Civility in Australia

Speech to the CHASS National Forum

'Civility in Australia'

20 June 2013

Check Against Delivery

Thank you Steven [Schwartz] for that most civil of introductions. Can I, like Aunty Agnes Shea, acknowledge we’re meeting today on the traditional lands of the Ngunnawal people and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

I want to thank CHASS for inviting me back to this very vibrant forum. It’s something I look forward to a great deal and this particular talk is one that has been rattling around my head ever since I was invited to deliver it, which I think reflects on the importance of the topic.

So since we’re talking about ‘civility’, I reached into my bookshelves and I pulled out what I think must be the essential tome that one begins such a discussion with; it is Paul Keating’s Book of Insults.

I shall now proceed by reading you a few of them.

On John Hewson, “his performance is like being flogged with a warm lettuce”.

On Andrew Peacock, “I suppose that the honourable gentleman’s hair, like his intellect, will recede into the darkness”.

On John Howard, “he is the greatest job and investment destroyer since the bubonic plague” (this is 1984).

And on Nick Greiner, “Look at Greiner, he’s only two years old, but already he’s terminal”.

And I start with Keating to illustrate the basic point that defining civility is tricky.

We know the extremes; absolute rudeness and genteel politeness, as Steven has just demonstrated in his most genteel of introductions.

But in the middle there’s a grey area where one person’s incivitlity is another person’s witticism.

I could spend ten minutes on that alone so I’m simply going to use the elephant definition: that most of us know incivility when we see it.

And so I want to ask two questions today. The first is, is politics becoming less civil? And the second is, what can we do to improve it?

And note that these two questions don’t depend on one another. Even if politics isn’t becoming less civil, one might well want it to become more civil.

So the starting point is that Australian voters have never had a particularly high view of their politicians.

This is a quote on federal parliament, “the standard of debate and discussion is appallingly low. The intelligence and purpose fullness of those taking part: less than evident. No country deserves politicians as bad as these.”

That’s Craig McGregor writing in 1966.

And since the 1960s we have empirical evidence on the point.

Australian election studies in successive years have asked the question of respondents, “In general do you feel the people in Government are too often interested in looking after themselves or do you feel they can be trusted to do the right thing nearly all the time?”

In the late 1960s about half of Australian respondents said that politicians could be trusted to do the right thing nearly all the time, and by the 2000s that figure was down to around forty per cent; a slight drop but not off a particularly high base.

Only around half of Australians for the last forty years have thought that politicians could be trusted.

Roy Morgan is another source of data. Their Image of Professions survey asks Australians to rate professions for ethics and honesty.

The profession that I used to be in and which most of you are in, that of university lecturers, about sixty per cent of Australians rate university lecturers ‘high’ or ‘very high’ for ethics or honesty.

By contrast, my current profession of federal politics, about ten to twenty per cent of Australians rate federal politicians ‘high’ or ‘very high’ for ethics or honesty.

In most recent survey, it was 14 per cent, which means we are down around the level of journalists. That’s how serious the problem is.

Looking across countries we also have evidence that Australians hold their politicians in fairly low regard.

A survey in the 1990s asked people in 16 countries whether they had confidence in their national parliament.

Forty three per cent of respondents in a typical country said they had confidence in their national parliament.

Thirty one per cent of Australian respondents had confidence in their national parliament.

And the problem is so bad that when I, in 2002, co-edited a book with David Burchell titled The Prince’s New Clothes: Why Do Australians Dislike Their Politicians?. The problem was regarded as so bad by my editor that they placed as a cover image a picture of one dog sniffing another dog’s backside.

An unfortunate effect of this was that the parliamentary bookshop decided that it couldn’t stock it. (At least somebody in this building has a sense of decorum.)

Another way of looking at how things have changed over time is to look at parliamentary behaviour.

To test this, I went back through Hansard and in every year counted the number of times that two measures of incivility are mentioned: first, the number of times the words ‘liar’ or ‘liars’ are used, and second the number of times the word ‘unparliamentary’, a typical response when people are behaving in an uncivilised way.

And I’ve normalised that by the number of words spoken in parliament over the year. What I saw surprised me.

The periods of greatest incivility are the early 1950s, the late 1970s and the early 1990s. On this fairly narrow measure of incivility, incivility is down in the federal parliament.

