Lots of people can still scarcely believe it. Any number of polls showed that if I contested the seat of Mayo at the federal election there was a reasonable expectation that I would win. Political parties across Australia are chock-full of people of who would happily sell their souls for a seat in one or other of the nation’s parliaments. (In fact, to get there, most of them do sell their souls to a greater or lesser degree.) And I walked away. Why?
At the outset I reiterate my view that, for a whole range of reasons, the Democrats hold a very important place on Australia’s political landscape. I remain deeply committed to a multi-party system as Australia is poorly served by two parties who are barely distinguishable from each other. The Australia Democrats, for all its foibles, is the party of the progressive left in this country and represents a voice that needs to be heard in the nation’s parliament. And heretical as this might be, I tend agree with Graham Young that, at the moment, it best serves Australia as an agent of balance in the Senate where the real legislative work is done.
I was close to the centre of Australia’s national affairs for a little over three years and it was tremendously exciting, I learned a great deal and I made a few friends. I also had the opportunity to look at political life up close and it is not as desperately attractive to me as it appears to be to many other people.
There were some personal reasons for my decision not to run. The inevitable and severe disruption to home life that nomination and an election campaign brings figured in my decision as it is expected that the election will be called at a time when the focus of my family should be elsewhere. I suspect that Alexander Downer and I agree on very little but we would, I think, agree that political life has repercussions for the children.
I’ve reflected on the media’s role in the conduct of our national affairs and, with a number of notable exceptions, the role is not an entirely productive or glorious one. Rather than an ongoing, intelligent and unbiased discourse, too often political journalism is about getting a ‘story’ rather than getting to the bottom of an issue. In this I am not blameless either because, as a media adviser, I have encouraged this approach when it suited me. Journalists, particularly those on the make, will pursue ‘a story’ with little regard for its effect on the people involved and their families. I can think of few other occupations in which the whole family regularly suffers from the scrutiny and criticism applied to the person who actually signed the employment contract.
Notwithstanding the many people of ability and good heart on all sides of the political fence, the adversarial nature of politics in this country brings out the worst in people rather than the best. Our national affairs are, more often than not, conducted in an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion and this does not advance Australia. The trade in ill will that characterises much of our political dialogue will not assist our war veterans and their families, it will not improve the health of Indigenous Australians and it will not restore the Murray-Darling Basin.
Earlier this year I attended a private briefing convened by a major Australian company to which the three major players on the political field sent senior representatives. I was struck by the vigorous but courteous debate and I was also struck by the extent to which the three ‘antagonists’ agreed. I remember thinking how much better it would be for us all if our national affairs could be conducted like this. Back in Parliament House a few days later, two of the three were back in the ring, slugging it out with all the desperation of Jimmy Sharman’s boxers.
Lest I be accused of sanctimony, let me say this. I’ve been as guilty of engaging in adversary as anyone else. If you’re in the middle of bar-room brawl and you’re getting shoved around, kicked and punched, it takes a better person than me not to respond. I suppose the difference is that, having had a break for a couple of months and a chance to reflect, I’ve decided to walk away. I hasten to add that this doesn’t make me a better person. It’s just that I have little stomach left for incessant, unnecessary and unproductive conflict. My life is too short.
It is a well-known but nonetheless sad fact that much of the hostility and denigration in politics comes from one’s own side. The viciousness of ALP tribal politics is well known: the Coalition is equally vicious but tends to conceal the knives beneath a thin cloak of civility. In recent years, the Democrats have shown that they’re not above wielding the razor either.
It’s also clear that the Australian people tend to treat their political leaders badly. My recent experience is that, by and large, MPs and senators are decent, hardworking people who, according to their own (often misguided) beliefs, have the best interests of Australia at heart. However, decades of history show that when our political leaders make long-term decisions that bring short-term pain we disparage them prior to removing them from office for doing exactly what we put them there to do in the first place. This is hardly likely to encourage people to enter parliament and take a turn on the bridge of the ship of state.
"A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman, of the next generation," said J. F. Clarke. I’m committed to democracy but I’m not blind to its inherent contradictions.
I also become very bored very quickly when I hear mindless talk of how politicians rip the public off and seek to increase taxes just to line their own pockets and provide for their own ‘perks’. If some of these people had to track a senior politician for a week, hour by hour, they’d collapse on day three – if they got that far. Nobody takes on public office for the remuneration. When you take into account the hours, the stress, the time away from home and family, the insecurity of employment, the media intrusion and the general disparagement, there are more enjoyable and profitable ways to spend your working life.
My views might well change in the future – but it will certainly be a future in which my kids are not at school.
Eugene McCarthy observed once "…being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important". Amusing but trite. Politics is important and most of us give it about three nano-second’s thought every three years. That’s not enough. Certainly not enough to get me to sign up.