House debates

Thursday, 16 August 2007


Howard Government

4:47 pm

Photo of Roger PriceRoger Price (Chifley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On 18 November 1996, the Prime Minister delivered the Sir Robert Menzies Lecture. The Prime Minister’s lecture was entitled ‘The Liberal tradition: the beliefs and values which guide the federal government’. The House will not be surprised to learn that it contained saintly praise for the founder of the Liberal Party. I do not begrudge the Prime Minister that. The Liberal Party, cobbled together barely half a century ago from a motley crew of anti-Labor interests, needs all the mythology it can muster. Given that the Prime Minister joined the Liberal Party soon after its founding, it is no surprise that he has some regard for Sir Robert Menzies.

What might surprise the House is that, in that lecture, the Prime Minister attacked what he called ‘instinctive political oppositionism’ and said:

Where there is broad agreement I believe that nothing is lost by recognising that fact.

Of course, we all know that the Prime Minister has changed a lot since 1996. Now, weeks before an election, this clever politician thinks he can gain some political advantage by criticising the opposition for expressing broad agreement with aspects of government policy.

There was more in this lecture to surprise the House. In November 1996 the Prime Minister said ‘civility’ was one of the values that defined his government. He put it like this:

Australians deserve – and are now getting – the restoration of civility in public life.

Where there are genuine differences of view, they need to be debated directly and robustly, but not in a personally abusive way.

Unfortunately, the value of civility had no life beyond the pages of the Prime Minister’s speech notes.

This government has turned the denigration of its critics into an art form. Far from upholding the value of civility, the government’s behaviour is deteriorating. In question time we have heard the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources make the extraordinary claim that the Leader of the Opposition is single-handedly responsible for the current drought in south-east Queensland. Last week, the Assistant Treasurer described the Leader of the Opposition as a ‘load of crap’. One day earlier, the Minister for Health and Ageing descended to schoolyard taunts by calling the opposition leader a ‘wimp’. And, in the past month, the Minister for Foreign Affairs went down the same slippery slope when he called the opposition as a whole ‘cry babies. The minister for health, who cannot help but keep himself in the news for the wrong reasons, has recently uttered a phrase on the ABC Lateline program that I cannot repeat in the House. He went one better when he repeated the phrase at a media doorstop the following day.

It is not just the opposition who get abused by this government. This week a group of climate change sceptics from the government backbench attacked Rupert Murdoch because he does not share their view that climate change is caused by clouds and vapour. And it is not just the powerful who cop it either. Last week, the increasingly petulant Minister for Foreign Affairs attacked a student from Narrabundah College who had the temerity to challenge the government’s appalling record on combating climate change. This performance followed his earlier outburst at Sydney airport when the minister asked if critics of government bungling over the Haneef affair wanted those responsible to ‘fall on the ground and grovel—eat dirt’.

The Liberal candidate for the seat of Maribyrnong was forced to resign for using grossly offensive terms to describe the Victorian minister for transport. My Labor colleagues have previous drawn to the attention of the House outrageous and abusive behaviour by Young Liberals directed at fellow Young Liberals and Indigenous Australians.

On each occasion, the Prime Minister has taken no action to rein in those who hector or those who abuse or assault in the name of his party. The Prime Minister has broken many promises over the last 11 years. The delivery of greater civility in public life is yet another of them.