Last Wednesday in parliament’s adjournment debate, that anything-goes hour at the end of the day when MPs can discuss whatever is on their minds, Victorian Labor MP Anthony Byrne rose to make some remarks about the Australia Day honours ceremony in his electorate. Byrne, an MP unlikely to ever win an award for the most publicity-obsessed politician, said something interesting about the perception of division in the country:

“In this divided society, in their view, the community feels in many ways more divorced and separated from political life than ever before. They feel that they have no voice. Perilously watching events occurring overseas, waiting for the potential storm of the next global financial crisis and watching the combat in this place, they yearn for a nation united and a sense of national purpose—a national vision. Many are tired of the deep political division, in this place in particular—intense, necessary but enervative to the national good.”

He went on to talk about “a sickness in community spirit … disenchantment with the political process… a feeling among our community that their voices are not being heard, and that is to the detriment of our national good”.

Complaining about our politicians and lamenting partisan divisions is pro forma stuff in Australia, and everywhere else for that matter. As Byrne noted, partisan division is necessary in parliamentary politics. The last politician to seriously claim you could have parliamentary democracy without parties was probably George Washington. And voters forever complain that politicians are out of touch, not understanding just how hard most of them, and particularly MPs, work trying to resolve the problems of constituents out of the public gaze.

And yet, and yet … it was hard to watch question time yesterday without being conscious of just how separated political life has become, especially when it is dominated by two leaders who are so profoundly disliked by the electorate.

It’s partly a result of the way hindsight tends to be decidedly rose-tinted. We all bitched and moaned about the state of politics when Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull were leaders, but for all the profound flaws in the leadership styles of both men, it looks in retrospect like a relative high point of mature debate compared to now. Possibly in five years, the era of Gillard and Abbott will have gained some value that we’re unable to discern at the moment.

But the gap between substance and reality gives question time an air of pantomime. Yes, the whole rationale of question time is theatrical; it is no longer, despite Peter Slipper’s insistence yesterday, about holding the executive to account, but about theatre aimed at both at the press gallery above (and their producers and editors watching elsewhere) and colleagues and opponents. But the theatre was traditionally intended for adults, whereas at the moment the fare is strictly kids’ stuff.

Much of yesterday’s question time was given over to debate on the future of the aluminium smelting industry. The competing narratives were that the government was going to kill the industry with its carbon tax, and the opposition didn’t care about manufacturing jobs except to exploit their loss politically. To merely state those themes is to underscore their witlessness.

Absent from the efforts to elicit screams and boos from the kids was some context: the aluminium smelting industry is massively subsidized by state governments, at a level fare greater than auto manufacturing, to support around 5000 workers and churn out 6-7% of our greenhouse emissions. The future of smelting is under review around the world due to low prices.

And that’s before you get to the impact of the high dollar, that mysterious phenomenon that, like the GFC, appears absent from the Coalition’s account of recent economic history.

Labor, at least, is aware of the need to work out a strategy to deal with the consequences of a stronger currency, but so far its strategy, apart from minor measures to improve skills training, has been to commit to looking after the heavily-unionised industries most immediately affected by the dollar. It’s as much a political strategy as an economic one.

Remember what the Reserve Bank said last week: “In terms of domestic factors, it remains difficult to judge the net impact on the economy of, on the one hand, a once-in-a-century investment boom in the resources sector and, on the other, a high real exchange rate.”

That’s the country’s best and brightest economic managers saying they just don’t know how the strong currency is going to play out. But that vexing problem is absent from debate even as its direct consequences ripple through federal politics.

Much of the rest of question time was devoted by the opposition to trying manufacture out of whole cloth a conspiracy theory about the events on Australia Day. At one stage a Labor backbencher urged Christopher Pyne to return to the grassy knoll, but the Umbrella Man would appear to a better fit. The Umbrella Man was the phenomenon that prompted John Updike’s observation:

“We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute section of time and space would yield similar strangenesses—gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for absolute truth.”

Indeed the whole of federal politics could be in such a sub-atomic realm, unrelated to any external truth, obeying its own laws unconnected to common sense. Look no further than last night’s mostly pointless Four Corners effort on the Rudd assassination — 45 minutes stranded somewhere between breathless current affairs and historical record, that might have made for good TV in July 2010 but which last night drew snorts of derision from more than a few gallery journalists.

Obsessing over how much Gillard knew or didn’t know about her first speech bears no relationship even to the obvious candidate for relevance and the central issue of the Gillard prime ministership, her trusworthiness. That is already wrecked, and it was wrecked by the simple act of replacing Rudd itself, regardless of the circumstances, and wrecked by her 2010 election campaign, and wrecked by the carbon pricing decision. The rest is warps and bubbles of no meaning.

Even so, at 2pm today we’ll plunge back into the sub-atomic realm, back into the pantomime in which we’ll be called upon to cheer and boo at each appropriate point. And the sickness in community spirit will incrementally worsen.

Peter Fray

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