On Tuesday there was a bit of bonhomie in Canberra and a promise that a new Parliament might give rise to more respectful politics.
By week’s end, many seemed to have had their hopes disappointed even sooner than is usual.
An audience slightly wider than the usual dorks tuned in for question time and got the road testing of political attack lines as cheap as they have ever been in recent years.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton launched an hour of sustained innuendo on the topic of Labor and trade unions.
He asked Prime Minister Anthony Albanese if he had ever met any CFMEU who had engaged in criminal behaviour.
There was plenty of imputation but no names or supporting evidence and a coinciding criticism of a government move to abolish the construction industry watchdog.
The Opposition painted on a slightly wider canvas on Thursday, but things still got heated.
“Back to the same old bucket?,” Mr Albanese had responded. Indeed.
‘Twas ever thus?
During Kevin Rudd’s first question time as prime minister inflation rated 54 mentions. On Wednesday it came up seven times, even as data showed prices were now rising at a much faster rate.
One Liberal suggested that the party’s new leader was fashioning himself after a predecessor and famous exponent of political knuckle-on.
Politics grew more hostile and rude when Tony Abbott was opposition leader. That’s not a matter of taste but the conclusion of political scientist Marija Taflaga, who ran an analysis of disruptions across parliaments.
What had been a forum for debating Australia’s future instead became one question after another about asylum seekers or the carbon tax, Malcolm Turnbull lamented at the time.
Mr Dutton might well be pursuing the same strategy of remorselessly attacking a single point but it says a lot about the prospects for changing politics that he may not have many other options.
Tony Abbott elevated negative politics to new heights but he was also helped by the dynamic of a minority Parliament in which the government lacked the numbers to assert control.
Whatever else, that flipped the script.
The job of first-term opposition leader had not historically been a reliable pathway for career advancement.
Some have been unkindly referred to as cannon fodder. So it was for the Liberal who led, albeit briefly, those comparatively civilised interrogations of Mr Rudd years ago. Not Tony Abbott though.
The new government is now calling for a more respectful tone and is implementing the recommendations of a workplace review of Parliament’s toxic culture.
Skepticism only naturally follows politicians promises to do things differently.
Mr Dutton said as much to the government’s Leader of the House, Tony Burke, after Wednesday’s attacks.
“Mate, what was the difference between that Question Time and the other ones that we’ve been in for a long time?,” he later recalled during an interview Sydney radio.
He then blamed Mr Albanese for an “over the top” reaction to one of the many union questions and lamented his opposite number’s temper.
Gymnastics like these are necessary for those who can survive at the centre of a parliamentary pantomime where punches rain down fast but “reflecting” on another MPs’ character are strictly forbidden.
Few hands are clean.
Prospects for reform?
Mr Albanese quite deliberately refrained from putting the boot in after he assumed the Labor leadership.
But before he became leader few seemed to enjoy putting the boot in so much as Anthony Albanese.
The Marrickville mauler went as close as anyone to keeping Tony Abbott in check. He would often reflect on whether Mr Abbott was temperamentally suited for high office a theme he explored with a famous chant: “In your guts you know he’s nuts.”
Can he now change how politics operates? As question time showed, that is not something he or the government can decide alone.
Changes like broadcasting question time, a dwindling public interest in politics and shorter and less sophisticated media coverage are also dumbing down politics and incentivising insults.
A question chosen at random from the Hansard, like John Spender’s cogent 140-word inquiry to Bob Hawke on foreign affairs back in 1987, reads like a fragment of ancient Greek hexamater poetry compared to what is asked today.
No one outside the parliamentary precinct would ever hear such a fine-grained question if it were asked today.
Question time is now mostly an opportunity to mug for the cameras .
Journalists and readers are often willing accomplices.
Many MPs love politics precisely because it is an excuse for dominance displays. It is only recently have we heard more from those who might feel otherwise and after ugly allegations of sexism, bullying and worse.
In a move that may allay that issue a little, Tony Burke overhauled question time significantly this week.
Independent MPs will now get just under one-third of the questions – a structural reform that might gradually reverse the trend of recent decades.
But change will only be meaningful if the public view of politics, and how it is covered, changes too. In many dispatches this week this any possibility of reform seemed to have been drowned out by the noise.