Australian politics is certainly not for the faint-hearted and vitriol is levelled at politicians of all stripes. John Howard was famously described as a “lying rodent”, Julia Gillard a “bitch” and a “witch”, while Tony Abbott has been derided as an “economic illiterate” and an imbecile. But how much is too much and where do we draw the line?
It seems in answering these questions it’s difficult to stray far from partisanship and here both sides are guilty of hypocrisy.
For instance, the conservative commentariat is fond of seizing on attacks on Tony Abbott as evidence of the left’s double-standards. “Why is it OK to insult Abbott but not Gillard?” they argue. Tony Abbott was condemned for posing in front of offensive placards, but the left has remained silent after personalised attacks on his character. Sunday’s rallies, where some protesters brandished signs likening Abbott to Hitler and calling for him to be “aborted”, are a case in point.
It is true that this kind of personalised vitriol diminishes our politics. There is much to criticise about the appalling Abbott Government without resorting to personal insult. Human rights abuse on Manus Island, climate change denialism, economic incompetence and cuts to public services are just some of its many policy failings. To focus on the man, rather than his politics, does his critics a disservice.
However it should also be recognised that some forms of insult are more damaging than others. Here it is important to note differences in the representation of groups within our politics and the role of derogatory language in reinforcing damaging stereotypes.
Of course calling Abbott “a liar” is not the same as calling Gillard a “bitch” or a “witch”. The latter are insults that could only be levelled at a woman. They seek to diminish Gillard not on the basis of general untrustworthiness but on the basis of her gender. They reinforce sexist stereotypes that undermine women in authority: “Women in power are dangerous, they can’t be trusted.”
By contrast, there is a well-established bias in favour of men in politics and masculine power is a persistent theme in Australia and elsewhere. Despite all of the insults levelled at Abbott and Howard over the years, no one has ever argued that they were not up to the job simply on the basis of their gender.
This is a reality that the conservative commentariat conveniently overlook. While they condoned the sexist attacks on Gillard under the guise of ‘free speech’, their concern for Abbott suggests there is some terrible political bias against straight, white, middle-class, middle-aged men. A down-trodden minority that still somehow manages to rule the world? Remarkable indeed!
His cheerleaders in the media also fail to recognise the role of Abbott himself in adding a new coarseness to public life. Through his aggressive pursuit of Rudd and Gillard, Abbott brought the extremities of Australian politics into the mainstream. His vicious and insulting language undermined respect for the office of prime minister. Having let that jeanie out of the bottle, as the incumbent, he will now face the consequences.
Double-standards were also on display in the recent South Australian state election campaign. The Labor Party was rightly condemned for issuing a dog-whistling pamphlet against Liberal candidate Carolyn Habib. With what appeared to be a bullet-hole ridden backdrop that had little to do with suburban Adelaide, the pamphlet highlighted Ms Habib’s surname in a menacing font with the caption ‘Can You Trust Habib?’ Much like material in the United States that sought to undermine Barack Obama on the basis of his race, the flyer tapped into a familiar theme in our politics: “Immigrants are dangerous and can’t be trusted.”
Attorney General George Brandis was quick to condemn the material. It is here that the brazen hypocrisy of the party of ‘stop the boats’ was plain for all to see. If only Brandis had the same concern for racial vilification when it came to Andrew Bolt’s attacks on Aboriginal academics or his own party’s relentless demonisation of asylum seekers. Alas, in light of his assault on the Racial Discrimination Act, it seems the Attorney General is only interested in calling out racism when it’s in his political interests to do so.
Similarly, Labor Minister Tom Koutsantonis (who has spoken of being racially taunted himself in the Parliament in the past) argued that the flyer was not racist. Here credit must be given to federal MP Ed Husic for having the strength of his convictions to call on his own party to issue an apology.
In reality, both sides are guilty of double-standards when it comes to the politics of personal denigration. The battle of ideas that lies at the heart of our democracy will always be robust and passionate, but attacking individuals rather than policy never really advances the cause. Despite the obvious temptation to put partisanship over principle, only if we take a fair and consistent approach can we hope to improve our nation’s political culture. And surely that’s an aim we can all agree on!
This piece was first published on the ABC’s The Drum on the 19th March 2014.