Squalid politics plumbs new depths Down Under

Mud-slinging is nothing new in politics, but a no-holds-barred election campaign in Australia has sunk standards to depths seldom seen before.

After a week of headlines filled with sexual innuendo and squalid attacks, The Australian Financial Review harrumphed: "We deserve better than this."

Voters are used to colourful language Down Under, where a high tolerance for intolerance abounds. After all, former Labor Party leader Mark Latham publicly called then prime minister John Howard an "arselicker" of the US president.

Now Prime Minister Julia Gillard's unflinching determination to go down fighting against Tony Abbott's cocky conservatives has the chattering classes howling at the dire level of discourse.

Some had hoped that the arrival of Australia's first female leader would help to drain the swamp of debate, political analysts noted. Fat chance, judging by recent events.

After a viciously degrading dinner menu for an opposition fundraiser surfaced on Wednesday, the Labor Party leader went on the attack, accusing the opposition of a pattern of misogynistic behaviour.

On the menu was "Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail: Small Breasts and Huge Thighs and A Big Red Box".

Gillard branded it "grossly sexist and offensive". Could anyone argue?

It didn't take long.

The dish was intended for a dinner for Mal Brough, a former minister and an opposition candidate for the September 14 elections. Opposition treasury spokesman Joe Hockey was guest of honour.

"I've certainly been very clear on my view about Mr Abbott," Gillard announced, alluding to her parliamentary tirade against misogyny last year which went viral online and won global acclaim.

"Here we are yet again, Mr. Abbott saying that he condemns behaviour but we see a pattern of behaviour. It doesn't go away."

The menu emerged a day after Gillard reignited the gender war with a feisty speech alleging the opposition coalition would set back abortion law and "banish women's voices from the core of our political life" if, as widely predicted, Abbot's Liberals sweep the elections.

She warned that government would be dominated by "men in blue ties". That generated much mirth and mockery, not least because many Labor alpha males sport blue ties too.

"It's always possible for Australian political debate to get even sillier. But these are surely new lows in stupidity," said Review columnist Jennifer Hewett.

The opposition called the Gillard comments a "crude political ploy" and demanded apologies.

Abbott, dubbed the "mad monk" after he considered the priesthood in his youth, has pledged not to change abortion laws but did agree the menu went too far.

"I think we should all be bigger and better than that," he said, criticising the menu as "tacky" and "scatological".

But the prime minister-in-waiting also got in a barb of his own over the "menu-gate" affair.

He defended Brough and dredged up "squalid jokes told at union conference dinners with (Labor) ministers present".

By Friday the menu had faded from the political agenda as it emerged that it had little or nothing to do with the Liberal Party.

The Australian newspaper noted: "Facts are off the menu in this twitstorm of smear."

"It's going to be an interminable three months until the federal election if the quality of this week's political debate is any guide," the daily said.

Could the tone go any lower?

Step forward shock jock Howard Sattler to bombard Gillard with blunt questions about her partner's sexuality on his Perth radio show.

Tim Mathieson, known as Australia's "first bloke", is an ex-hairdresser. Sattler inferred that must mean he is gay, despite the long-standing boyfriend living with the prime minister in her official residence.

"Tim's gay," Sattler queried on his Perth radio show. "But that's absurd," Gillard parried.

"But you hear it - he must be gay, he's a hairdresser," Sattler insisted, before prying again and again.

Outrage duly followed and 6PR radio suspended the DJ pending an inquiry.

Australia National University politics professor Marian Sawer told AFP Australians have traditionally enjoyed "robust" language in their politics.

"Since the founding of New South Wales as a British convict colony in 1788, its public life has had a reputation for being rowdy and rambunctious," she said.

Has it really got worse?

"Well I don't think it's improved. People hoped that the arrival of more women into politics would bring an improvement. But it hasn't happened," Sawer said.