Last Friday, I saw something that disturbed me greatly: a young man wearing what appeared to be a home-made T-shirt featuring a caricature of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She had a bullet in her head.
That sort of thing, unfortunately, will be of little surprise to Gillard, who the day before had called out the “misogynists and nut jobs” on the internet, where calls for her assassination, both veiled and overt, proliferate.
They proliferate on talkback radio too. And it’s not just the callers. Alan Jones infamously suggested – on five occasions last year – that Gillard ought to be “put in a chaff bag” and dumped at sea.
Mysteriously, the broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, found in June that Jones’ comments did not incite violence or hatred – at least, not violence or hatred based on the PM’s gender. That was a relief, wasn’t it?
Let’s now look at the reality of last week’s events.
At the beginning of Gillard’s presser – the same one where she poured scorn on the nut jobs bent on her destruction – one of them strolled past security, entirely unchallenged, to personally deliver her a message on the dangers of “mind control”.
The day before that, a 52-year-old man avoided jail after threatening to kill Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and state Labor MP Jill Hennessy at a public function. He was highly agitated; both women were justifiably frightened.
Security is now being upgraded to the homes of MPs, as well as presumably being reviewed at Parliament House. We can be grateful that that’s all, for now. In the meantime, we desperately need to turn down the temperature of political debate.
Everyone, on both sides of politics, inside and outside the parliamentary chamber, needs to just stop for a moment. Step away from the computer, away from forums and comment threads and and Twitter. Don’t turn up your radio. Turn it off.
Go outside. Get a little air. For Pete’s sake, get a sense of perspective. That’s what’s lacking in Australia at the moment. The language is of catastrophe. Wrecking balls, python squeezes, crisis on our borders (mostly Kiwis coming by plane, as it happens).
True, those phrases come from the federal opposition. Tony Abbott has, in anyone’s estimation, been an opposition leader true to his pugilist past, vowing from the moment of his ascension to the job that opposition leaders were there to oppose.
He’s certainly a big reason for the relentless partisanship of our national debate. But he’s far from the only one, helped along as he is by the shock jocks and shit-stirrers and hate-mongers who have heaped vilification on our first female PM from day one.
Labor can play that game too, especially when it comes to tipping a bucket on themselves. If we’re to believe Wayne Swan, the only thing worse than a Tony Abbott-led Australia is one led by Kevin Rudd. The venom on all sides is astounding.
Gillard made an astute comment last week about Tea Party-style interventions perverting the tone of our politics, where even the hardest facts take a distant second place to a kind of rolling frenzy of vituperation.
She was right to observe that, with information bombarding all of us constantly, it’s becoming more and more difficult to parse that information effectively. And lies, repeated often enough, will always become truths to those predisposed to believe them.
Political debate, as we all know, has been mostly reduced to sets of stock phrases, repeated ad nauseam to penetrate minds dulled, perhaps more than anything, by volume: not just of information, but the decibels with which the message is delivered.
It all reaches boiling point in the online environment, where the conspiracy theorists, the politically disenfranchised, and the manifestly unstable find themselves most at home.
Australia’s democracy has been distinguished by moderation. Bipartisanship is more common that frequently supposed, as both the Labor and Liberal parties have mostly tried to lay claim to the centre of political life. It’s an important factor in our stability.
Compare that to the current direction of US politics, where fear seems to be the guiding principle, and even the mention of gun control by a candidate from either major party is considered tantamount to political suicide, if not worse.
We can thank John Howard for delivering some of the tightest firearms restrictions in the developed world in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. Unfortunately, no one can legislate for sanity.
It will only take one aggrieved soul with an axe to grind and sufficiently deluded conviction in his righteousness to change the way politics in this country is conducted forever. Let’s all take a deep breath, and hope it never comes to that.
First published in The Age, 28 August 2012