Last week, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promised to fight the government’s proposed carbon pricing mechanism ‘every hour of every day’.
Well, we’ve had a taste of that already. And it’s putrid.
Yesterday’s Question Time started off fairly predictably. Continuing a strategy has characterised much of their approach to Parliament, the Opposition hammered Gillard on the question of trust. She said she wouldn’t, but now she’s doing it. How can we ever trust her, etc. Nothing new there – tedious, but very much a case of ‘same old, same old’.
Then Abbott dropped the first ‘official’ accusation of lying. Speaker Harry Jenkins demanded he withdraw the slur and rephrased the question. A full five minutes later, after much weaselling and complaining, Abbott fixed a very nasty grin on his face and replaced the word ‘lie’ with the phrase ‘may have been less than honest’.
At the same time, the Opposition in the Senate attempted to censure the government. Their leader, Senator Eric Abetz, indulged in a top-of-the-voice screaming rant, much of which was directed at Finance Minister Senator Penny Wong – on the grounds that she had been the Climate Change Minister before the 2010 election. The shouting continued for nearly half an hour.
Abbott followed suit not long after, backed up by Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey. This time, they managed to shoehorn ‘lie’ into the shout-fest three times without challenge.
The change of language is significant. The Opposition is no longer content to say, ‘it’s a broken promise’. Somewhere along the line they decided, perhaps, it wasn’t strong enough. So now we have the accusation that Gillard deliberately lied in order to win government. That’s a much more serious – and much more personal – attack. It’s calculated to draw on the sense of anger we rightly feel when we discover someone set out to deceive us, and succeeded. Much like the anger directed at Shadow Treasurer Joe ‘Fully Audited’ Hockey, when he was caught out misleading the public on the Coalition’s election costings.
And of course, it doesn’t matter if it’s true. It’s utterly irrelevant whether Gillard did deliberately lie, whether she was convinced to change her mind through the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee’s deliberations, whether she was pressured by the Greens or the Independents, or whether (at the absurd extreme) she’d decided to flip a coin. The Opposition claims the right to say what was in Gillard’s mind, both before the election and now.
The censure motions failed. Of course, they were never going to succeed, anyway. The Opposition simply doesn’t have the numbers, and with Manager of Opposition Business Christopher Pyne and Member for Cowan Luke Simpkins barred from the Chamber for their conduct, the most they could hope for in the House was that the Independents would break step with the government. Even then, the best possible result was a tied vote – which the Speaker would resolve in favour of the government.
But that was never the point. In bringing these censure motions, the Opposition was doing little more than playing to the gallery. They uttered a few juicy soundbites and told the evening news that it was all about ‘lying’ now. And like faithful parrots, the media repeated the message. In interviews and panel discussions for the rest of the night and this morning, the Opposition cried ‘lie’, and the media obligingly pressured the government to ask why it ‘lied’.
Of course, when former Prime Minister John Howard backflipped on the idea of a GST, it wasn’t a lie. It wasn’t a broken promise. It was a principled stand that he took after receiving advice that it was the right thing to do. And he took it straight to an election – although, in fact, it was back on the agenda over a year before the 1998 election, and not flagged as an election policy until after Howard called the poll.
Gillard’s change of policy came about under similar circumstances to Howard’s. Like him, she made a knee-jerk commitment to something under pressure from media and political opponents. Like him, she received continual pressure to revoke that commitment. And like him, she reversed her position.
None of which, of course, matters to the Coalition. They went merrily on their way.
The low point of the failed censure motion came when Abbott mangled a Shakespearean analogy, comparing Gillard to Lady Macbeth, killing ‘Banquo’ (i.e. former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd), and now believing that ‘a little water clears her of this deed’. Of course, Lady Macbeth actually killed no one, settling for the role of ‘encouraging wife’, or at worst, ‘accessory before the fact’ – something that Abbott’s education would surely have told him. Never mind that. There’s a popular conception of Lady Macbeth as a vicious murderer willing to kill anyone who gets in the way of her path to personal power – a bloody, dangerous madwoman.
Abbott played to that shamelessly. The implication could not have been clearer. Gillard was not only a liar – she was also vicious and insane.
