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20 March 2015

Tony Abbott's Nazi taunt backfires, sparking questions over his judgment

Tony Abbott's comparison of Labor leader Bill Shorten to one of the 20th century's most reviled genocidal killers, the Nazi propagandist and anti-Semite Joseph Goebbels, has provoked outrage and again sparked discussions over his judgment and aggressive style in politics.

In a stunning declaration from which he was quickly forced to resile, Mr Abbott described Mr Shorten as the "Dr Goebbels of economic policy" during question time before swiftly withdrawing the comment.

Parliament descended into disarray as two Jewish Labor MPs subsequently left the chamber amid howls of outrage.

Labor's Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus was ejected for vigorously objecting to Mr Abbott's Nazi reference, and was accompanied on his march from the chamber by fellow Jewish Victorian MP, Michael Danby

The Abbott gibe followed a similar controversy of just over a month ago in which he accused the Labor Party when in government of having caused "a holocaust of job losses".

On that occasion he apologised profusely, taking the opportunity at the conclusion of question time to repeat his withdrawal.

Thursday's Goebbels reference sparked a furious outcry from Labor with at least four opposition frontbenchers leaping to their feet in protest as senior figures exchanged abuse and gesticulated accusingly at each other.

On his Facebook page, Mr Dreyfus later wrote:

Even in the robust environment of the Australian Parliament, this is completely inappropriate language from a prime minister.

Mr Danby told the ABC that the Prime Minister could "slag us as much as he likes but it is silly to use an example of the ultimate evil in politics".

Mr Abbott was responding to a question from Mr Shorten about whether a debt level of about 60 per cent of GDP would "see Australia lose its AAA credit rating".

"Such a question from such a Leader of the Opposition, it's like the arsonist complaining about the fire," Mr Abbott said.

He continued winding up the rhetoric, concluding on the claim that Mr Shorten as "the Dr Goebbels of economic policy" for his promotion of Labor's economic management in government before immediately crying "I withdraw, I withdraw, I withdraw, Madam Speaker".

Speaker Bronwyn Bishop was asked to reconsider the removal of Mr Dreyfus, but went through with the ejection after Mr Dreyfus continued to trade accusations across the chamber with the Prime Minister and the government's leader of the House, Christopher Pyne.

Attempting to protect the Prime Minister, Mr Pyne claimed that Mr Dreyfus had used "exactly the same description" to describe Mr Abbott in opposition.

In a 2011 opinion piece, Mr Dreyfus had said there was a "Goebbellian cynicism" to Mr Abbott describing his campaign on the carbon tax as a truth campaign.

"Abbott's wildest claim is that he is running a 'truth campaign'," he wrote. "Leaving aside the Goebbellian cynicism of labelling a scare campaign a 'truth campaign', I think it shows Abbott's contempt for the Australian electorate."

In question time on Thursday, Mr Abbott said: "I do withdraw and I do apologise for using that phrase.

"But, Madam Speaker, the truth is the Leader of the Opposition was claiming to his people that the government in which he served had delivered a surplus."

The spat made for a rancorous final day of the sitting week, and had some Liberals grumbling that their leader kept bringing problems on himself.

No one doubt's Tony's ability to fight Labor," said one Liberal, "it's just that he can't help himself, and he doesn't know when to stop.

After surviving a spill motion in February, Mr Abbott promised to change, assuring colleagues he was no good at fighting Liberals but was best at fighting Labor.

The "Nazi" controversy also rounded out a difficult week for the government amid yet more leaks from its most senior ranks revealing that the merits of a calling snap double dissolution election after the budget had been discussed at two meetings on Monday.