Animal house

Nick Bryant
New York correspondent

So infantile has become the behaviour of politicians in the Australian parliament that onlookers could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled across the recreation yard at a juvenile correctional facility.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Question Time is a lowlight of the political week, according to some observers

In the House of Representatives the normal protocols of decorum and maturity are regularly turned on their heads. Well-behaved schoolchildren bussed in to observe Australia's high temple of democracy peer down from the galleries in respectful silence while MPs holler and scream from the benches below.

The Senate, of course, is supposed to be more deliberative and grown-up. But this week in a hearing the Liberal Senator David Bushby meowed at the Finance Minister, Penny Wong (this just days after the Economist, in a scolding critique of Australian politics, singled out Ms Wong as one of the few parliamentarians deserving of praise).

Senator Bushby felt sufficiently embarrassed to issue an apology. But his colleague, Senator Mary Jo Fisher, seemed rather proud of her performance in the Senate a few months back, when she performed this version of the Hokey Cokey and The Timewarp.

Some call it the Punch and Judy of politics, but that seems almost slanderous, and especially unfair since the couple have no right of reply.

This week the British conservative blogger Iain Dale was in Australia, and arrived admitting to a sneaking admiration for the robust, adversarial style of the country's politics. "It is very combative," he told ABC's The World Today on Tuesday. "I mean probably more combative than virtually any other Western democracy and I quite like that, I like people to say what they think and Australian politicians by and large, certainly do that."

Then he sat through two Question Times. Afterwards, he told the BBC it was 'an absolutely shameful, horrific spectacle.'

At moments like this, I recall my first visit to Canberra. Over dinner at Parliament House, I found myself sat next to a Labor politician who could hardly contain his delight at being ejected from the chamber for haranguing the prime minister at the time, John Howard. Indeed, throughout dinner, admiring colleagues came up to congratulate him on his mischief. New to Australian politics, I came away thinking he must be a professional parliamentary troublemaker. Every party has one, after all. But a year later, he became the country's defence minister.

The hackneyed line is that a country gets the politics it deserves. But in Australia right now that cliche does not double as a truism. The Australians who I talk to are craving something better.

Membership of the major parties is in decline. At last year's federal election the number of people who voted "informal" - they spoiled their ballot, left it blank or filled it in erroneously - was historically high (at 5.65%, the highest figure in the past six federal elections).

The rise of the Australian Greens, who will soon hold the balance of power in the Senate, suggests Labor voters especially are shopping around for something different. Polls also regularly suggest that voters prefer former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull to Julia Gillard and the opposition leader Tony Abbott, who appear to bring out the worst in each other. Rudd and Turnbull were less combative, and even occasionally bipartisan (this bipartisanship on the Labor government's proposals for an emissions trading scheme cost Turnbull the leadership).

In an otherwise admiring report, The Economist this week noted: "Its current political leaders, with notable exceptions, are perhaps the least impressive feature of today's Australia."

Watching the performance of their parliamentarians this week, I dare say many Australians would agree.