This parliament put the Christmas grinch out of work
When parliament adjourned on Thursday night and MPs left Canberra for the long Christmas break, any sane person would have been thinking: “Good riddance!”
It had been a toxic day to end a toxic parliamentary year. Even when Julia Gillard attempted to pay tribute to Ricky Ponting after his retirement announcement there was uproar. “Good example. Why don’t you follow it?” yelled an Opposition member.
Others on the Coalition benches joined in the shouting. “Order!” cried speaker Anna Burke. “I think the nation would be rather disappointed that, when we are talking about one of our cricket greats, you cannot even allow it to be heard. That is just ridiculous.“Ridiculous, yes. Childish, ugly and stupid as well.
But Labor has also done its share to bring the parliament into disrepute. On Wednesday, a frustrated Burke admonished both sides. “It is absolutely disgraceful that you treat your parliament with such contempt,” she told them.
Which raises the obvious question: If members themselves treat the institution with contempt, why should the rest of us show it any respect?
Normally at the end of the parliamentary year, leaders put hostilities aside briefly, say something friendly and Christmassy, and shake hands.
This time - despite having been called a criminal by Tony Abbott that very day - the Prime Minister made an attempt to keep up the tradition. “To the Leader of the Opposition and the Opposition generally, I hope that they enjoy some rest and respite over Christmas with their families,” she said.
Abbott could not summon up the grace to reciprocate. And there was no handshake. Gillard had left the chamber.
There have been situations before where prime ministers and Opposition leaders have disliked each other intensely.
Paul Keating promised to ensure that John Howard would wear the leadership like a crown of thorns. That was because a Liberal backbencher falsely suggested in an interjection that he’d fathered an illegitimate child.
Bob Hawke was enraged when Andrew Peacock, under parliamentary privilege, called him “a little crook”.
Gillard and Abbott have been ripping away at each other nonstop and they’ve both ended up bloodied. For most of the year, each gave as good as they got.
But Gillard blindsided Abbott - and stunned him - with her sexism and misogyny speech. He is still unsettled by it.
Why else, when he was attacking the PM over the AWU slush fund affair in the House on Thursday, did he say: “This is not about gender, this is about character.”
To that point, gender had not been mentioned in the debate. The impact of Gillard’s speech has clearly messed with his mind. Perhaps Abbott’s claim on television that morning that the PM had committed a crime was an attempt to reassert his supremacy as an attack-dog.
But he overreached. You can’t accuse a prime minister of criminal activity and then fail to substantiate the allegation without yourself being diminished in the process.
And all that careful work the Opposition Leader had done to soften his image by letting deputy Julie Bishop and others take over the head-kicking went for nought.
But, by hammering the AWU slush fund issue all week, Abbott and the Coalition succeeded in messing up what Gillard had planned as a triumphal end to 2012.
The government’s intention was to use the final week as a kind of showcase, with important measures such as the Murray Darling plan and school funding and national disabilities legislation on display in the parliament.
Ministers were to contrast these with the Opposition’s claimed lack of policies.
However, the scenario was derailed by what Gillard bitterly describes as “sleaze and smear”.
That is, the saga of her role as legal adviser 20 years ago when her then boyfriend and another union official set up an association from which they later misappropriated money.
No impropriety has been pinned on the PM, but the issue won’t go away.
It overshadows initiatives and achievements in areas of genuine concern to voters.
And it infuriates her, and messes with her mind.
Which may or may not be why she so badly misread the mood of her cabinet and party room on the issue of United Nations observer status for the Palestinians.
In a return to the political bumblefootedness of her early period as PM, Gillard endangered her own leadership by trying to insist that Australia join the US and Israel in opposing the resolution.
In the end, she accepted Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s proposal that abstention was the best course.
But by then she had created a situation that could easily have been portrayed as a government deeply divided and in disarray - if the Opposition had had its wits about it.
Abbott and his lieutenants, however, were too focused on the slush fund to exploit anything else effectively.
Which means, funnily enough, that not everything about the AWU issue turned out to be a negative for Gillard.
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