To say politicians have never been popular is like saying scorpions have trouble getting jobs as baby sitters. Politicians always have been regarded in Australia with a frank suspicion bordering on homicidal antipathy.
You would think it would be hard for things to deteriorate. But over recent years, there are troubling signs that Australians are treating their politicians with the sort of pathological disregard usually reserved for Geelong supporters and parking inspectors.
A few weeks ago, our Prime Minister was called a liar to her face by a shopper with more front than manners. Julia Gillard smiled, paled, and remained polite.
Her predecessor, John Howard, had a shoe launched at him by an unimaginative critic inspired by an incident involving George Bush. A few years earlier, Paul Keating, suffered the indignity of being peremptorily cross-examined by an audience of students with more spots than IQ points.
Tony Abbot moves so fast these days he probably does not register insults or flying boots, but his cartoon depiction as a peripatetic Speedo addict and the standard description of this Catholic politician as a “Mad Monk” probably does not enthuse him.
Of course, there is a stock answer to all this. We live in a robust democracy, where free speech rules. It is no mean thing that the average Joe or Gemaal can publicly abuse their leaders with no more serious consequence than a short reality television contract.
This answer is ready, but not convincing. In fact, there are plenty of things wrong with voters treating politicians as public doormats, regardless of their politics, incompetence or physical limitations.
To begin with, it is profoundly cowardly. The true dynamics of political muggings is not that the victim will have their aggressor hauled away by the secret police. On the contrary, given the realities of an ever present media, a confronted politician can react to the nastiest venom only with a restrained shrug. Their stalkers know this.
The last Prime Minister to tell the truth to a savage elector was Bob Hawke, when he called an ill-mannered elderly gentleman a “silly old bugger”. The media hounded him mercilessly as an inveterate cad.
Quite beyond this, does anyone seriously imagine that ninety-nine per cent of politicians are trying to do anything other than their sincere best in a very publicly difficult job, where every mistake is scrutinized and every minor triumph discounted? Does the population genuinely believe that Julia Gillard or Tony Abbot gets up in the morning thinking “How am I going to screw the weak and pitiful today”?
As for the endless whining about perks , how long is it going to take Australians to realize that if Julia Gillard actually was in it for the money she would be earning squillions as a partner in a law firm, and Abbot would be an extremely well-paid journalist, business person or swimwear model.
Of course, you could reply that it has always been thus. In the good old days, Curtin, Menzies and above all Churchill, knew how to take it almost as well as they dished it out. But these are not the good old days. Most of the piquant responses of political warriors past would now land them disendorsed or before some anti-discrimination tribunal.
It is interesting to ponder why Australians have decided that politicians are as open to public vilification as a car that just won’t start.
It is particularly interesting to wonder why the pollies cop it so hard when we are prepared to forgive other pampered celebrities almost anything, from foul-mouthed tennis players, to oafish swimmers, through bogan soap opera stars and philandering thespians.
One answer is that we pay politicians. But via ticket sales, government subsidies and sponsored stubby holders we pay all the rest of red-carpet baggers, too.
One nasty suspicion is that we like to kick people when they are down, and in federal politics especially, politicians are very, very down just now.
Our government in Canberra is particularly vulnerable. It does not have a majority, it does not have good polls and it does not have the leader we originally elected. Let’s give Gillard a right ranga rollicking while she’s on her knees.
And that Abbot bloke has funny ears, even though I look like a jug. Joe Hockey’s too big, even if I’m shaped like a blimp. Wayne Swan is as boring as my own buck’s night and Malcolm Turnbull’s a smart alec, even if my own last idea was in 1979.
Perhaps we get the politicians we deserve.
Greg Craven is Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University