Recall a bar fight in an old Western movie. The goodies walk into a bar for a drink and are confronted by a mob of sinister-looking baddies who resent the invasion of their space and soon make it clear they are up for a no-holds bare-knuckle brawl where anything goes. No Marquess of Queensberry rules govern their behaviour – chairs, anything solid and able to be propelled, anything sharp, even firearms are all used as weapons of combat. The goodies though stick to the ‘rules’. They eschew any ‘unfair’ or ‘illegitimate’ tactics – bare knuckles yes, but no chairs or dangerous weapons. And they usually win! Their superior fighting skills and their ability to dodge flying missiles stand them in such good stead that they triumph. The aggressors slink away defeated or lie unconscious on the floor, while the victors casually order a drink from an intimidated quaking barman. Of course that happened in the movies, and represented a fictional scenario. In real life the baddies too often triumph, because they don’t follow the rules, because they use underhand tactics ruthlessly to achieve victory. Remember Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Fighting 'clean' is not a reliable way to success.
Recent events suggest to me that Labor is too ‘clean’ in fighting the Coalition’s outrageous aggression, and while that might attract applause from those who prefer to stick to decent ‘rules of political combat’, is it an effective strategy?
Let’s look at a few recent examples:
Take the attack on the Government by Tony Abbott over the contemporary court martial of three Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. In a particularly contemptible assault he accused the Government of ‘stabbing the soldiers in the back’ and not giving them the support they des
erved, of abandoning these men fighting as they are for their country. It was a powerful and aggressive strike. Yet what did the mild-mannered Stephen Smith say? He said Abbott’s words were ‘unfortunate’. Too right they were, but in the hurly burley of politics, words hardly like to make headlines, hardly likely to effectively rebut the Abbott charges.
I would have preferred him to say to Abbott: “How dare you have the temerity to make such outrageous accusations. It was the Howard Government, in which you were a minister that created the process for such trials of servicemen thought to be in contravention of the rules of engagement, and it had bipartisan support from Labor. You know perfectly well that in this process Government has no part to play, nor have politicians or politics. You know that this Government wants the process YOU established to bring about a considered outcome and that it wishes to play no part in it. Yet you come along with this completely illegitimate accusation which you know is dishonest, in order to score political points. And you were only too willing to enlist Alan Jones to promulgate this deception, something he was only too ready to do. Worse still, you allowed him, without contradiction, to denigrate the female prosecutor for laying the charges, even although you knew that she was acting completely in accordance with the process the Howard Government established. How dare you behave in this disgracefully disingenuous way, cast aspersions on those involved, and the Government too, although it is NOT involved. This is worse even that the usual low standards of political discourse which you employ. You are a disgrace.”
Smith’s mild reply did nothing to dent Abbott’s aggression, did nothing to quell any anger that Abbott generated in the minds of the people that somehow the Government was not giving these soldiers the traditional Aussie ‘fair go’. Fighting ‘clean’ did the Government no good; it allowed the media to promulgate the Abbott negativity sans the rebuttal.
The second issue, in quick succession, was the Murray Darling Basin report. Again Abbott was quick to condemn the Government for threatening, even destroying rural and regional towns by reducing water allocations, and when angry locals met to discuss the report he asked: ‘Where was the Water Minister?
At least Tony Burke had the foresight to get the facts together to rebut this in QT.
He pointed out that the Commission was established by the Howard Government, was independent of government, had simply produced a report for discussion, not a definitive plan for action, that there were many more steps in the process, and that the Coalition, far from distancing itself from the report, had said during the election campaign that it would implement the Commission’s recommendations in their entirety within weeks of being elected, words Burke quoted verbatim. He also pointed out that it would be inappropriate for him to appear at community meetings of the Commission as it was an independent body, and he had no place there. Every accusation that Abbott levelled was, to use an Abbott expression, ‘demolished’. Burke did it in a good humoured way, but why not get stuck into Abbott for his deceptive assertions. Why not say: “You are grotesque – you know your government established the Murray-Darling Commission as a body completely independent of government and commissioned the Murray-Darling Basin report to be prepared. You know that Government ministers played no part in its preparation, nor could they have, and that accusing them of threatening rural communities is grossly misleading, but typical of the deceitful and hypocritical behaviour for which you have established an unenviable reputation.” Fighting ‘clean’ does not make headlines.
Then there was the pathetic episode over Abbott’s visit to Afghanistan. Again he wrongly accused Julia Gillard of ‘Machiavellian bastardry’, insisting that she had ‘leaked’ the story that he had declined her invitation to accompany her to Afghanistan, which neither she or her office had, as attested by the author of the piece about the leak, Phillip Coorey. Yet that didn’t stop Abbott from saying this episode rendered Gillard ‘unfit to be PM’ a headline the ABC faithfully replicated. I wish Julia Gillard had said: “How dare you accuse me of ‘Machiavellian bastardry’ when you could easily have diverted any criticism the Coorey article implied by simply saying – ‘I already have plans to visit the troops in Afghanistan but they did not fit in with the PM’s visit. I am keen to see the conditions under which they are serving this country – security issues demand that I announce my plans at a time that is appropriate.’ Instead you chose to make political capital out of a situation that you yourself created with your cock and bull story of not wanting to be ‘jet-lagged’ for your meeting with your conservative mates. If you are not smart enough to craft a plausible story, if you are inflicted with chronic foot-in-mouth syndrome, are YOU fit to be PM?”
Fighting ‘clean’ will not attract the attention of News Limited journos hell-bent on demeaning the Government.
Now some of you may prefer the gentle approach, the turning of the other cheek, the countering of aggression with meekness. Personally, I’m sick and tired of this approach. If Abbott wants to pick a bare-knuckle fight, if he wants to delve into his bag of dirty tricks, if he insists on lying, if he insists on deception at every turn, if nothing is too low, too disingenuous for him to assault the Government with, then I would prefer to meet fire with fire, to slam him as he so enjoys slamming Gillard and the Government, kick him where it hurts most, and demolish his arguments with unambiguous searing rhetoric, such that he cowers in a dark corner. Abbott is a bully. Bullies always retreat when they get a strong dose of their own medicine. Abbott needs a very strong dose. Fighting ‘clean’ is not working.
What do you think?