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IAN KIRKWOOD: One-liner on multiple levels

“To me, ‘‘the low use of high office’’ is the common point in so many of the scandals and controversies that dog the three levels of Australian politics”. Picture: Jay CroninORATORY is not Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s long suit.
Nanjing Night Net

His attempts at mastering the art of ‘‘sound bite’’ one-liners have proved so bizarre that they have been immortalised by comedian Shaun Micallef as ‘‘Bill Shorten’s ‘Zingers!’’’.

To throw my own zinger into the mix, I’m tempted to say that Shorten’s parliamentary delivery is so soporific it could put an ice addict to sleep. (Maybe paramedics should keep a Shorten podcast and a loudspeaker in the ambulance to deal with violent ice cases? But I digress …)

Anyway, I was driving to work on Friday morning when Shorten materialised on the ABC radio news with such a good line that I nearly ran off the road in shock.

The key phrase was just six words long, and it was this: ‘‘the low use of high office’’.

Shorten was talking, of course, about the controversy that had erupted around Dyson Heydon, the former High Court judge heading the Royal Commission into trade unions.

The full sentence was: ‘‘I’m still convinced, as I was from day one, that Mr Abbott is engaging in the low use of high office by spending $80million of taxpayer money to investigate his rivals.’’

I tuned out of the rest of the bulletin because that phrase, ‘‘the low use of high office’’, kept repeating itself in my imagination.

My first thought was that such a great line must have been pinched, but when I rang Shorten’s office they said it was his.

Google shows he’s used it regularly since last year. The only other online use I could find came from a news outlet in the Indian state of Manipur in 2006.

So it looks like congratulations to Shorten on a real zinger!

The more I thought about the line, the more it seems to be the perfect metaphor for the state of Australian politics at the moment.

I’m not necessarily talking about the royal commission, although I find it impossible to believe that Prime Minister Tony Abbott was not thinking about his own political advantage in ordering the inquiry.

It certainly gave the government a weapon to attack unions, and, by extension, the ALP, without having a parliamentary debate on industrial relations, an Achilles’ heel for the Coalition, given WorkChoices.

But is that in itself a ‘‘low use of high office’’?

I’m not sure.

Regardless of what happens to the commission from here – and regardless of Abbott’s political motivation – it has uncovered a series of disturbing industrial relations practices that are unlikely to have seen the light of day otherwise.

To me, ‘‘the low use of high office’’ is the common point in so many of the scandals and controversies that dog the three levels of Australian politics.

Whether it’s mayors and councillors defending themselves against conflict of interest allegations in local government, or the Credo and Spicer investigations of NSW politics by the ICAC, or the repeated examples of federal politicians spending up big on the taxpayers’ tab, the common link is the use of public office for private gain.

On one level, it can only undermine public confidence in our systems of government, in the same way that Nixon’s Watergate, for example, triggered such disillusion with United States politics.

It need not always be a downward spiral.

Politics is about people, and when a truly talented, charismatic and effective leader arrives, the tone of the game can often lift for the better. Or is that only until the old ennui sets in?

Unfortunately, the other negative aspect of such controversies is that they take up so much time and political oxygen that would be better used for the real business of government: of reform, of recognition, of the lawmaking and debate that should be the hallmark of ‘‘high office’’.

Perhaps, though, it’s always been this way?

Some 2500years ago, the Greek reformer Solon introduced a scheme of debt-relief, the ‘‘Seisachtheia’’.

But as Aristotle later recorded, Solon tipped off his friends, who borrowed heavily before the new laws were introduced, freeing them from the need to repay, and making them really rich.

Wi-fi and smart phones aside, is there anything new under the sun?

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