Australia: A poisonous year in politics

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

Image caption,
Political passions burned bright in Australia in 2012

This was the year in which character assassination became the modus operandi of Australian politics, and when all-out attack became the default setting of parliamentary life.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Opposition leader Tony Abbott. Former Speaker of the House Peter Slipper. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. All have been the target of withering assaults on their reputations, and subject to the kind of sustained ferocity seldom witnessed in Australian politics.

For Julia Gillard, it was allegations reaching back to her legal career in the 1990s when she helped set up a union "slush fund" for her then boyfriend, Bruce Wilson, an official with the Australian Workers' Union. She vigorously denies any accusations of impropriety.

For Tony Abbott, it was the charge that he is an unreconstructed male chauvinist, a characterisation that he rejects.

For Peter Slipper, it was the accusation, thrown out by a federal court earlier this month, that he had sexually harassed a male aide.

For Kevin Rudd, it was the claim from Labor colleagues that he was an unhinged control freak incapable of working with his cabinet, and thus temperamentally unsuited to return as prime minister.

Ever since the 2010 federal election produced an inconclusive result and a minority Labor government, Canberra politics has been ugly and vitriolic. This year it has been particularly venomous.

After watching the daily shouting match of parliamentary question time, parents would be forgiven for thinking twice before signing the consent forms allowing their children to take school trips to the nation's capital, where a perch in the public gallery is often on the itinerary. Certainly, the children are better behaved than the politicians down below.

'Carpet bomb'

Image caption,
The parties blamed each other for the Australia Day shoe-loss episode

The tone for the parliamentary year was set in January with what came to be known as "the Australia day riot," a phrase which itself revealed how exaggerated and hyped up the political lexicon has become.

A small crowd of mainly Aboriginal protesters besieged Tony Abbott at a restaurant in Canberra, having been tipped off about his presence by one of the prime minister's press secretaries, who later had to resign.

Julia Gillard, who was also trapped inside the restaurant, herself had to be dragged out to her waiting limousine by a bodyguard, providing one of the more unlikely photographs of the year.

Next, in February, came the latest battle in the internecine conflict within the Labor Party, a leadership contest between Ms Gillard and the man she ousted, Mr Rudd.

The Gillard team, which included Treasurer Wayne Swan, decided to "carpet bomb" the former leader, with a series of attacks on his character. Ms Gillard, with a lopsided margin of 71 votes to 31, won easily.

Image caption,
Kevin Rudd lost his leadership challenge, unable to unseat the leader who ousted him

Aside from the duelling between Gillard and Rudd, the running political story during the first half of the year centred on Craig Thomson, a Labor MP accused of misusing a union credit card to pay for prostitutes.

Mr Thomson, who was suspended from the Labor Party in April and now sits on the crossbenches, broke down in tears during an hour-long statement to parliament in May during which he rebuffed the allegations. But they refused to go away.

By then, he was no longer the prime target of the Liberal opposition. Instead, it was Peter Slipper, the Liberal National Party MP who had taken up the speakership late in 2011 at the invitation of the Labor government in a move to tighten its fragile grip on power.

James Ashby, a 33-year-old aide, accused him of sexual harassment in text messages and inappropriate conversations. Mr Slipper denied the allegations, and was vindicated this month when a federal judge dismissed the case against him.

In a stinging ruling, Justice Steven Rares said the case had been brought primarily to cause Mr Slipper "significant public, reputational and political damage", a phrase that rather neatly summed up the year. The aim of the legal action was to force Mr Slipper's resignation as an MP and to bring down the government.

Media caption,
Julia Gillard accuses Tony Abbott of a long history of misogyny and sexism

A parliamentary debate in October over whether Mr Slipper should resign, following the publication of crass texts about female genitalia which came to light because of the court action, was the context for by far the most dramatic political moment of the year.

That afternoon, Julia Gillard entered the chamber with a handful of sheets of paper on which were printed a few bullet points and a list of sexist quotes from Tony Abbott. She delivered 15 minutes of invective that has now entered the annals of Australian political history as "the misogyny speech".

Not only did it become a viral sensation, with more than two million views on YouTube, but it also changed how the country's leading dictionary defined the word "misogyny".

Campaign ahead

Off the back of the speech, Ms Gillard enjoyed a brief revival, but the Labor party remains intensely unpopular. The final polls of the year point to a thumping victory for the Liberal-lead conservative coalition in the 2013 election, just as they did at the beginning of the year. As one senior Labor insider told me: "We've moved from unqualified disaster to just disaster."

On the policy front, the introduction of the carbon tax in July was perhaps the political anti-climax of the year. For all the opposition's protestations that it would wreck the economy and saddle consumers with higher energy bills, a recent poll suggested that the measure was less unpopular than Tony Abbott.

Image caption,
Four people are believed to have died when this asylum-seeker boat sank in June

As in previous years, the problem of asylum-seekers heading for Australian shores posed both a policy and political dilemma for the government. More than 16,000 asylum seekers have been intercepted on boats since the beginning of the year.

The Gillard government's response was to revert to the controversial Pacific Solution. First introduced by the Howard government, and long-criticised by human rights groups, the policy transports asylum seekers to a detention centre on the small Pacific island of Nauru. But still the boats keep coming.

Perhaps the most internationally eye-catching policy of the year was the new plain packaging regulations for cigarettes that have been fiercely opposed by "Big Tobacco".

With a federal election due next year before the end of November, the political atmosphere could become still more toxic.

The 2010 campaign was widely judged to be the worst and most acrimonious in living memory. 2013 is set to be even more dismal.

Adversarial, vicious, brutal, infantile. Describing it might require not so much the redefinition of words, but the invention of new ones.