Sunday, 2 December 2012

Strong language in the House preferable to street violence

Kapow!
What's with all these headlines about politicians behaving badly? It started yesterday but it's still going on. Look, the kicker for one story on one of the major news websites reads, "The good news for most Australians is that Federal Parliament has risen for another year." And just take a look at the cartoon the Australian has featured for the past two days: Opposition leader Tony Abbott and prime minister Julia Gillard slinging mud at each other on a background made to look like the new, and hated, unbranded cigarette packaging that came into force yesterday. "Warning," the cartoon reads, "politicians may make you sick."

Mudslinging in Parliament - what's new? Is their behaviour in 2012 any worse than it has been in earlier years - I don't think so. These kinds of popular expressions of disappointment in politicians is itself very disappointing. It shows that most people refuse to understand that the public sphere is a highly contested space. Everyone - including you, dear reader - has an agenda. How can politicians be any different?

The battle of "ideas" and of policies must continue - the alternative is death when it comes to the moment to change government. I prefer a proxy battle of words any day to the way that other, less mature polities decide who holds power, and who does not. I dote on the forms of Parliament, the spectacle and the traditions. We all should, because such forms shield us from violence.

When a new Speaker is selected by the government, for example, there are always two sitting members who go to his or her seat, grasp the successful member by the arms - one on either side - and escort him or her to the speaker's chair at the front of the room. And old form, dating back to the seventeenth century in Britain when being speaker in that Parliament could be a dangerous business - in those days the king or queen still had enormous powers, including the power to cause death - but one that lives on, today, because it symbolises the fact that we inherited a successful political system from another country. (Emphasis on 'successful'.) There are many traditions that have relevance at different times during the life of our Parliament, and it is those traditions, as much as any new-minted statute, that cause Australian democracy to be so robust.

Within the weft and weave of parliamentary process in Australia we see  - it's a very open, transparent process, after all - a proxy battle for supremacy every bit as passionate as an armed insurgency or a running street protest. The difference is that there is no violence. Since democracy began to function in Australia in 1856 - with elections for the NSW lower house - the country has navigated through many, many stormy issues accompanied by passionate debates. But there has been little violence. Think about it: Australia's is the fourth-oldest democracy in the world but we have been spared assassinations, riots, bombings and other plots that might cause loss of life. As always, it's in the media that public debate takes place, while in actual fact the person you might most vehemently disagree with lives just around the corner. But you wouldn't know. Our passions and our aspirations are enacted for us bloodlessly in Parliament and in the nation's media. We are shielded from sectarian hatred, physical assault, and casual misadventure by this process of democracy that we then turn around and lambast for being, somehow, unpleasant.

Why are a few angry words in Parliament more annoying than deaths in Syria are dismaying? What's wrong with our domestic form of proxy warfare? Rebels have taken over the major cities in the Congo and we don't care, but let a frontbencher make a fiery speech in Parliament and we talk about nothing else!

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