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Here We Go Again

Julia Gillard has been Australia’s Prime Minister for nigh on 3 years. In that time, the Australian Labor Party’s poll numbers have been disastrous, to the point where a first-term government was reduced to a minority in its second term. Debate has raged about why the poll numbers for the ALP and the Prime Minister have been so poor since that swift leadership coup in 2010. The discussion has only become more frenzied and ridiculous since the 2010 election result.

Of course, many will have you believe that the poor numbers are down to sexism and misogyny, either in combination or separately manifesting themselves.

Speaking last week, the Prime Minister said that it has “not been ever the norm in our nation before for people to wake up in the morning and look at the news and see a female leader doing this job (being Prime Minister)”.

The Prime Minister went on to say  ”I am not a man in a suit and I think that has taken the nation some time to get used to – I think it is probably still taking the nation a bit of time to get used to”.

All things considered, three years is a pretty long time to get used to someone they see on their television screens almost every day. And it’s not like the Prime Minister was a stranger to TV and radio audiences while Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister. Julia Gillard did have a significant portfolio of ministerial responsibilities, including education, workplace relations. Julia Gillard was also Deputy Prime Minister, which made her Acting Prime Minister when Kevin Rudd was overseas.

So if it has nothing to do with lack of exposure, or with the unique situation of having a female in the most senior of public roles for the first time, then what might be a problem for the PM?

Well, first, as a direct result of the poor polling, it is the mostly male backbench, or part thereof which has seen fit to leak and background against the Prime Minister and her allies. Are they guilty of misogyny or sexism? No, they are just guilty of trying to do all they can to keep themselves in a powerful position when they are in threat of losing their electorates at the September 14 poll. The backbench MP’s, in doing so, have managed to continue the poor form of the government.

Believe it or not, the continuing poll woes are still, in part, disdain toward the Prime Minister for the way that Kevin Rudd was knocked off. The fact that Kevin Rudd still proves so popular with the public is as irrefutable evidence as the collapse of the vote for the ALP over the same time period.

Funnily enough, the poor showing of the Labor Party is also about policy. It is about both rushed policy and policy that is actually bad, or at least perceived to be substandard by the general public. The public have been lied to a number of times now and they are simply growing tired of it and the vote has collapsed as a result, just like it would take a hit if the Coalition failed to deliver on its promises.

In case the PM was not aware, both her ratings and those of Tony Abbott are not the best in terms of approval. With the personal approval ratings for both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott comparable, maybe Tony Abbott can claim misandry? Ahh, no. They are both unpopular for a mix of historical and policy-related reasons.

Very few people would doubt that misogyny does exist in the community. But there is enough evidence to point to it not playing a significant role in the political situation facing the Prime Minister and the Australian Labor Party and certainly not a vote-changing one. That does not mean we do not need to address it, but implying or flat-out stating that it is a significant stumbling block for the Prime Minister in terms of the vote is to be disingenuous.

It seems a pretty weird thing to tell the public that they are not used to you. But then, this 43rd parliament has been quite strange.

Searching for a Nicer Parliament

Peter Slipper’s time in the Speaker’s chair is now officially over. An emotional Peter Slipper last night entered the House of Representatives yesterday after a long absence to officially inform the lower house of his intention to step aside. As we and half the world now know, this came just hours after a fiery motion brought on by the Coalition, seeking to have the Speaker sacked under s35 of the Australian Constitution. That debate brought to the world the now viral video of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s response to the motion.

The debate, brought on by the Abbott-led Opposition, called on the former Speaker to fall on his sword after court documents revealed a series of text messages quickly deemed inappropriate, by the Opposition. The tit-for-tat misogyny labelling spiral reached fever pitch at that moment, just days after the intervention in the growing dispute, by Tony Abbott’s wife Margie.

