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The decline and fall of the intelligent political insult.

It’s not that our politics have become unexpectedly polite. It’s just that the wit has vanished.

When Tanya Plibersek delivered her grand remonstrance of Peter Dutton, there wasn’t a joke in it.

From Keating, Hawke or even Menzies, we might have got some elaboration on the theme. Not any more. Plibersek limited herself to mere description.

Dutton, she said, was “a man whose life mission is to block progress, to stoke division, to kick the underdog when they’re down. A man who stands in front of all our opportunities and says no ...

“These are the positions of a certain kind of politician: one who sees weakness in empathy, power in negativity, political advantage in division; a man who seeks to reach the highest position in Australian government, by killing people’s faith in government.”

But anybody who didn’t already know Peter Dutton is an evil toxic toad hasn’t been paying attention.

That speech was well, even generously, reported. It was clear many journalists agreed with every syllable. But there was no telling phrase, nothing to hit the memory and raise a laugh at the toad’s expense.

It didn’t cut through.

Contrast that with Keating’s description of John Hewson: “He’s like a shiver waiting for a spine.” Or of Costello: “All tip and no iceberg.” Or of Howard: “The little desiccated coconut.”

I have suggestions. Plibersek might have drawn, for instance, on the great figures from history: “You know, it wasn’t until I saw Peter Dutton, and heard him speak, that I finally realised how progressive Genghis Khan really was.”

Or: “The political techniques of the marauding Hun worked very nicely for Atilla, but these days we could do with a little more nuance.”

Everyone can use a bludgeon but it takes skill to handle a rapier. Keating knew that the barbed humour of the intelligent, lucid insult was an effective political weapon. Keating could use the bludgeon with the worst of them, but it’s his lethal rapier abilities that we remember.

Paul Keating knew how to cut through. That valuable and entertaining asset to political life has been driven out of existence in the name, curiously, of civility.

Last year, Tanya Plibersek got into trouble when she noticed, out loud, the many similarities between the Leader of the Opposition and Voldemort.

Now, Peter Dutton is the Voldemort from Central Casting. He was born to the part, far more convincing than that Ralph Fiennes character, who looked as if he was probably quite nice under all that make-up.

Dutton would have been a much better choice. Cheaper, too. He wouldn’t have needed the make-up.

Dutton practicing his smile.
Plibersek pointed out what we all knew: “I am saying he looks a bit like Voldemort. We will see whether he can do what he promised he would do when he was last running for leader, which is smile more.”

And she noted that he behaved like Voldemort, which was the whole point: “I am just saying he is not the warm and friendly face of the Liberal party and, if this last election taught us anything, it taught us that the Liberal party has moved too far to the extremes of politics.”

On the spectrum of political sledging, this barely registers. But Albanese quickly pulled her into line and made her apologise. Unreservedly.

“I want to change the way that politics operates,” he said. “Scott Morrison had a whole show that seemed to be devoted to an analysis of my glasses or whether I lost weight or what I look like. We can do better than that.

“Let’s actually talk about the issues and let’s try to find some common interest going forward.”

Reality mugs. Civility, if it is to happen at all, must be bilateral. Albanese thought he could reach bipartisan consensus on the Voice but Dutton, playing Voldemort, intervened. And so Canberra, without gaining civility, has lost whatever small wit it once possessed.

That there are better ways of withdrawing a statement than to apologise unreservedly has been known at least since 1861. That was when Thaddeus Stevens, a member of Abraham Lincoln’s wartime cabinet, became incensed at the open corruption of the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron.

“You don’t think that he would steal?” asked the President.

“I don’t think he would steal a red-hot stove,’ replied Stevens.

Cameron objected with vigour and Stevens withdrew the comment. He said to Lincoln: “I believe I told you he would not steal a red hot stove. I will now take that back.”

Successful insults, though, are not always on the side of the angels. Winston Churchill was very good at them and, despite much popular opinion, was no angel. He was powerfully miffed in 1945 when, having led the nation to victory over Hitler, he lost the election to Labour and its leader, Clement Attlee.

“An empty cab drew up at Downing Street. Clement Attlee got out.” Churchill said, witty but graceless.

