Download a copy of this speech.