Last Friday morning there was a little war of words between Mark Textor (of Crosby|Textor) and Chris Murphy (of Murphy’s Lawyers) on Twitter that made me sit back and get all philosophical for a moment. As the day wore on, the tension between the two men developed as follows:
Now normally I don’t get involved with online brawls on Twitter, regardless of the topic that’s at hand. That’s predominantly because I think of such arguments as the adult equivalent of primary school “sword-fights” in the boys toilets. While the use of that particular metaphor is rather gross, it is an accurate description of the psychology behind most of the fights that occur on social media and also in real life on a daily basis. Needless to say, I steadfastly refuse to take sides in such brawls as well.
After reflecting upon how quickly the nature of this conversation turned ugly for a while though, from a purely academic standpoint I started to wonder if the current political environment within Canberra is really as toxic as some people make out, or if it only appears that way simply because that’s how we want it to be. That in turn made me wonder if politicians are really as embittered as we think they are, or if the blind ideological battles between some elements of the electorate have turned their images into unrealistic caricatures of what no human being could ever be possibly like.
Now as many of you know, I recently produced a radio documentary for FBi Radio’s “All The Best” program on the “Parliamentary Friends of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex Australians” group within Parliament House, as well as its co-chairs from both the Greens, Labor and the Coalition. Given the amount of content that I was able to produce for both this documentary and others while I was down there, I decided to put a few of the concepts that I referenced above to the test.
During the production of my documentary on the LGBTI Parliamentary Friendship Group, I had an interview with the The Honourable Warren Entsch MP, who is the Chief Opposition Whip for the Coalition in the Federal Parliament. Within the 20 minutes that I spent with him during the last sitting week of parliament, he made a statement that I think is rather suitable for the discussion that is currently at hand:
“At the end of the day whether you are Colin or you are Kate, I see you as a decent human being. I suspect that if you were to take a knife and cut yourself, you would bleed. I would suspect that you’ve got a blood type similar to mine, if not the same. You know, you have emotions, you have feelings, you have all of those things that I have….. So really, are we really all that different? And so because of the challenges that you’ve had in your life, why would I suddenly say that you are a lesser person than me?”
Now while Warren’s words focused specifically on the LGBTI community (and my own background as a Trans-woman), they also ring true in regards to nearly every other walk of life as well, when you really put your mind to it. We all have people that we love, while we all hold dreams and desires about what we want to do and become in life. While our goals are always different, we’ve all got much more in common with one another than we have differences.
This notion was reinforced when I rechecked the comments made by Senator Sarah Hanson Young and The Member for Morton Graham Perrett, at the 2nd gathering of the Parliamentary Friends of LGBTI Australians group in Canberra, earlier this year. Throughout the entire night it was obvious that Sarah, Graham and Warren were close friends, even though one of them was a Green, another a member of Labor and the other a prominent member of the Coalition.
While the fact that politicians have cross-party friendships may sound weird to a lot of people given the shenanigans that goes on in Canberra on a regular basis, what we see and hear on the TV and Radio each night and read both online and in the papers every day isn’t a complete representation of everything that goes on within Parliament House. That’s purely because it would be completely impossible for any media outlet to have anywhere near the amount of resources or access required in order to cover everything that goes on.
From meetings in regards to Parliamentary Friendship Groups through to International Diplomatic and Election Observer Missions, most politicians develop a healthy working relationship, if not friendship, with their colleagues across the aisle. That’s not just out of workplace necessity, but also human nature. Whether we like to admit it or not, as humans we are a very social and curious species, who thrive off engaging with other individuals that have varying perspectives to our own. Rather than making us drastically “different” from one another, such characteristics make us intriguingly unique to one another. This in turn allows for a healthy and dynamic culture, where fresh and innovative ideas and solutions to problems can thrive.
Take Senators John “Whacka” Williams and Mark Furner from the Nationals and Labor respectively, for example. In a recent report to the Senate over their election observer mission to Georgia back in October as well as separate interviews for a radio documentary that I’m producing on parliamentary committees and responsibilities, both Furner and Williams stated that they’ve developed a friendship, due to the fact that they’ve had to learn to work together. Given that Williams has been a shearer, truck driver and small business owner, while Furner was a long-standing Union representative before entering politics, many people would expect them to be bitter enemies. Instead, they are two individuals who are willing to look beyond politics, in order to ensure that their respective constituents who are in need get a fair go. Consequently, they’ve been able to enrich Australia’s relations with a nation that will become the food-bowl of Asia and Europe in the decades to come.