There were others: “A modest little man with much to be modest about”. “A sheep in sheep’s clothing.”

In just six years in office, Attlee established himself as the most successful reformist British Prime Minister since Gladstone.

Attlee ... best since Gladstone
He and his government created the National Health Service, brought the economy back from oblivion, created full employment, introduced sickness and unemployment benefits, and increased existing benefits so people no longer lived in hopeless poverty.

They formed a national railway system, expanded free education, began a massive and unprecedented public housing program, legislated financial and legal rights for women, improved employment conditions, abolished hard labour and whipping from prisons, and introduced legal aid.

Churchill’s reputation is built solely on his performance in the first half of the Second World War. He was, that that time, an indispensable figure in keeping Britain in the fight. But apart from those two or three years, his very long career was a catalogue of blunders.

He advocated the use of poison gas against “uncivilised tribes” such as Kurds and Afghans. In 1943, during a disastrous famine in India, he insisted that rice would continue to be exported to Britain. Earlier, as Home Secretary, he deployed troops and tanks against striking unionists in Wales, Liverpool and Glasgow. In Liverpool in 1910, the soldiers sent by Churchill opened fire on the crowd and two young men were killed.

Churchill was a driving force behind the brutal Black-and-Tans protestant paramilitaries in Ireland. His were the brains behind the Gallipoli disaster of 1915. Just as disastrously, he sent British troops into the Russian civil war which followed the Bolshevik  revolution.

In 1925, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he put Britain back onto the gold standard, tying the pound to gold at such a high exchange rate that exports collapsed and unemployment soared. Maynard Keynes wrote a book about it: The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill.

 If Attlee was modest, he had nothing to be modest about. He also had a grace that Churchill lacked. When his long-time adversary died in 1965, Attlee said this:

“My Lords, we have lost the greatest Englishman of our time – I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time.”

Gracious, certainly. But, equally certainly, wrong.

Mostly, though, it is with the good guys (people I agree with) that the real talent for the creative insult resides. Perhaps it’s because the political right provides so many tempting targets. Like Richard Nixon.

On that subject, Harry Truman went for baroque: “Richard Nixon is a no-good lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and if he caught himself telling the truth one day, he’d lie, just to keep his hand in.”

And that was before Watergate.

Resignation ... The last hurrah of all
Even fellow Republicans eventually drew the line at Nixon; this, from Bob Dole, Senate leader and later presidential nominee: “History buffs probably noted the reunion at a Washington party a few weeks ago of three ex-presidents: Carter, Ford and Nixon. See no evil, hear no evil, and evil.”

The  political career of Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, was effectively over when, soon after taking over, he gave his former boss a presidential pardon. As Lyndon Johnson had already pointed out, “Jerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.”

Perhaps he was right. Why else would President Ford have toasted Anwar Sadat as “the president of Israel?”

Malcolm Fraser’s political career was doomed even before Bob Hawke took the Labor leadership in 1983. Fraser, desperate, tried to whip up a scare that economic management under a Labor government would be so bad that people would put their savings under the mattress.

For Hawke, it was a gift. “They’re saying we’re going to rob the savings accounts of little old ladies and that they should take their savings out of the bank but they can’t put them under the bed because that’s where the commies are.”

From that moment, Fraser was toast.

Gough Whitlam never got the measure of Joh Bjelke-Petersen (calling him a bible bashing bastard was accurate but lacked finesse) but Hawke did: “There’s no daylight saving in Queensland because Joh Bjelke-Petersen thinks the sun shines out of his arse and he’s not getting up an hour earlier for anybody.”

Wit, used well, is a political weapon without parallel, which is why you’ll find so little of it in a dictatorship. It can’t do everything, but nothing can. Peter Cook, satirist and proprietor of Private Eye, knew that: “What a wonderful job the German satirical cabarets in the 1920s did of preventing the rise of Hitler,” he said. But that's expecting too much.

A more apt question is what we lose when we lose our wit, as Australia’s political class now has. Satire is one ingredient of a healthy democracy, and the intelligent political insult is the most effective satire of all.

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