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The Triumph of Power Politics

By any measure, Australia is one of the world’s most well-off countries with the cleaner politics and more freedoms than most anywhere else on earth. It has the second highest human development index, the fifth highest per capita income in the world and its economy has done exceptionally well since the crash. Despite all that, Australian politics seem to be degenerating into an ugly and nasty partisan stew, as the BBC reports:

Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Opposition leader Tony Abbott. Former Speaker of the House Peter Slipper. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. All have been the target of withering assaults on their reputations, and subject to the kind of sustained ferocity seldom witnessed in Australian politics.

For Julia Gillard, it was allegations reaching back to her legal career in the 1990s when she helped set up a union “slush fund” for her then boyfriend, Bruce Wilson, an official with the Australian Workers’ Union. She vigorously denies any accusations of impropriety.

For Tony Abbott, it was the charge that he is an unreconstructed male chauvinist, a characterisation that he rejects.

For Peter Slipper, it was the accusation, thrown out by a federal court earlier this month, that he had sexually harassed a male aide.

For Kevin Rudd, it was the claim from Labor colleagues that he was an unhinged control freak incapable of working with his cabinet, and thus temperamentally unsuited to return as prime minister.

Ever since the 2010 federal election produced an inconclusive result and a minority Labor government, Canberra politics has been ugly and vitriolic. This year it has been particularly venomous.

Australia is in some ways an Eden, a promised land of milk and honey spared many of the painful problems and dilemmas that afflict other countries. But this Eden, like the original one, has its share of snakes.

Partisan bickering and character assassination aren’t new in democratic politics. The Founding Fathers– Jefferson and Hamilton, for example– were known to engage in it.  The first time I visited Australia, Parliament was convulsed with laughter as members of the government read  juicy passages from a tell all memoir by an opposition politician settling scores with his colleagues into the parliamentary record. And for all the animosity in Australian politics today, the country isn’t in immediate trouble. No fiscal cliffs loom. But Australia like the rest of the developed world faces the consequences of a blue social model that no longer works as well as it once did, and in the absence of an obvious way forward to something better, politics tends to get ugly and personal.

Ambition can turn even paradise into a snake pit; something for Americans to keep in mind as we head into another political season.

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