Then this morning, Shadow Health Minister Peter Dutton appeared on Sky News’ AM Agenda, and took the scare/smear campaign right to the gutter. As host Kieran Gilbert repeated the Opposition’s lines, Trade Minister Craig Emerson attempted to explain how the government’s plan would operate. Dutton interrupted with this:
‘Craig sounds like Colonel Gaddafi at the moment, saying everybody’s in favour of me, nobody is rising up against me … like Chemical Ali, honestly, honestly.’
Yes. Dutton apparently decided it would be a fine idea to compare Emerson to a delusional mass murderer guilty of crimes against humanity, so out of touch with reality that he believes protesting citizens are hallucinating on drugs administered to them by al Qaeda. Just for good measure, he threw in the name of a man rightly reviled for using mustard gas and nerve gases to kill thousands of Iraqi Kurdish civilians – who followed up this atrocity with an attempt to commit genocide, and who was unrepentant even as he was taken to be executed for his crimes.
Vicious and insane.
To say that Emerson was offended would be a gross understatement. He demanded a retraction from Dutton, repeatedly stating how outraged and insulted he felt:
‘I think that’s pretty offensive … I would rather you not use comparisons with a killer in Iraq and me, all right? You might think that’s flippant and funny, I think it’s bloody disgraceful, you understand that, I think that is bloody disgraceful, and there is a line here Peter, which you have crossed which you should not pass’.
Dutton completely ignored him – and Gilbert blithely went on quoting from the Opposition playbook. At no time did Gilbert attempt to stop Dutton – even with something as mild as, ‘Steady on, Peter’.
One such outrageously insulting comparison might be charitably called a misstep. The fact that Dutton followed up his leader’s offensive behaviour – indeed, going even further – shows something is rotten in the state of the Coalition (to mangle a Shakespearean metaphor of my own). At the very least, Dutton took his lead from Abbott – possibly reasoning that it looked like a pretty nifty idea, and sounded good when thundered around the Chamber yesterday. That’s almost excusable – if Dutton provides an immediate, unqualified apology.
At worst, this is an actual strategy of escalation. It starts by painting the Prime Minister as sneaky and deliberately deceptive (in itself nothing too surprising, but the language is a lot stronger than usual), then rapidly becomes an attempt to link members of the Labor government with behaviour so inhumane, so completely lunatic that their continued existence in power constitutes an immediate threat to all Australians on a par with nerve gas and genocide.
This goes well beyond hyperbole.
But notice what the Coalition are not saying. Absent is any form of rational debate. The Coalition are not bothering to provide any evidence that the proposed carbon price scheme will be a catastrophe – nor have they put forward a credible alternative plan beyond the fatally-flawed ‘Direct Action Plan’ they took to the 2010 election.
Instead, it’s all about telling their own lies (like the one about Arthur & Rita whose business electricity bill will go up by $1500 per year despite its imminent takeover by K-Mart*) and making personal attacks on Gillard and any Minister who defends the plan – attacks that go far beyond the usual accusations of ‘government incompetence’. This is not an Opposition doing its job of holding the government to account. This is not an alternative government putting forward ideas that counter the government and suggest different solutions.
This is just the opening salvo in Abbott’s ‘every hour of every day’ campaign.
And if they’ve sunk this low already, how much grubbier can they get?
* Thanks to Twitter user @mjwill90 for information about the K-Mart takeover.
Just in case we were in any doubt about whether the Coalition supported Dutton’s disgusting remarks, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop backed him up this afternoon. Equating Emerson with Gaddafi was ‘warranted’, apparently. ‘It is obvious that Peter was using it as a metaphor for the measure of delusion within Labor over the carbon tax,’ she said.
So it’s okay to compare someone to a mass murderer, in Bishop’s eyes – because the important thing is to make sure they understand that person is deluded. Of course, she didn’t explain quite why it was necessary to include comparisons to mass murderers in order to get that point across …
Perhaps it was just for ’emphasis’.
It’s a bad look, any way you slice it. Either it’s a case where someone was demonised by comparisons to infamous killers in order to brand them as dangerous, or where those with mental illness were insulted by having their struggles callously used to score a political point.
And Bishop, by defending Dutton, sent a very clear message that the Coalition thinks it’s perfectly acceptable. That the Lady Macbeth, Gaddafi and Chemical Ali comparisons are a deliberate strategy.
Ms Bishop? It’s not acceptable.