October 18, 2005 | Jeff Wall

A lack of civility is undermining the political process

Watching the dignitaries arrive at the 80th birthday celebrations for Baroness Thatcher in London last week it struck me that such an array of guests simply could not be assembled for a retired and respected political leader in Australia.
Among the guests was John Major, who deposed Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. Various members of her cabinet who contributed to her demise were there as well, though Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine did not make it.
But, as Sky News perhaps uncharitably put it, three “jailbirds” did make the guest list – Mark Thatcher, Lord Archer, and Jonathan Aitken.
But the surprise guests were the Right Honourable Anthony Charles Linton Blair and Mrs Cherie Blair.
Yes, a Labour Prime Minister at a function dominated by Tories.
Can you imagine John Howard attending Bob Hawke’s birthday party, or Bob Hawke attending Paul Keating’s?
The lack of civility in Australian politics today has no historic basis.
If you don’t believe that, access the House of Representatives Hansard and read the tribute Robert Gordon Menzies paid to Joseph Benedict Chifley on the latter’s death soon after Menzies replaced him as Prime Minister in 1949.
Or, better still, Menzies’ tribute to Eddie Ward, perhaps his most trenchant Parliamentary critic, when Ward died in the early 1960’s.
Former Australian Prime Minister’s are accorded generous retirement benefits, but little else.
It was not until Robert Edward Borbidge became Premier of Queensland in 1996 that former Premiers were given proper recognition, and I am proud of my role in lobbying Borbidge, a decent person, to accord proper rights and status to his predecessor, Wayne Keith Goss…….a car and driver, an office and a secretary.
The meanness in Australian politics was really evidenced in Queensland when Johannes Bjelke-Petersen effectively ended the practice of parliamentary tributes to deceased former Members – because too many former Labour, and even Liberal, Members were falling of their perch.
And he took away the right accorded to former Ministers to be given a state Funeral for the same reason. How mean can one get?
We could do well to follow the example of our closest neighbour, Papua New Guinea, when it comes to respecting political rivals.
Recently, the Prime Minister, Sir Michael Thomas Somare, introduced Papua New Guinea’s own honours system, to operate side by side with the imperial honours PNG has retained since Independence in 1975.
The highest initial awards under the Order of Logohu went to a number of distinguished citizens, including the Right Honourable Sir Julius Chan, and the Right Honourable Paias Wingti.
And what is exceptional about that?
In 1980, and 1985, Chan and then Wingti deposed Michael Somare as Prime Minister after quitting his Government.
The lack of civility, and the pervading meanness of spirit, in Australian politics is contributing to the standing of the political process, and those who practice it, having to endure low public standing and confidence.
They are not the only reasons…are substantial contributors to the continuing decline in public confidence in our democracy.
And the sad thing is there is little evidence our Leaders are collectively at all concerned about it, let alone prepared to do anything about it.

Posted by Jeff Wall at 8:53 pm | Comments (1) |
Filed under: Australian Politics

1 Comment

  1. Hawkie was the last leader with a bit of magnanimity though of course opinions will differ. Before that, perhaps Gorton?
    Another good one is Churchill’s speach on the death of Neville Chamberlain against whom he’d railed in life. Here http://www.winstonchurchill.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=421
    “The fierce and bitter controversies which hung around him in recent times were hushed by the news of his illness and are silenced by his death. In paying a tribute of respect and of regard to an eminent man who has been taken from us, no one is obliged to alter the opinions which he has formed or expressed upon issues which have become a part of history; but at the Lychgate we may all pass our own conduct and our own judgments under a searching review. It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.
    It fell to Neville Chamberlain in one of the supreme crises of the world to be contradicted by events, to be disappointed in his hopes, and to be deceived and cheated by a wicked man. But what were these hopes in which he was disappointed? What were these wishes in which he was frustrated? What was that faith that was abused? They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart-the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strife for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril, and certainly to the utter disdain of popularity or clamour. Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.”
    Still Oz pollies are a bit better at civility after the final curtain has fallen – they like attending each others’ funerals on either side of the political fence.

    Comment by Nicholas Gruen — October 21, 2005 @ 10:57 pm

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