The week was, at least according to the government, given over to the clash of high-minded policy and strategic vision versus muckraking, mendacity and malice. The government wanted to talk about its “Asian Century” white paper and all the opposition wanted to do was continue its fear campaign over the carbon price, talk down the economy and throw mud at the PM.

Luckily the government, which complained about the lack of opposition questions about Asian engagement (it being, Labor now seems to think, the opposition’s job to play along with the government’s political agenda), was able to fill in the blanks and ask itself plenty of questions about the Asian Century. In fact, they never seemed to shut up about it. The count on “Asian Century” was down to single figures yesterday, but that was by far the lowest of the week.

We’re again reminded that, even if it apes the content of Keating Labor’s time in government, this mob can’t get within cooee of the delivery. Exhibit 1 in the death of conviction politics.

Visibly puzzling over whether to stick with Tony Abbott’s obsession with the carbon price or move on from a tactic that seems decreasingly relevant, the opposition settled for using Julie Bishop — being a woman and all — to lead the attack … indeed, be the entire attack against the Prime Minister over claims she did something somewhere somehow illegal or unethical or ill-considered before she entered Parliament. Despite a new round of efforts from the media to pin something on Gillard c.1995 via The Age, no one has yet come up with a specific accusation of wrongdoing, funny business or inappropriate behaviour.

The automatic assumption behind this now-extended campaign of smears, vague claims and general hysteria from media new and old over Gillard’s legal career is that it is in the public interest. Are politicians accountable after they enter politics for everything they’ve done before they entered politics, even when no specific allegation of criminality or unethical behaviour can be produced?

When Abbott was attacked over what remain unsubstantiated claims about intimidating behaviour toward a woman back in the 1970s, I suggested dredging up stuff from before his time in politics, particularly when it was in the distant past, was inappropriate and in fact downright damaging to the quality of public life. But clearly many in the media disagree, and think claims about non-criminal behaviour in relating to non-political events from the past are relevant to current political debate.

In which case, one wishes they would at least be consistent. We never hear anything of Bishop’s activities as a lawyer representing CSR in its efforts to prevent asbestos victims from obtaining compensation. In the one mainstream media article on this, from The Australian in 2007, she maintained she acted honestly and ethically. Quite how one acts ethically in trying to deny the dying victims of a company fair compensation is of course a matter between Bishop and her conscience. But if we’re raking over what female lawyers did before they entered politics, then there you go.

There’s other forms of consistency as well. I’ve always wondered why no one in the mainstream media showed the slightest interest in one of the biggest scandals of the Howard government, when its advertising committee directed millions of dollars in advertising contracts to Liberal Party mates. That wasn’t the subject of newspaper tattle and online smears, but a devastating ANAO report, including about some MPs at that point still in Parliament. Barely a whisper outside of Crikey.

Still, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, etc.

In what was another dire week for the quality of our political and policy debate, the highlight — or highest lowlight, perhaps — was Greg Combet’s Coalition leadership form guide. Having handed off his favoured “mendacious” to the PM, Combet ran through the Coalition contenders from Turnbull through Hockey, Bishops both Julie and Bronwyn, Scott Morrison (“spooked by foreign horses”) and Kevin Andrews.

Carefully prepared and probably rehearsed, it was nonetheless a reminder of what seem now-fabled earlier times when wit occasionally intruded into Parliament, rather than meaningless repetition.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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