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Barking, biting dog House

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CANBERRA -- The outbreak of political bipartisanship following the Victorian bush fires officially ended Monday when Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard labelled an Opposition MP a "mincing poodle."

The MP, Christopher Pyne, retorted that Gillard was a "foxy moron," which apparently was a play on the word oxymoron. His colleague, Tony Abbott, chipped in that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was a "toxic bore."

Gillard made the poodle observation after Pyne, a dapper and witty South Australian, was elevated to the position of chief Opposition strategist.

She mused that Abbott, an ex-boxer with wit but not style, resembled a Doberman while Pyne was a poodle.

"In a choice between macho and mincing, I would have gone for macho myself."

In the days following the bush fires, which claimed more than 200 lives, the House of Representatives was transformed from a verbally violent blood box into a cathedral-like sanctuary where politicians treated one another with courtly regard.

By Tuesday, it had regressed to its natural state of combative hostility, with Speaker Harry Jenkins expelling six troublemakers after issuing a rare "general warning."

It's a testament to the robust nature of Australian democracy that neither Pyne nor Abbott sought nor received an apology from Gillard.

Pyne didn't even turn a hair when his hometown newspaper, The Adelaide Advertiser, artfully attached Pyne's head to the body of a fluffy little white poodle on its website.

"The argy-bargy of question time has never fazed me," Pyne said.

Abbott went a little further, professing his "love" for Gillard, who has been a sparring partner for years and confessing to enjoying the exchange.

"I think it was all very good-humoured," he said.

Abbott went on to attack Rudd, likening the PM to former Australian prime minister Bill McMahon -- another dapper chap who was unfortunately not renowned for wit.

"Kevin Rudd's approval ratings continue in the stratosphere but he is probably the worst parliamentarian as prime minister since Billy McMahon," Abbott told Sky News. "The guy is a toxic bore in the Parliament."

Insults are part of the furniture in every Australian parliament.

Consider this fondly remembered exchange between Western Australia Liberal Wilson Tuckey and former Labour prime minister Paul Keating:

Tuckey: "You are an idiot. You are just a hopeless nong."

Keating: "Shut up! Sit down and shut up, you pig -- why do you not shut up, you clown?"

Keating had a particular loathing for John Howard, who faced him as Opposition leader and eventually replaced him in 1996 as prime minister.

"He's like a lizard on a rock, alive but looking dead," he once mused, later suggesting Howard was "the brain damaged" leader of the Opposition. "What we have got is a dead carcass, swinging in the breeze, but nobody will cut it down to replace him."

After a particularly nasty personal disagreement between the two, Keating's loathing was revealed as having a genuinely unsettling edge:

"From this day onwards, Howard will wear his leadership like a crown of thorns and in the Parliament I'll do everything to crucify him."

The nation appears to tolerate abusive politicians but appreciates genuine wit, even if brutal.

Tired of being asked about his stance on abortion during a rally in the 1970s, former Labour prime minister Gough Whitlam turned on yet another questioner and snapped:

"In your case, I wish it was retrospective."

The nation's longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies, who ruled through the 1950s and '60s, could sometimes display a comic genius with his more gentle approach to repartee.

During one political rally, a female heckler yelled: "Menzies, I would not vote for you if you were the Archangel Gabriel."

Menzies replied gently: "Madam, if I were the Archangel Gabriel, you would not be in my constituency."


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier-Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2009 A11

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