10/10/2012 - 10:50

Lack of civility pollutes political discourse

10/10/2012 - 10:50

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The political fallout from the latest Alan Jones controversy has focused attention on the issue of gender and the general tone of political discussion.

The political fallout from the latest Alan Jones controversy has focused attention on the issue of gender and the general tone of political discussion.

ALAN Jones’ comments that Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s father died of shame over her record in office is wrong on so many levels that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

What’s really disturbing about the Jones affair is the ease the shock jock felt in choosing to express (to a room full of university students) his inappropriate, callous and insensitive views about Australia’s first female prime minister.

The views were received, for the most part, as an acceptable way in which to talk about our prime minister. It seemed perfectly okay that, at a Liberal Party gathering, a certain level of hostility and sarcasm toward Labor and the prime minister was acceptable.

Or is it?

The public and media reaction to Mr Jones’ comments suggests that even at party political gatherings there are limits as to how far you can go in attacking your opponents.

The outburst reminded me of a similar gathering last year where the prime minister was the subject of a questionable lampooning at a Liberal Party fundraiser.

At the event, Premier Colin Barnett strayed into similar tricky territory in getting out the political piñata on the prime minister.

The premier likened doing business with the prime minister as going on a potentially adulterous date with a seductress. He told the audience how he had told his wife, Lynn, to leave him and Julia alone so that they could enjoy their liaison.

He then concluded the story by telling the audience how much of a dud date the prime minister really was, and that his wife had nothing to really be concerned about because, as we all know, the prime minister is not that seductive after all.

The premier could only tell this parody because the prime minister is a woman. If the story had been about Kevin Rudd, it would’ve been too weird for words.

I am sure that, if he thought about it in the context of Mr Jones’ latest efforts, the premier would recognise the underlying sexism and borderline characterisations of the women concerned.

This story raised quite a laugh from the both male and female audience, but I was struck by the comments because they were not in keeping with the premier’s general sense of propriety.

There is little doubt Mr Barnett and the audience felt that the attitude toward the prime minister was perfectly okay to tell the joke.

And there is little doubt there has been a change for the worse in the way in which we discuss women in the political sphere, and more specifically the prime minister.

I have to put on the record that I am not a fan of the prime minster or her minority government, and its policy settings.

Our political leaders have always been fair game, and in the case of Ms Gillard there are plenty of decisions, backflips, policy failures and outright porkies to keep commentators, political enemies and satirists busy.

The Jones affair has highlighted that these attacks have crossed over from the cut and thrust of tough political discourse to being just plain personal and nasty.

It’s all the more unsettling when it is aimed at a woman, especially in a country that has taken longer than some in coming to terms with sexual equality.

While it is disappointing that Mr Jones’ brain snap happened at all, it may well be the circuit breaker for what is clearly a situation that has been getting increasingly out of control.

While Mr Jones’ comments were just plain personal, the premier’s were not just about having a crack at a political opponent; they set the tone of our state-federal relations in an increasingly unhealthy way.

What has emerged over the past two years or so is state-federal political dialogue that has become toxic at best, and which is failing to serve both the interests of the state and the nation.

State politicians from all sides are taught Canberra-bashing from a young age, but in recent years it has taken on a decidedly nasty tone, especially since the time Ms Gillard became prime minister.

For the ever-increasing number of people arriving in Perth from overseas and interstate, it must be perplexing to witness our continual snipping and fault finding with Canberra.

The irony in our politicians whipping up a good old dose of parochial support is that it’s premised on an innate sense of insecurity and inferiority at a time when the state is breast beating about its importance to the nation.

Rather than taking a leadership position with our newfound standing in the national economy, we have become more shrill than in any time in the past 20 years.

As China slows and things tighten in Western Australia, we may wish we had used the opportunity of the past few years in going about our federal-state relations with a different mindset.

The boom that has lifted WA over the past 10 years has been a generational-changing event for the state that will leave many lasting legacies – we have on the whole grasped many of the opportunities that have come our way.

It would be nice to think that as a state we managed during this period to shake off the parochialism that has dogged us for so many years and that we developed a political dialogue that better reflected the leadership potential of the state to the nation.

• Paul Plowman is a former head of the state government’s media office and is currently MD at Plowman & Co, which specialises in business-to-government relations. Joe Poprzeczny is overseas on assignment.


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