Whither dignity in an age of political hate

It has been a torrid couple of weeks: for Julia Gillard, for the honour of representative democracy and for all of us who kidded ourselves into believing that misogyny wasn’t rife in Australia. It goes without saying that a male Prime Minister would never have received the treatment that Gillard has endured in the last couple of weeks. The meat-headed mate-o-plex that dominates the Australian suburbs and the media establishment does not piss on its own, and when primary school-level intelligence meets visceral hatred, the results are guaranteed only to disgust.

How did we get to this place, where we have so much hate for the people we collectively chose to represent us in the nation’s parliament? I am not Howard Sattler; indeed I would prefer Julia Gillard to lead the country more than any politician from any other political party. But then, I’m not so blinkered that I don’t see the flipside: during the long Howard years it was hard to couch my dislike for John Howard or even more shallowly – his wife – in purely intellectual terms. We are talking about something more than pure politics or policy here. We are talking about hate, across a broad gradient of increasingly inappropriate shades, from braindead chit-chat about “rangas” to a high profile radio announcer asking the Prime Minister if her long-term partner is gay. If there ever was a modicum of dignity associated with representing your local community in Canberra, it feels a lot to me like it has been bar stooled, tabloid headlined, vox-popped and tweeted into extinction.

A couple of weeks ago I saw Helen Mirren star in Peter Morgan’s play The Audience at the Gielgud Theatre in London. The central conceit of the play is the magisterial ordinariness, almost, of The Queen, in her relationships with various British Prime Ministers over the last sixty years. The Prime Ministers are depicted as troubled souls; figures of jest for our amusement. Mirren plays the role of amateur psychiatrist with aplomb, and the audience is made to feel as though they can relate more to their monarch than the people actually chosen for high office to whom she offers potted advice and polite conversation. The dignity of the role of the Queen is clearly sacrosanct; beyond question. What dignity each Prime Minister enjoys as they appear on stage is swiftly destroyed as we delight in their foibles, chuckling at the general patheticness of these neurotic (mostly) men in suits passing briefly through the revolving door of government.

For a republican, the contrast between how people still view the ancestors of jumped up dukes and duchesses from Hanover and how they view today’s politicians is pretty troubling. It represents nothing short of a crisis of democracy. The bile that Julia Gillard has been exposed to since taking office is a clear representation of that: how many Australians, I idly wonder, would if given the opportunity take joy in spitting in the face of their Prime Minister? Or indeed, for that matter, Tony Abbott? A flotsamy question to be sure, but by way of comparison, there is little doubt that the vast majority of the same collections of people would be reduced to quavering child-like excitement in the presence of Her Royal Highness. Of course what she personally has ever tried to do for us or indeed been institutionally capable of doing for us in her role, nobody can really tell us.

It is tempting to whisk together the issues raised here into some prescription for Julia Gillard, but the reality is that this is a much bigger problem. It transcends in its own way “the patriarchy” and the problems confronting women in politics. It is of more fundamental concern than even – clenches teeth – whether Tony Abbott takes up residence in The Lodge in September or not. It is a problem stretching far beyond our land girt by sea, asking serious questions of so-called advanced parliamentary democracies across the globe. Without some dignity in public life, without some appreciation for the role governments can play in shaping the future of the nation and indeed the human race, this will only end in profound public disenchantment in democratic government. This spells doom for leftist social democracy as we know it, unless we start making the case for a new strain of democracy to supercede it.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

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