IN DEFENCE OF POLITICS - SPEECH NOTES FOR YOUNG LIBERAL CONFERENCE
Posted on Friday, 7 January 2000
Ronald Reagan once said that politics was the second oldest profession in the world. The more he learnt about it, the closer it resembled the world’s oldest profession. The best politicians, of course, have both a healthy awareness of the seedier side of their craft and an ability to send themselves up: like Reagan’s quip, after some mix-up, that his right hand didn’t always know what his far right hand was doing. The “politicians and harlots” line is a crowd-pleasing gag but as extravagant as the Irish stories which no-one is allowed to tell any more. Why would anyone choose to be in politics if politicians really are the low life of popular myth?
The standard conclusion of the “end of the millennium” reviews of Australian politics was that politicians had never been held in less esteem and that governments generally were “on the nose”. As Christopher Pearson recently asked, how many of today’s crop of Federal MPs would measure up to Boethius, the philosopher statesman put to death in the sixth century by a clueless king? None, of course, but this is no more surprising than Swift’s opinion – that comparing the Roman Senate with contemporary MPs was like matching “heroes and demi-gods” with “pedlars, pickpockets, highwaymen and bullies” – published while Walpole was prime minister in 1726. As the US commentator George Will has said: the cry for leadership goes up from millions who wouldn’t recognise it if they saw it and would reject it if they did.
In politics, expectations nearly always run ahead of achievement. How good is a good politician? From Churchill to Kennett, never good enough, it seems. It may be that politicians’ failure to persuade people to like taxes, for instance, is no more surprising nor blameworthy than priests’ failure to convert parishioners from sin, doctors’ failure to persuade patients to adopt healthy life-styles, teachers’ failure to produce studious teenagers or parents’ failure to engender obedient children. It may be that, in trying to persuade people to support the national interest (as they see it) rather than personal interest, politicians are engaged in a task that is always and inevitably doomed to fail – but no less necessary and admirable for all that.
In Australia, pollie-bashing is virtually a national spectator sport – and one to follow all year round – unlike cricket and football. There’s a sense in which every complaint about the local member or the national government is a stronger and more passionate version of the cricket-follower’s analysis of Mark Waugh’s form. It’s more than a confession of interest in the subject. It’s testimony to the acknowledged impact of politics on people’s lives. A sporting team’s failure reflects on the players, coaches and selectors. The spectator in the stand affects the atmospherics of the game but not its result. But there are no mere spectators in a democracy. Everyone is a selector. It’s all very well blaming the players when things go wrong but sooner or later the selectors must take responsibility too.
Any reader of the letters pages of our papers would swiftly conclude from the near universal “how could they…?” tone that the Australian people are “lions led by donkeys”. The key difference between Australian citizens and the soldiers of the First World War (of whom this was first said) is that the Australian people elect their leaders. In a democracy, everyone is a participant in the political process and must take some responsibility for its outcome. “Don’t blame me, I voted Liberal/Labor/National/Democrat or (even worse) informal” is not an excuse because if the relevant party had better leaders or policies, it would not have lost. Everyone who supports a party without contributing to its counsels or who is a member of a party without improving it has, to that extent, failed to live up to the responsibility of democracy. No-one who says “a plague on all their houses” without seeking to make some positive contribution to the governance of the community has any reason to feel self-righteous about contributing to a mood of cynicism and despair.
Whether citizens have a right to feel let down by their leaders is not a case of whether things are as good as people might like. They never are. Taxes are always too high. There is never enough spending on schools, hospitals, the environment, defence or whatever else happens to be the concern of the moment. Money is always being wasted on things voters aren’t interested in – like art, sport or facilities in someone else’s suburb. The real question is whether the nation’s most pressing problems are being tackled in ways which make sense given all the other priorities governments have. To the extent that governments can make or mar societies, the fact that Australia is such a free, fair, and prosperous country entitles its politicians to at least two cheers.
My chief recollection of the US 1980 presidential election is commentators’ bemoaning the inadequacy of the alternatives on offer – particularly the B grade actor who turned out to be one of the century’s great leaders. Today’s Australian politicians may not bear comparison with Menzies and Chifley (who, at the time, did not bear comparison with Deakin and Fisher either) but are certainly not the venal incompetents of popular myth. In a democracy, it is the perfect right of every citizen to vote against an incumbent politician or government. But politicians, no less than anyone else, are entitled to a fair hearing.
