Even at the best of times politicians aren’t great at self-reflection.
When part of your day job is to wage war on the other side, it seems very little time is wasted on checking whether it might be hypocritical to use certain lines of attack.
The Labor opposition skated close to the line this week when it pressed new PM Scott Morrison over allegations that Liberal women had been bullied by other MPs.
Labor did so at considerable risk of being seen to be hypocritical, given an internal investigation had recently found there was merit in some of the claims that Labor MP Emma Husar had treated her staff badly.
During the media circus that followed leaks of the investigation, Ms Husar also claimed to have been bullied by the Labor organisation. So it was pretty audacious for Opposition leader Bill Shorten and other Labor MPs to be pointing the finger at Government MPs during Question Time this week.
And they did so while Ms Husar sat in her new spot on the outer edges of Labor’s backbench, out of the TV cameras’ line of sight, instead of her usual place just behind the Labor leader.
Having said that, the most gob-smacking lack of self-reflection displayed this week came from Barnaby Joyce.
Showing his famous predilection for opening his mouth before putting his brain into gear, Mr Joyce made a series of comments about Malcolm Turnbull without apparently realising those criticisms could just as easily be levelled at himself or Tony Abbott.
Those comments were based on Mr Turnbull’s decision to quit the parliament after losing the leadership, putting the Coalition’s slim hold on government at risk, as well as his overnight lobbying of Liberal MPs to cross the floor in support of a motion to refer Peter Dutton to the High Court.
Mr Joyce condemned the former PM’s behaviour, agreeing it could be characterised as ‘wrecking and sniping’, and that it was starting to “look like malice” rather than the decorum expected of a former prime minister.
Without a hint of irony, Mr Joyce said Mr Turnbull should act with dignity, like other former prime ministers such as Bob Hawke, John Howard and Julia Gillard. “It’s not so much how you rode the horse but how you get off it that counts,” Mr Joyce explained to one interviewer.
“Some get off the saddle sweetly and walk to the rails. Some want to keep one foot in the stirrup and get dragged around for a bit – and it doesn’t look good.”
Yes, this is the same man who wasted no time, after resigning from his own leadership position, in joining Tony Abbott’s wrecking and sniping campaign against Malcolm Turnbull.
It clearly wasn’t enough that the Turnbull Government’s opinion poll ratings crashed (twice) as a result of Mr Joyce’s self-inflicted personal dramas (the exposure of an affair with a staffer and a sexual harassment claim).
Once ensconced on the backbench, Mr Joyce helpfully suggested Malcolm Turnbull should “do the honourable thing” and step aside if he couldn’t get those same opinion polls to improve by Christmas. Tony Abbott chimed in with a similar suggestion (and a closer deadline) two days later.
Mr Joyce then extended his tag-team act with Mr Abbott to join the arch-conservatives’ campaign against Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed National Energy Guarantee (NEG).
One of his early contributions to the attack was a television interview with Mr Abbott’s key strategist, Peta Credlin, in which he denounced the NEG and warned that emissions reductions for the agriculture sector was “nutcase stuff” that would see him leave the parliament if implemented.
Not long after Mr Joyce joined Mr Abbott in threatening to cross the floor against the NEG, contributing to a chain of events that led to the failed leadership coup by Peter Dutton (which was advised and aided by the supporters of Tony Abbott).
The irony of course is that, even though he is a textbook case of hypocrisy, Barnaby Joyce is not wrong about the wrecking behaviour of Malcolm Turnbull. “He’s got a good legacy and he shouldn’t impugn it with actions subsequent to what I know is the great hurt of losing your position,” said the Barnaby pot about the Turnbull kettle.
It won’t be lost on anyone that this warning could just as easily be directed to Tony Abbott as it could to Malcolm Turnbull. At least Mr Joyce had the sense to leave Mr Abbott off his list of former PMs who went gracefully.
And while we’re on the subject of impugning one’s good reputation with retaliatory behaviour after a painful loss, former foreign minister Julie Bishop hasn’t covered herself with glory either. After being rejected by her colleagues in the leadership ballot, Ms Bishop has retired to the backbench, but she hasn’t gone quietly.
Ms Bishop has declined this week to name those who bullied Liberal women during the latest leadership coup, but managed to increase pressure for action to be taken against them by declaring that some of the behaviour was ‘illegal’.
And just as Barnaby Joyce joined Tony Abbott’s destabilisation campaign against the then-PM, it appears Julie Bishop has joined Malcolm Turnbull’s campaign to have leadership challenger Peter Dutton kicked out of the parliament by the High Court.
On Thursday Ms Bishop declared it was up to Mr Dutton whether he referred himself to the High Court. “If there’s a vote [in the parliament to refer him], I will make up my mind at the time. But of course we want clarity around the standing of all the members of parliament,” Ms Bishop said.
It might be fair to say that politicians never had the capacity for self-reflection. However they did once know how to make a graceful exit, but that respected ability may have been lost when former prime minister Julia Gillard left the building. Today, the practice is in desperate need of a revival.