THE stunning sight of Sydney’s race riots has wiped out what should have broken as one of the biggest, baddest news stories of our decade — our Federal Parliament’s pre-Christmas passage of fundamental changes to regulation of employment, welfare and criminal justice. But we can’t make sense of Cronulla’s bloody Sunday aftermath without a backward glance at the legislative week that was.

That parliamentary bag of tricks was stuffed with challenges to non-negotiable bottom lines. Or not, if the voting record is any formguide. Barnaby Joyce stood, then fell, on workplace relations. So did Labor on sedition — on secret policing, it never really rose off wobbly knees — except for errant backbencher Harry Quick, who crossed the floor to vote against the terror laws with Peter Andren. So did the Liberal moderates, on terror plus welfare, except Judi Moylan who abstained from voting on the latter.

What was generally missing in visible action on those blockbuster bills was MPs speaking out and standing up for some difficult truths. Last week those truths related to poverty, dignity and due process. This week they’re about race, religion and responsibility. Outing and owning them demands breaking some habits of contemporary political lifetimes — plausible deniability and populist pitching to the lowest common denominator. Sadly, no main-party player has stated fully and plainly what’s now crystal clear to wider audiences, including to many on both receiving ends of beachland bashings. Namely that by design or default, political leaders on both sides of mainstream politics have mishandled the race face of Hansonism, Tampa, children overboard, 9/11, Iraq, the Lakemba rapes and now the Cronulla riots. Cultural norms about legitimate speech and action have shifted as a direct result, and tougher war-on-terror crackdowns won’t heal those long-term wounds.

Sobering questions

This in turn raises some sobering questions. Exactly how extreme does a law, race riot or failure of leadership have to be before a critical mass of elected representatives will say enough is enough? Has the stolid silence on the biggest questions of our time set the tone for our foreseeable future? If you’re in an Advent frame of mind — a time of penance as much as anticipatory joy — take a trip to Canberra, visit the National Portrait Gallery and check out Josonia Palaitis’ official portrait of John and Janette Howard. There’s the PM in beige slacks, his wife in a blue frock, framed by native trees and harbour views at Kirribilli House after decades in their suburban wilderness. This pretty picture was captured on canvas five years ago, when many Australians never would have dreamt of the passage of last week’s laws, never mind yobs and wogs in full-frontal combat in our emerald city. Now imagine new prime ministerial space on nearby walls and ask the most sobering question of all — who will fill it?

The bad news is pundits tend to confine leadership speculation to the usual suspects — Howard versus Costello or Abbott, Beazley versus Rudd or Swan. None has covered himself in gutsy glory by delivering hard home truths this fortnight. The better news is our Federal Parliament remains a broader and potentially braver church than it appears. There are still clusters of talent with a wider perspective, a larger sense of loyalty, or a stubborn sense of limits.

Their signals occasionally reach us — by direct if muted breakout, or by backroom softening of the pointiest ends of Howard’s agendas and delayed sharpening of Beazley’s responses. We have recently seen some newer boys flexing their muscles on those blocks, such as Malcolm Turnbull, Peter Garrett and George Brandis. Cynics might say their driving force is ambition as much as whispering in hearts. Perhaps, but at this stage are we in any position to care?

This holiday season, ponder this on a nice, safe beach: the fish rots from the head, and we can’t afford another straitener. The next man or woman on our national wall of honour should be someone capable of enlarging us, of reminding us we can be so much more than a mob, a focus group or a target market. That can only happen if the forces of good-guy gravitas stop waiting for Godot.

Dr Natasha Cica is a strategy and communications consultant.

This article first appeared in THE AGE

Earlier:
John Howard’s dangerous way