But on other measures I think there are issues with civility.

I had two of my interns, Ellen and Eleanor, this week walk around all of the federal parliamentary offices.

I asked them to look at a simple thing; I asked them to look at the posters in each window.

For parliamentarians who had a political poster up, I asked them to write down whether that was a positive poster (spruiking the good things member’s or senator’s party was doing) or a negative poster (attacking the other party).

Of the 99 offices in Parliament House that depict a political poster in the window, 42 of them are negative posters.

So, forty two per cent of the federal parliament on this measure self-define to their colleagues through a negative lens rather than a positive lens.

In other areas too, I think we’ve seen a greater rise in nastiness.

One driver of that, I believe, is anonymity.

In my 2010 book, Disconnected, I talked about some of the evidence on how anonymous technologies can make interactions nastier.

I quoted an experiment run at the University of Texas Austin, of which students were placed in separate booths and asked to communicate with one another only by email.

And the experimenters were surprised to see how quickly the conversations turned lewd or rude.

As the researchers noted at the end of their article:

‘[T]he male experimenter who conducted the sessions debriefed the participants immediately after the interactions without reading the actual transcripts. He noted that the students were always low-keyed, unassuming, and moderately interested in the study. No participants appeared embarrassed, shocked, or in the slightest way, upset or angry. At the conclusion of the project, when he was given the opportunity to read the transcripts, he was astounded—even overwhelmed—to learn what these polite students had been saying to one another.’

And if you’ve ever said anything nastier over email than you’d say person, you know how it can happen.

In The Australian Moment, George Megalogenis discusses the text messages that in part prompted the Cronulla Riots, and some of the nastiness in certain corners of the blogosphere. He argues, ‘The commonsense filters that were used to keep the letters-to-the-editor page civil, and to prevent the cranks from getting on air, don’t apply in cyberspace because the medium rewards those who generate the most outrage.’

I find this too as a federal member of parliament; people will occasionally say quite harsh things to your face.

But on any given day my inbox and my Twitter feed include nastier comments than anything that anyone will say to my face over a matter of months.

Here’s an example. I apologise for the purple prose but we’re discussing civility and so its flip side, incivility is, I think, worth mentioning.

[Email on slide] ‘I am prepared to spend my last dollar and effort of energy to avoid having you purporting to represent my views in parliament. And that is quite apart from the fact that you are a crap statistician. … You are a fucking disgrace – the more so because your electorate has a higher standard than you – and I will not lose a moment saying so, in any audience, in any place, and to everyone who asks my opinion.’

The email came from a senior journalist.

I turn to the question, what is to be done?

The challenges that I’ve spoken about pose a particular challenge to progressives.

If we look around the world I don’t think it’s an accident that social democratic governments are a little thin on the ground at exactly the time when the media landscape is fragmenting.

Technological changes like 24 hour news, blogs, twitter and email aren’t ideological neutral. They are particularly beneficial for populists and libertarians, and confronting for long-game reformers.

But for those of us who believe in progressive reform, it’s vital that we continue to talk about big ideas.

Critical reforms like Medicare and universal superannuation, expanding university places and dropping the tariff barriers didn’t happen by themselves.

They were the product of passionate and painstaking advocacy.

Progressives also need to get better at linking the reforms of today with the events of the past.

Too much reliance on talking points and ‘lines’ can win the battle, but lose the war.

Humans are fundamentally storytelling creatures, and stories are a powerful way of persuading people about the importance of change.

Reform isn’t about uprooting our history – it’s about allowing our values to endure in a changing world. It is about identifying the golden threads that run through our history.

But for politicians of all stripes, there are good reasons to improve civility.

First, we know from the medical literature that there’s a strong link between hostility and coronary heart disease.

Is that nasty jibe really worth going to an early grave for?

Second, politeness is simply more interesting. I have a semi-regular chance to discuss politics and economics on ABC Radio National with Senator Arthur Sinodinos.

We have a healthy respect for one another, and frequently go out of our way to praise one another.

We’re both passionate about our own parties, but I’m told by the producer that ABC listeners enjoy the segment because there’s a clear demarcation between our policy differences and our personal respect.

As a viewer, I certainly find that I much prefer viewing political debates of this kind.

So maybe civility is good politics too.

Thank you.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.