Another example would be the willingness of various MPs and their staffers back in September from across the entire political spectrum in Federal Parliament to get in and happily socialise over anything but politics, after the first sitting week had concluded. While it was more than likely just a coincidence that everybody was there and I won’t go into any specifics (such as who was at the function and where it was), I will say that it reinvigorated my belief that politicians can put aside their differences & work together in the nation’s interest.
During that particular trip I also heard a lot of Senators, including various Frontbenchers, jovially calling each other by their nicknames with respect and then asking with absolute sincerity and interest how they were as they were about to enter the chamber, regardless of the party that they came from. Needless to say, such moments of humanity are to be savoured.
But perhaps the most resounding example of bipartisanship from within Canberra over the course of the current parliament, has been the course of action that both Prime Minister Gillard and Opposition Leader Abbott have personally taken towards Same Sex and Gender Diverse people and rights, along with their respective staffers and cabinets. While both of these individuals voted against Marriage Equality (which sadly has monopolised attention away from more achievable goals), their willingness to collectively engage on other rights and areas of concern showcase their true feelings towards equality, as well as how they’ve changed for the better as people since their days in University politics.
As many of you would remember, this is an area that both the Sydney Morning Herald’s political blog “The Pulse” and I focused on back in 2010, when both “The Tiny Tony Tapes” and “Julia on the Barricades” were released to the public. Not only did we challenge both leaders to describe how they’ve changed throughout their lives, but every other politician aspiring to be in Canberra as well. Needless to say, it provoked quite a stir amongst all sides of politics at the time.
But while it may have taken them a while to do so, it is now blatantly obvious that most politicians within Canberra are starting to answer those questions in their own unique way. From the Coalition quietly supporting portions of Labor’s new anti-discrimination measures in order to protect various minorities, through to Senator Bill Heffernnan openly weeping at an LGBTI Parliamentary Friendship Group function in late November, Julia Gillard creating a touching anti-homophobia and suicide prevention video and Tony Abbott’s deep desire to openly protect his old friend Lt Colonel Catherine (nee Malcolm) MacGregor as well as his sister Christine Forster, it is evident that politicians of all persuasions are willing to come together in order to enrich the lives of all Australians, even within a hung parliament.
While I’ll write more about her book and endeavours as a superb non-fiction author later, Lt Colonel Cate McGregor’s story alone highlights the ability of everyone within the wider Government to come together as one when needed. From the Army to the Press Gallery, Senate, House of Reps, various government departments, lobbyists and pollsters, I have a lot of contacts within Canberra. So when I say that I’ve only heard utmost levels of praise, respect and a desire to help my friend (and personal hero) as much as possible during her transition and afterwards from all of my contacts down there, I can’t help but feel confident about Australia’s prospects for the future, given what I’ve come across of late.
So if politicians, government officials, service-men and women, journalists, pollsters and lobbyists amongst others can cross the ideological divide and form deep working relationships (if not friendships) on various issues, surely the atmosphere within Canberra can’t be anywhere near as toxic as we the public think it to be. While some people will never see eye-to-eye and others (such as Gillard and Abbott) will always loose friendships whenever they become the leaders of their respective parties, we all have a moral obligation to take the higher ground and treat other people the way we want to be treated ourselves.
While treating people with respect and dignity may seem like a strange way to get things done in the modern world, sometimes you can get more results from a kind word than an hour’s worth of insults. Just like you can never judge a book by its cover, you can never truly judge a person without knowing the context of the story of their life’s journey first.
Good and evil can be found everywhere, regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality or ideology. As a result of these factors however, we all develop codes of conduct that we expect all politicians and public figures to follow, even if there’s no way that we could realistically abide by such standards ourselves. If we can’t honestly live by such codes ourselves though, we should be wary of crying foul when other people fall short of them as well.