Uncivil discourse

5 October 2012

The increasingly rancorous nature of public discourse in Australia has been brought into sharp focus with comments by Sydney shock jock Alan Jones concerning Prime Minister Julia Gillard’ s recently deceased father.  At a political fund raising function, Jones told the assemblage that Gillard is “such a liar” that John Gillard “died of shame”.

Unfortunately for Jones’ reputation (and wallet) there was a working journalist at the function who recorded the remarks and duly reported them.

The sincerity of Jones’ subsequent apology was rather called into question when, at the same media conference, he took the opportunity to have another red hot go at Gillard’s alleged lack of honesty.

Major corporates have been falling over themselves withdrawing advertising from his morning drive time show on Sydney’s 2GB radio station.

I actually find Jones rather engaging (though I don’t for a moment endorse his remarks and neither does Tony Abbott).  Whenever I overnight in Sydney, I always try and tune into this little editorial thing he does around 7.15 am, which can often delight for its idiosyncratic take on some aspect of life.  I happened to be in Sydney the day after Steve Irwin’s unfortunate demise, by the sting of a sting ray.  At 7.15, there was Jones opining about what an example Irwin was for all of us.  In particular, said Jones, Irwin’s lasting legacy to the children of Australia was that wild animals aren’t dangerous.

I immediately dashed off a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald but unfortunately they were taking no more submissions on Irwin’s demise.  Pity, it was a gem of a letter.

As in all true democracies, public discourse in Australia is robust.  People can say all sorts of things about other people and their views, without fear of the midnight knock on the door and being dragged off to a cell or the gulag (although defamation and libel laws limit what it might be sensible to write or say about someone).

Apologists for Jones have been pointing  out all week that “his comments were offensive but I support his right to say them”.

Yeah, all right, but these apologists have seemingly taken offence at the wave of criticism that Jones and his comments have attracted.   Jones can apparently say something that by most standards is offensive and that’s “free speech”.  But to criticise him is an “attack on free speech”.  How do you figure that out?

Part of the argument is that Australian Labor Party luminaries are pretty good at dishing it out too.

One of the great disher outers was Paul John Keating, ALP Prime Minister of Australia from 1991 to 1996 and before that the Treasurer (Finance Minister) from 1983.  “PJ”, as he was affectionately known to his admirers (of which I am one), was truly a masterful exponent of the pithy put down, the scathing metaphorical thrust,  the three or four word depiction of his point (it did occasionally bring him undone as with “the recession we had to have”).

A favourite illustration of Keating’s use of “crude, offensive language” – trotted out this week for the umpteenth time –  is that he once told the Parliament that those opposite (the Opposition, in Australian parliamentary terms) were “like dogs returning to their own vomit” because they had no new insights or ideas into or about public policy.

Except Keating was quoting from the Bible – Proverbs 26:11 -

 Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.

Apposite?  Probably……

He was so good, or at least memorable,  there’s a few websites compiling his most memorable “insults” and sayings for posterity, including  Paul Keating Insults,  From the mouth of Paul Keating  and  Wikiquotes. 

The salmon that jumps on the hook

One of the things you have to understand about Keating is he doesn’t discriminate – he touches up the comrades as well.   Asked about a senior ALP strategist a couple of years ago, he observed he wouldn’t know which side of the bed to get out of without consulting a focus group first.  And this to former Labor colleague Diamond Jim McClelland (on the phone);

That you Jim?  Paul Keating here.  Just because you swallowed a fucking dictionary when you were about 15 doesn’t give you the right to pour a bucket of shit over the rest of us.

Like all successful people (and a lot who aren’t),  Keating is a decidely self-assured person, once describing himself as “the Placido Domingo” of Australian politics.  And in his approach to policymaking he was sometimes “crazy brave”, as when he and a handful of colleagues – in the absence of Prime Minister Bob Hawke overseas – decided to float the Australian dollar, in the midst of a terms of trade crisis and a collapsing Australian dollar.  It was that, he said, or face the real prospect of Australia becoming “a third rate economy….a banana republic.”   He likened this approach to a certain form of skiing:  “Look Ma – downhill, one ski, no poles!”

Keating did take a rather brutal approach to politics and he could certainly be menacing, in a Godfather, “offer to good to refuse” sort of way.  But he was entertaining, razor witted and mostly elegant: to see him in full flight on the floor of the House of Representatives was to witness the supreme theatre of Parliament.

Somewhere I wanted to fit in that Keating was, in his language and presentation, “as flash as a rat with a gold tooth and a five quid note”, but it doesn’t really fit.  It describes a spiv and Keating is anything but – he’s the genuine article.  So let me conclude with what must surely be the greatest political “insult” of all time,  said to have come out of  an exchange between  those two longstanding adversaries of 19th century British politics, W E Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli:

Gladstone:   Sir, I predict you will  die either on the gallows or of some dreadful disease!

Disraeli:   That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.

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