The idea, assiduously cultivated by talkback radio, that politicians are heartless and greedy doesn’t bear serious scrutiny. The prime minister’s salary is about one tenth that of the CEO of BHP. The present value of the prime minister’s superannuation package is about one tenth the retirement share options given to the former head of Telstra. A member of parliament is expected to represent the interests of 85,000 fellow citizens; is on call virtually 24 hours a day; is exposed to remorseless public scrutiny (try being a politician – or a politician’s spouse or child – caught driving after too many drinks); is usually expected to be the patron saint of every otherwise lost cause; and earns about two and a half times the national average wage.
A significant part of every politician’s case load is people with an unassuageable sense of grievance. As Robert F Kennedy once said, “one fifth of the people are against everything all the time”. He might have added that the people are easy to please compared to the media. Still, dealing with society’s raw material helps keep politicians’ feet on the ground. Then there is the incomprehension of the supporters of good causes which are passed over for better ones and the resentment of people with a fair case who simply can’t get the ear of the right official. The hardest part of being a politician is facing the innocent victims of the unintended consequences of your own policy.
One of the most poignant images of Australian politics is Curtin sleeplessly pacing the grounds of the Lodge while troop convoys dodged Japanese submarines in the Indian Ocean. What would he have said to the mothers if the subs had found them? And which mother, provided with official regrets, would not have cried (at least to herself) “that’s easy for him to say….”. Someone has to make the hardest decisions it falls on any human being to make. Someone has to bear the crushing burden of responsibility for choosing the lesser evil. This is not a plea for sympathy because there’s a sense in which the hardest jobs are the most satisfying. But our real shortcomings need to be seen in proper context.
The besetting failures of contemporary political life are factionalism, careerism, and a corrosive public partisanship which insists not only that one’s own party is always right but that the other party is always wrong. Behind the scenes, there is a pervasive meanness of spirit which habitually assumes the worst about everyone.
Graham Richardson once said that a mate was someone you’d support even when he was wrong. There’s a lot to be said for solidarity within the team – but not the “cowboys and indians” mentality which half-heartedly canonises supporters and enthusiastically demonises critics. Colleagues deserve the benefit of the doubt – not a blank cheque. Almost by definition, a factional system is one where decisions are made on the “numbers” rather than the merits of the issue. There are, of course, no factions in the Liberal Party. Still, whenever there are influential activists whose judgment of issues and candidates is accepted as holy writ, there is a danger of factionalism.
It’s hard to attend a Young Liberal meeting, for instance, that doesn’t involve an “in-group” trying to monopolise any spoils of office. There’s something to be said for practising the art of keeping people on-side but it can hardly be an end in itself. Then again, there’s always something vaguely disconcerting about young achievers who announce an ambition to be prime minister. Becoming a politician is not like becoming a doctor. There is no such thing as a career path. It’s not a question of doing the right degree and passing the right exams. There’s no guarantee of a seat in parliament if only you try hard enough. Every MP has to struggle for a seat but each struggle is different. As plenty of high-achievers have discovered, “many are called but few are chosen”.
Wanting to be a politician is like wanting to get married. What matters is not the desire but the opportunity – and this is often very difficult to manufacture. Ambition and a hard-to-bruise ego are necessary (but not sufficient) ingredients for political success because there’s always got to be some point to politics apart from simply winning. Chifley put it best when he spoke of his party’s “light on the hill” which was not just making someone premier or prime minister but “working for the betterment of mankind not just here but wherever we can lend a helping hand”. If there’s no goal in a political life other than scaling the next rung on the ladder of success, all the eloquence in the world can easily become “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals”.
It would be a strange politician who didn’t strive to succeed in all his works and who wasn’t eager to tackle the next big challenge. For robust egos, the greatest struggle can be the inner one of learning that they also serve who only stand and wait. In fact, people who never win promotion or never enter parliament at all can leave a big political legacy. Bert Kelly and BA Santamaria are recent historical examples. It should be honour enough to represent the community at any level. The assumption that filling one position confers an entitlement to gaining the next one in the pecking order will only lead to frustration because in politics each task has to be its own reward.
