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Politicians put forward their worst sides

Recent attacks by Peter Dutton on Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young have gone well beyond legitimate tough criticism – they’ve been abusive. AAP/Dave Hunt

In the latest Essential poll, just 11% have some or a lot of trust in politicians and 49% have no trust. Not a surprising result perhaps. What is surprising is that politicians don’t seem much worried how badly they are regarded collectively.

Despite the evidence that ordinary people are often disgusted by their behaviour, too many politicians want others to change but won’t themselves, talk loyalty but frequently betray it, profess lofty intentions while acting from low motives.

Without romanticising the past, things currently do seem particularly bad, fuelled by the contemporary news cycle’s voraciousness, the continuous election campaign, and the players themselves.

As the ideological divide has narrowed, personal distance has widened. Having less to war over, politicians find it necessary to exaggerate what’s left and to demonise opponents they consider easy targets.

For some, shock jocks’ standards become their standards. Recent attacks by Peter Dutton (in one case in a joint act with Ray Hadley) on Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young have gone well beyond legitimate tough criticism – they’ve been abusive.

Mature politics in a system that needs to be simultaneously competitive, adversarial and reasonably respectful requires striking balances: on leadership, between giving loyalty and demanding performance; in seeking and exercising power, between fighting to win and preserving the cohesion of the polity. The lines will inevitably be blurry.

Leaders have always been potentially vulnerable but modern parties, when constant polling corrodes the leader’s authority and the followers’ patience, are ever more volatile, as Tony Abbott found after less than 18 months in office.

The ABC’s Killing Season gives a riveting insight into the devastation that Labor, after securing its decisive victory in 2007, brought upon itself, with a coup against its prime minister in his first term.

In Tuesday’s episode Anthony Albanese, recalling his thoughts when Kevin Rudd was about to be deposed, said: “I remember very vividly leaving the room [after a discussion with colleagues] and saying if this occurs, we will kill two Labor prime ministers”. And that’s just what happened.

Now, having achieved the mutual destruction that would have been avoidable if they had behaved differently, the two former Labor prime ministers are bidding for the loudest word in the history.

It’s ugly. They indict themselves in their indictments of each other. Gillard argues Rudd was dysfunctional. Rudd accuses her of duplicity and – despite having himself deposed Kim Beazley – complains of “betrayal by people who you thought you could trust”.

Gillard says of Rudd in early 2010: “My sense of him at that point was that he was spent in a physical and psychological sense”. Rudd replies: “If that was a serious view on Julia’s part at the time, then she would’ve had an obligation to go to the national security committee of the cabinet and put it forward”. And on it goes.

Those remembering this pair in their halcyon days are now seeing, under the harsh spotlight of skilled television interviewing, their characters stripped bare, their flaws raw and exposed. There is no winner.

Former minister Greg Combet told the program: “If anything this tragedy of Labor in this period is about that, you know, the humanity of it, the poor judgements that are made, the ambitions, the egos … and the darker arts that some people are drawn to, the backgrounding, the leaking and the backstabbing”.

Combet, worn down and in poor health, retired at the 2013 election. It was a loss to Labor and the parliament, a premature departure by someone acknowledged across the spectrum as having performed well.

Some years into the future, the ABC will do another series – one about the Abbott government.

We can’t know the detail or timing; we don’t know whether that government will prosper or crash.

But we’ve seen its style so far, and it is not one that has made the public think better of politicians. It has been notable for the trashing of trust with broken promises, wilful misrepresentations when convenient, and an us-versus-them mentality (“them” defined very widely) that’s sharp and often vindictive.

Its ruthless and expedient approach is on display as Abbott ramps up national security as an issue.

Abbott has put national security at the centre of his agenda. His government talks constantly about keeping Australians safe. Polling shows people are worried about security, and it is always naturally strong ground for the Coalition. Abbott judges it can be made even better politically if only he can shake off Bill Shorten’s desire to stay close.

Abbott would like nothing better than a partisan fight over his proposed legislation to strip citizenship from dual nationals associated with terrorism, as is clear from the question time briefing note that was leaked this week.

There are real arguments to be had about issues of security, and perhaps some aspects should provoke partisan debate. But to cynically hope to exploit national security, and community fears, as a tactical weapon undermines the pursuit of good policy. The tactic brings discredit on those who use it. Not that they give a damn if it works.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with guest, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, here or on iTunes.

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