The Thomson and Slipper affairs may have brought parliament into disrepute, but this should not imply that parliament was well reputed before these scandalous stories emerged. Greens Leader Senator Christine Milne has called for an integrity commission or anti-corruption body, to restore public faith. But when it comes to the integrity of politicians, corruption alone cannot explain the extensive public disdain for our ruling class.
Such diverse elements as sexism, Tony Abbott, broken promises, climate change, Tony Abbott, faceless men, minority government, and even the allegedly intractable negativity of the Opposition under Tony Abbott, have been blamed for the decline of our political discourse.
However bad the current political malaise, it is only exacerbated by the endless partisan squabbles over who exactly is to blame. There's plenty of blame to go around; it would be quicker and easier to start by identifying those who are not to blame (nominations will be accepted in Comments, below).
In the meantime, let us examine one of the more endemic factors in the present political distemper: duplicity. Duplicity implies being 'double' in one's conduct. It is the opposite of integrity, which comes from the word 'integer', as in a whole number, and implies wholeness or soundness, a relationship of equivalence between one's words and thoughts, or one's thoughts and actions. In other words, what you see is what you get.
Yet for most of our politicians, what you see is definitely not what you get. How many times have you heard a politician verbally weasel his or her way through the tiniest gap in credulity, saying evidently inane and childish things, merely to score a point against his or her political opponent?
Instances abound amid the recent scandals wherein any given Opposition member will utter seemingly sincere and emotionally invested words that nonetheless convey the distinct impression that he or she will say almost anything in order to strip the minority government of a precious vote.
Of course, the Government is able to issue equally impressive appeals to the principles of justice, or whatever other principle of convenience will ornament their desperate wish to retain that precious vote. Public sympathy for either side is tempered if not nullified by our strong suspicion that both Government and Opposition would change their positions in a heartbeat if circumstances were reversed.
But this duplicity is hardly new. Nearly every public utterance from every politician is tainted by the subtext of scoring political points. When the opinions expressed by almost any politician are crafted to tip the scales in their favour, we soon realise there is nothing to be gained by listening. Why bother attending to political debate when we already know the conclusion: government good, opposition bad, and vice-versa.
If it is painful for us to listen, how much worse must it be for politicians, forcing themselves to behave in such a way? Duplicity is not healthy. It is unpleasant, uncomfortable and dispiriting to constantly undermine one's own integrity. The 'dodgy salesman' is no one's ideal of human flourishing.
Likewise, no one admires people who put others down or build themselves up with empty words. Yet a politician is often called upon to condemn their enemies as pig-headed while describing their allies as people of conviction; to decry their enemies' change of heart as weakness, while praising their own as virtuous pragmatism. The beam in thine own eye is, no doubt, a tribute to the hardworking Australians in our construction industry.
It should come as no surprise that the public has hardened in disdain. What is surprising is that the public did not react to these antics sooner.
But the fact is that such tricks are not so objectionable when they are performed for the sake of a good cause. When politicians become the avatars of our personal causes, their vices mysteriously turn to virtues. This is, after all, the same dynamic that causes politicians to behave so oddly in the first place: the difference between Abbott's wearisome negativity and his insuperable determination is relative to which side of politics you are on.
The real change in recent years is that Australian politics is running out of passionate causes. As symbolised by our precarious minority government, there is little by way of firm public conviction to distinguish Labor from Liberal. We have two major parties telling us we are hard done by, and promising to make things better. But relatively minor economic promises are overshadowed by the desperate struggle for control of the parliament.
It is the primacy of this purely political struggle that has brought the objectionable duplicity of everyday political behaviour to the forefront of public attention.
There is undoubtedly something degrading to the individual politicians caught up in a political culture that encourages them to constantly speak against their true minds. We can only hope this public disillusionment prepares the way for a future wave of political sincerity; and thank God we are not in politics.