The feeling that party politicians have sacrificed principles to ambition is one of the factors behind the recent success of independents. In fact, joining a political party should indicate a willingness to submit to the discipline of a team. A potential politician’s readiness to test his or her mettle inside a political party can be a sign of the confidence and humility which must co-exist in any good politician. Politicians who are prepared to test their advocacy against that of their peers rarely have dilemmas of conscience. A fair-minded politician who can’t persuade colleagues, when given every opportunity to do so, usually concludes that there’s something to be said for the other view after all.
It’s very important to get more people joining political parties. Political parties are an essential part of the “quality control” process in a Westminster democracy. The man in the street can only afford to ignore politics most of the time because others are taking it seriously and are reasonably representative of the general community. Participating in a political party is an important and under-rated way to serve the country. But the best advice to those whose interest is a seat in parliament (as much as a healthier democracy) is to find a cause rather than just join a branch.
Sustaining a life in politics requires a strong sense of personal mission. But mission for what? “What will you do if you win?” is the question every politician or would-be politician should pose because without some transcending goal politics can easily degenerate into squabbling among gigantic egos. The fact that resignations on a point of principle or policy are so rare in Australia suggests that our political culture puts a premium on getting ahead. Perhaps this explains the “dog that catches the car” syndrome, the politician who doesn’t know what to do when he finally gets a coveted job.
The requirements of the life mean that politicians tend to be a breed apart. What democratic theorists like to call the triumph of the common man doesn’t mean that anyone can become a leader but that leaders can come from anywhere. The great democratic achievement of the Labor Party was to put the prime ministership within the grasp of wharf labourers and engine drivers. The fact that the current federal House of Representatives contains MPs who started their working lives as cane cutters, itinerant meat workers and crocodile shooters – and that these are all Coalition members – is a sad reflection on how Labor has become the new establishment.
There are only three current Labor MHRs who weren’t union officials, political staffers or public sector employees before entering parliament – and of these, two were lawyers with union practices and the third worked for a government funded educational institution. The Labor Party hasn’t been taken over by new class trendies so much as by professional politicians who, since joining Young Labor at 15, obsessively did the same degrees, went to the same conferences, worked for the same handful of mega unions and even developed the same hobby-horses (such as an interest in 19th century US presidents and mafia movies). If Ben Chifley were entering the work force today, he probably wouldn’t be an engine driver. It’s more certain that this would be the railways’ loss than Chifley’s gain. But if he were an engine driver, he certainly wouldn’t become a Labor Party MP because only university graduates are appointed full-time union officials and only full-time officials have the capacity to work the numbers for pre-selection.
It’s essential for the health of Australian democracy that the Liberal Party never becomes a closed shop for politicians, ex-politicians and political staffers. If Australia is to avoid a resurgence of Hansonite populism, it’s essential that at least one big party aims to be classless. The biggest threat to Australia’s political stability is not dissension over economic policy but the growth of identikit parties appealing to a narrow class of technocrats and would-be politicians whose disagreements are as much set-pieces as the mating rituals of rival peacocks.
Australia needs more healthy debate inside political parties just as it needs more constructive dialogue between them. In the 1980s, there should have been powerful political arguments on both sides of de-regulating financial markets, floating the dollar, cutting tariffs, welcoming foreign banks and privatising assets such as Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank. Because the Labor Party made these decisions (before any serious internal “due process”) they may not have had the scrutiny they warranted. In retrospect, these decisions might have been better accepted in the community if the political left had put up more of a fight beforehand – if only to give the issues a more thorough debate. It is to the great credit of the Coalition – which much more wholeheartedly believed in these policies than the then Labor Government – that it never sought to make political capital by opposing them. By contrast, because it has now been the subject of five major national debates and two elections, Kim Beazley’s hyper-active denunciation of the tax reform he knows is necessary and would never repeal is the most depressing spectacle of current politics.
If politics were just a job rather than a vocation or a calling no-one would take it on. The hours are long, the pressure is constant, the money is modest and the strain on family life is immense. The good you do tends to be taken for granted. Your mistakes are beamed into every household in the country at prime time. For every political career ending on a high note (like Tim Fischer’s) there are dozens that end in tears: losing office, losing pre-selection or losing hope. Politics is “a hard and unforgiving business” - but it is also “the highest and noblest form of public service”, as John Howard affirmed at a low ebb in his prime ministership. To those contemplating it from the outside or from the bottom of the political ladder, it must sometimes seem like the career equivalent of a suicide mission. The fact that there are a dozen volunteers for every place shows that those with faith, courage, vision and ardour will always seek to leave their mark.