The usually abnormal, though under this 43rd parliament, slightly less bizarre and unpredictable day, saw some of the angriest scenes that we’ve encountered since the August 2010 election. Taking into account the much vaunted carbon price and the Craig Thomson and Health Services Union controversy, this makes the dubious achievement overnight all the more remarkable.

Peter Slipper is now gone and the former Deputy Speaker, Anna Burke who acted in the role in the imposed absence of Mr Slipper now occupies the position. Finally, the person that has been doing the job in the parliament for some time now, will actually get the monetary recognition deserved.

Attention will now turn to the performance of Speaker Anna Burke who has just chaired her first session of Question Time in the senior role. People will now begin to make judgements on the effectiveness of Ms Burke in pulling 150 children into line in the hammy theatre that is the House of Representatives freak show.

That is a tough ask and the precedent set by Peter Slipper and Harry Jenkins before him is a very high bar.

Harry Jenkins, as a Speaker from the ALP under both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard was held in very high regard by both sides of the political divide. Even the Coalition was and continue to be very effusive in their praise of the now Member for Scullin who will be retiring from parliament at the next election.

The Opposition are right, Harry Jenkins as Speaker was very calm and reasonable, very nice, almost to a fault. In the role of Speaker there is a need to be very firm and it sometimes felt that too much went by the wayside. There were a number of moments when the nastiness in the chamber became all too much and it was at those times when Mr Jenkins was at his best.

It was only late last year, Christmas break a short time away for our parliamentarians, that the Member for Scullin stood aside as Speaker. Then, in what many wrongly thought at the time was a calculated political masterstroke, the Labor Government put Peter Slipper up as their candidate for the role. After a large number of failed Opposition attempts to nominate ALP MP’s and an Independent for the role, Peter Slipper ultimately prevailed and became the new parliamentary moderator.

It was his rule over the parliament that should be widely regarded as the strongest and most fair, particularly in light of the new standing order of “direct relevance”. It was Peter Slipper as Speaker who was willing to chastise and punish members of the government that had too often gotten away with nonsense that would have never been tolerated were it coming from the Opposition.

The now Independent MP for Fisher ruled with such fairness that government MP’s were often warned and occasionally booted. More importantly, government ministers continuously flouting the standing orders were brought to order, sat down or sent out for an hour under the Standing Orders for their childish indiscretions. Most memorable of these occasions was when the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer, after days of Three Stooges references, was sent from the parliamentary floor.

From the experience of having Anna Burke in the chair for some time now during Question Time we can get a sense of what a full-time Speaker Anna Burke will bring to the role. So far that appears to be a low tolerance for Coalition nonsense mixed with some rulings on process which are very fair and balanced.

What this parliament needs, at the very least, in light of the increasing levels of disdain which the public feels toward the parliament and our politicians, is a Speaker more in the mould of Peter Slipper than not. Australia needs a Speaker that will not tolerate stupidity from both sides. We need a Speaker that is willing to take action against any MP, Liberal, National, Labor or otherwise who consistently contributes to the cacophony of noise and bile that makes our parliament sound more like an aviary than a place where adults make decisions which could have a positive or negative impact on the population.

Of course it would be folly to assume that any Speaker would be capable of cutting out all the ridiculous behaviour that goes on, particularly between 2 and 3:10pm. In the instance of this minority government, the extra noise and bad behaviour probably owes more to the unbridled jockeying and thirst for power than anything else. Emotions have been higher than usual because the government barely hangs on with a slim majority and the Opposition is probably salivating over just how close they are to seizing those benches on the other side of parliament.

Certainly, our representatives, all of them, have to also take it upon themselves to lift their standards of behaviour while in the parliament. Individual responsibility for sensible and adult behaviour. If our local members took it upon themselves to look at their antics and at the very least tone them down then the health of our Speaker’s would not deteriorate as rapidly as it must every time they take the chair.

We have about a year, most likely, until we will see majority government in this country again. Until then are we going to begin to encounter again that ‘kinder, gentler polity’ that was once spoken of? It might get slightly nicer, but don’t hold your breath.

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