The Politics    Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A moment’s peace

By Rachel Withers

Lisa Chesters wipes tears from her eyes. Behind her, the empty seat of the late Peta Murphy is marked with a floral arrangement.

Labor member for Bendigo Lisa Chesters reacts during a condolence motion for the late member for Dunkley Peta Murphy in the House of Representatives, December 6, 2023. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Politicians briefly pause their ugly immigration war to pay tribute to Labor MP Peta Murphy

Today has been a sad and beautiful day in the House of Representatives, focused on a condolence motion for Labor MP Peta Murphy, who died on Monday after four years battling breast cancer. About 60 MPs from all sides of politics asked to speak – a mark of how respected the former Legal Aid lawyer was – with many paying tribute to her empathy, integrity and sense of humour. “We will keep the glow of Peta Murphy in our hearts,” said the prime minister, who struggled to keep his composure. “Let us keep her fine example, this outstanding, courageous, inspirational Australian, in our minds.” As of writing, the speeches are still going. When they are finished, however, the House will turn its attention to a rushed bill to establish a preventative detention regime, and another to amend citizenship-stripping laws. Independent MPs are frustrated at the sudden change of schedule on a day understood to be reserved for condolences. I didn’t know Peta Murphy, and I won’t assume to know what she would have wanted on either of those bills. But it was nonetheless jarring to hear so many beautiful tributes to courage and kindness, to putting aside the game of politics and listening to one another, to focusing on more than just “winning the day”, only for politics to go right back to normal

I don’t doubt the sincerity of today’s speeches, which were glowing. Almost every MP referenced Murphy’s principles and kindness, her bravery in working right up until the very end. But what was most striking was how many reflected on her genuine interest in doing politics better. Several quoted her 2019 inaugural speech, in particular Nationals MP Pat Conaghan, who read from a section on the need for politicians to be better “custodians” of Australia’s national debate, to listen to one another and avoid getting caught up in “winning the daily argument”, if they were to solve complex challenges. “Peta was true to her word,” Conaghan added reverently. Many are also paying closer attention to the words of Peta’s friend from across the chamber, Nationals MP Darren Chester, who last week paid tribute to her in her final days, and today talked of the need to avoid hyperpartisanship.

But when I searched Chester’s name in Hansard, in order to quote from his speech last week, I came across his comments from later that same day, during “Matters of Public Importance”, where he spent time mocking the PM’s result in the latest Newspoll, suggesting he ought to be looking over his shoulder at the ambitious treasurer, and quoting from Julius Caesar.

Again, this is not to doubt the deep respect many felt for Murphy. Even Opposition Leader Peter Dutton spoke warmly of her and the ideals she embodied. But what is the point of saying all this, of praising her desire to do politics differently, if you are just going to turn around and do politics exactly as it is currently being done, which this week is absolutely atrociously. There’s no need to rehash what has been going on over immigration detention, the Coalition and media’s game playing and fearmongering. There doesn’t even seem much point in covering the ins and outs of last night’s hideous Senate behaviour, as the preventative detention regime bill was passed, or who is accusing whom of teaming up with whom. Because it’s clear it has all been terrible politics, politics that is the opposite of how Peta Murphy felt the “custodians” of the national debate should conduct themselves. And that goes for the media too.

The death of a politician can be incredibly fraught, as it was the last time a sitting Labor member died. It’s important not to put words in their mouths, assume what they would have wanted, or use their death for political points. Listening to today’s speeches, during which the weapons were laid down, the game briefly forgotten, it was clear that Murphy was the kind of politician who brought people together, with many recognising her desire to do things differently – an implicit acknowledgement that things are not currently being done well. It may be too late to salvage tonight’s debate on a potentially illegal, certainly immoral preventative detention regime that has been whipped up in a fear-stoked frenzy. But perhaps the next debate can be run with some decorum. That would be one appropriate way to honour her, and to keep the glow of Peta Murphy in the heart of our politics.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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