Briefing | opinion

It took a reference to one of the darkest moments in human history to finally unite Australia's politicians. Maybe they should think about that.

Screengrab / Sky NewsMalcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten shaking hands in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, after they both condemned Fraser Anning’s speech.

What does it say about public life in Australia when the speech that galvanises people across the political spectrum is from some nobody who mentions a “final solution” on immigration in his first address to parliament?

At any stage this year, some senior politicians could have given an inspirational, rousing speech about:

  • low wages growth
  • the astronomical cost of housing in major cities
  • job security
  • putting more classrooms in schools
  • making childcare more affordable, or
  • the drought.

While we’re at it, maybe someone even could have delivered a speech talking about more than one of these.

Now of course politicians have spoken about these matters. But has anyone said anything that really connected, and got people talking in the way Fraser Anning did?

No: the speech that united the nation was the one that provoked universal bewilderment and disgust, a diatribe that mentioned a “final solution” on immigration, memorably described by James Jeffrey in The Australian as going off “like a grenade in a septic tank”, coming from a complete nobody who secured 19 votes and through the patently dysfunctional Senate electoral process ended up with a seat in the Parliament.

The response was in some ways a reflection of the best of the Australian community’s deeply-entrenched tolerance. There were tears and anger as MPs lined up to denounce Anning’s appalling theatrics. Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull give speeches filled with emphatic pauses, and then quite literally reached across the aisle of the parliament to shake hands.

There were some fine speeches. The thundering fury of Penny Wong. The deeply felt sadness of Anne Aly. The blunt condemnation of the Prime Minister. The humanity and decency of Ed Husic.

It was the parliament at its best. But a polite reminder: when you’re all finished congratulating each other on not being racist and definitely being against the Holocaust, there are schools overflowing, farms dying, roads choked, electricity bills blowing up everyone’s household budget every three months, and parents staying out of the workforce because the cost of childcare kills the financial incentive to work.

Michael Masters/Getty ImagesFraser Anning

Politicians — and most of them are hardworking, committed people — sometimes despair over voter cynicism, grasping for explanations. Perhaps they might reflect on the yesterday’s outbreak of unity, which was notable not just for its rarity but for the fact that it was it took someone bringing up the Holocaust to catalyse it.

Overwhelmingly the major parties agree on almost everything because their platforms reflect the broad values of the Australian community. Yes, the Anning racist fringe is just that: a fringe. But that’s just the start. There’s also acceptance of the need for a functioning, enterprising economy that provides opportunity, the value in hard work, a belief in a strong social safety net, and the need to fund schools and hospitals well. Yet the political culture is a non-stop stream of disagreement and bickering.

This is not a Pollyanna call for more consensus. The confrontational nature of politics is not going away. But it would be good to see politicians making an effort to find more common ground to fix some of the common stress points in the community.

Because for those of us watching from the cheap seats it is telling that the speech that stopped the nation and triggered agreement in Australian politics only seemed to materialise when someone uttered “the final solution”.

The many speeches that politicians deliver on a daily basis aren’t cutting through. It’s hard to avoid a sneaking, depressing conclusion that the reason for that is because they don’t really have anything interesting to say.

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