Political standards sink lower than low

By Greg Ansley

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition leader Tony Abbott may revile each other as much as they like while demanding the restoration of standards in federal politics.

For much of Australia, anecdotally and in polls, the reply is clear: a pox on both your houses.

The toxic levels to which politics has descended have created an almost unprecedented degree of contempt, reflected in polls that on one hand show well over half the nation has little time for either leader, and on the other a longing for the present mess to be swept away.

Many who have little interest in the process of politics other than a safe and stable environment in which to work and raise their children want the pain to end with a new election that will bury Gillard.

The desire is not to elevate Abbott - even Liberal voters have anecdotally rued the prospect of his becoming Prime Minister - but more a visceral desire to deaden by any means the endless screams of mutual abuse. The business of government has been hijacked by a subterranean common denominator of hypocrisy, opportunism and cant. Neither side can rise above it.

Consider: among the most pivotal members of the present Parliament are arguably Speaker Peter Slipper and former Labor MP Craig Thomson, both mired in scandal and at the heart of debate not because of the truth or otherwise of the allegations against them, but because of the votes they represent.

Slipper faces allegations of fraud and sexual harassment, Thomson claims of misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars of members' funds during his time as national secretary of the Health Services Union. If Gillard held a commanding majority, both would be irritating side issues.

Slipper is a turncoat National-cum-Liberal MP whose alleged pattern of sinning was known and tolerated by the Opposition for years. On becoming an independent and Speaker in a deal with Labor that effectively gave the Government two more votes, Slipper became the target of virulent moral outrage by the Coalition.

Similarly, Thomson's alleged crimes are serious, but have yet to be tested in court. While the Opposition demands suspension or other action, it refuses to see parallels with its own tolerance of Liberal MPs who have been in similar situations.

For its part, Labor has fallen back on the principle of presumption of innocence, but has still tried to distance itself by effectively forcing Slipper to stand down indefinitely as Speaker, and suspending Thomson from the party while continuing to expect his vote.

Most of Australia sees nothing but a pile of dirty political linen and does not distinguish between its owners.

Nor is there likely to be any early end to the mess that has clouded a clear consideration of last week's Budget: independent MPs Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Bob Katter have made it clear they will not judge Thomson and will not allow the affair to bring down the Government.

Bile has overwritten debate since the Budget.

The Opposition has outlined an uncosted alternative framework, but its main thrust remains fear. The Government's sales pitch is based on handouts to its greatly dented support base, and a wedge between rich and poor that is being widely interpreted as class warfare.

Big banks, big companies and billionaires have become the evil in Treasurer Wayne Swan's view of Australian society. The trade union movement is about to buy in with calls for a special "billionaire's tax". Abbott's response has been the frightening of voters and a three-word mantra: the carbon tax.

His Budget reply dug up as much mud as reason: an "ignoble piece of work from an unworthy Prime Minister" backed by unions that are "corrupt boys' clubs" and a "tawdry" Government paralysed by sleaze.

On the floor of the House, Labor rehashed an unsuccessful 34-year-old court case against Abbott alleging that when he was a university student he had inappropriately touched a fellow female student, and his more recent failure to declare a A$710,000 ($910,046) loan to Parliament. Abbott has been attacking Thomson for the same failure.

Labor attack dog Anthony Albanese used Question Time to raise a civil dispute involving Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella and the family of her late former lover, leading to an altercation at the rear of the chamber. Outside parliament, rumours of alleged indiscretions by senior MPs have been racing around Canberra.

The biggest loser continues to be Gillard, with polls by Nielsen, Galaxy and Morgan at the weekend continuing to predict burial by an Abbott landslide, wide disbelief that Swan will produce a surplus, and a majority of voters expecting to be worse off despite A$5 billion in Budget handouts.

But while Abbott might be the preferred prime minister, he remains an unpopular, if unavoidable, choice: Nielsen found 52 per cent disapproval of the Opposition leader.

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