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How do we get more talented people into Australia's Parliaments?

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 30 March 2004


The recent spectacle of Malcolm Turnbull having to beg, borrow and steal to get preselected by the Liberal party for a safe seat illustrates a wider problem in Australian politics. Turnbull is brash and ambitious, and notoriously politically ambiguous, but he is also smart and capable. It is not as if the Liberal Party is overflowing with such ability.

Indeed, the harsh fact is that across the political spectrum most of our politicians are at best mediocre and generally not up to the job. If we are to face the looming problems of the new century, we most definitely need to improve the quality of our parliamentarians.

Max Weber, the father of sociology and the son of a politician, pointed out that in a developed country politics was for professionals. Australia is a socially advanced country but most of our politicians fail miserably by any standard of professional competence.

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National and state politics are very different. State politics, like local politics, is a pretty mundane thing these days, almost entirely focussed on economic issues. All the other things that state politics might be about – law and order, health, education, drugs, environmental issues, industrial relations, etc – are in fact dominated by matters of finance and economic management. This is largely due to the present state finance systems which are increasingly shaped by ever more specific allocation of federal money.

Given that economic orthodoxy is so rigid these days – no deficits, low tax rates, maintain high credit rating, and such – state politics is mostly an accounting exercise, and as such requires minimal intellectual input from politicians. The electorate on the whole understands this and if the trains run on time they are usually content.

National politics, on the other hand, is where the big issues of the day tend to be decided. As well as the usual matters of national economic conditions, foreign policy and the like, matters such as genetic manipulation of organisms, cloning, and euthanasia wind up being determined on a national political level. And all in all things are only getting more complicated in a world where science and technology are constantly creating new possibilities and problems.

A major problem is the way our political system, dominated as it is by political parties, attracts members and then selects candidates. It effectively excludes those without the stomach for the often stomach-turning dishonesty, conformity and micro-corruption of everyday party politics. Within our political parties too much intelligence, and certainly too many scruples, are generally seen as too much baggage.

All of the political parties suffer from this problem, albeit in different ways. The Liberal party is replete with corporate lawyers who see politics as an extension of the adversarial law system. To beat your opponent, not to solve a problem, is the goal of this approach. These lawyers love the cut and thrust of Parliament because it is modelled on law courts, but they make lousy analysts of complex issues. The ALP is full of ex-union hacks and the like, self-styled hard men (and the occasional hardish woman) who enjoy a win over the other factions as much as a win over the political opposition. Their analytical skills are ultimately little better than those of the Liberal lawyers.

The Democrats and the Greens have made other mistakes in candidate selection. The Democrats have tended to suffer from the "too many chiefs and not enough Indians" syndrome. Even the Greens, who pride themselves on their wild-eyed naivete, have not avoided personally ambitious representatives, and although their game is improving, they have been slow to recognise that "environmentally conscious" does not necessarily translate into "politically effective". The minor parties beat the big boys hands down for diversity of representation but much of that is because they are so small and lack the conformism that comes from time and size.

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The incompetence of our pollies makes them particularly prone to easy answers from overseas, in both form and content. This used to mean Britain, but is now increasingly the US. Ties between the two main US political parties and the two main Australian parties have been growing, with various techniques adopted from US experience. One American trend has really caught on here - an inability to think for themselves makes pollies prone to pressure from smooth-talking and big-paying lobbyists.

Politics is, of course, an academic subject and it has always intrigued me how little the academic discipline of politics is represented in national politics. Relatively few politicians have politics degrees and they tend not to employ staffers with them (often preferring media and economics graduates). This has always struck me as an indication of the ignorance of most pollies about politics as a social process. In their ignorance, the narrowing-down of politics to a set of simple practices becomes self-defining. Take for instance the obsession with electorate–stroking in the face of sustained evidence that voters see this for what it is, as indicated by mass voting swings. But it suits pollies who can’t do much else to wander about their electorate giving dull speeches and shaking hands.

The underlying problem is that our political system actually discourages genuine talent and in the main selects for dull, unquestioning organisation hacks. This problem is exacerbated by how many pollies work in politics before becoming parliamentarians themselves, and how many form strong personal relationships with others in politics. Due to these things a culture of conformity and mediocrity, not to mention cynicism and opportunism, is fostered.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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