Is Politics Still a Vocation? Michelle Grattan

The Kenneth Myer Lecture delivered by Michelle Grattan, 9 August 2007 at the National Library of Australia.

Let me start tonight by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, traditional owners of the land on which this magnificent library is built.

I also want to acknowledge the man to whom this annual lecture is dedicated, and who gave so much to this library, and to many other community institutions and causes.

I talk tonight about politics as a vocation, but for Ken Myer community service was a vocation, one which he combined with business, an admirable amalgam which recognised that it is important for those who live a fortunate life to put back into society.

In his famous lecture “Politics as a Vocation” sociologist Max Weber said: “There are two ways of making politics one's vocation: Either one lives ‘for’ politics or one lives ‘off’ politics”.  And often, he recognised, one shades into the other.

Weber identified “three pre-eminent qualities” decisive for the politician: “passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.”

And he described politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective... Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics”. (1)

That description of the political task and its practitioners will ring true to most modern politicians and political activists. But would today's practitioner, let alone the consumer of what in modern parlance we might call the political product think politics should, or can, be accurately described as a “vocation” - if we use that word in the sense of a “calling”?

Many in the public have become so jaded with politics that they would dismiss claims it could be thought of as a “calling”. And some players would be hesitant to use such a highfalutin term, fearful they would be seen as having pretensions.  A job or trade, even a profession, if you are an MP, or a commitment, if you are an activist in a cause, might be descriptions more readily used - vocation in the more modest sense of the word, if you like.

Former Western Australian premier Geoff Gallop said, “It is more than a profession but slightly less than a vocation”.

Many practitioners know they have an uphill battle to convince the public they have any respectability even as lowly tradespeople.

Several years ago, the British Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government commissioned focus group research on attitudes to politics, politicians and parliament. The picture wasn’t pretty.

People were negative to the term “politics”; they didn’t feel part of it.  The findings were summarised this way: “Politics is viewed as the pursuit of an exclusive and disreputable elite of ‘hypocrites and liars’. ... When asked to compare Parliament to an animal, participants chose creatures known for being sly, deceitful or greedy, such as rats, weasels, snakes, foxes and vultures.” (2)

MPs were seen as pursuing money or social advancement; lacking honesty; being automatons following party lines; unresponsive to their constituents.

Despite the high level of disillusionment - and the picture would be similar here - I think politics should be seen as a vocation, in the sense of that calling to community service.

Politicians, professional or amateur, are concerned with the most important collective decisions of society. If the best people are not attracted to politics, or if those in it do not live up to high standards, the society inevitably suffers.

There are, I think, some obvious modern threats to politics as a vocation. Foremost among them are public cynicism and distrust, the growing and corrosive role of money, and the considerable disincentives to a political life.

In first world societies, the challenge has moved from managing scarcity to allocating relative abundance. This affects politics as much as economics. We often seem overwhelmed by too much of everything. Today’s government is involved in more activities than ever before. Political life moves infinitely faster, whether it’s the daily news cycle, or the pace of political campaigning (which once - believe it or not - was conducted without mobile phones). There is vast, constant coverage of what’s happening. Politicians face greater intrusion and scrutiny, whether it’s their financial affairs or their private lives (although probing the latter is not, fortunately, nearly as intense here as in the US). And of course there’s the perennial search for fault.

Federal minister Tony Abbott describes Australians as “demanding masters” of their politicians.

He said recently: “They expect their MPs to be celebrities and, at the same time, just like them; to be content with a fraction of the earnings of corporate high-flyers while working seven days a week in a hyper-responsible job; to be accountable for climate change, petrol prices and children's diet, as well as economic policy, public administration and the safety of the realm, the things politicians are normally responsible for. Nothing but the best is good enough from Australian politicians and, the better it becomes, the more zealously voters reserve the right to raise their expectations”.

More bleakly, former Victorian Liberal politician Jan Wade has observed: “It can now be guaranteed that, no matter how honest, careful and hardworking a member is, if he or she achieves any prominence, the opposition or the media will find some aspect of his or her life or work that is capable of misrepresentation”. (3)

What was that Weber said about not crumbling under pressure?

One of the pressures is that of cynicism, which hangs like a wet blanket over the political system, both reflecting and feeding into distrust of politicians, including their ethics and reliability.

An attractive trait of the Australian national character is its healthy scepticism about authority; it’s been a continuing theme, always touching our attitude to politicians.

Thus Mark Latham, at the time embittered by his own experience, romanticised when he claimed in 2005 that “there was a time when politics was treated as an honoured profession in our society, but that time has now passed”.

There is, however, a tipping point when a positive feature becomes a negative, something inherently good and desirable transforms into a corrosive agent. As soon as healthy scepticism morphs into cynicism it turns destructive.

When we are talking about “trust”, however, the concept is not as simple as it might seem.

Thus in the 2004 election both John Howard and Mark Latham made their pitches on a trust-me line. 

Australian National University sociologist Jenny Job distinguishes two views of trust: the “rational” and the “relational”. “Howard used a rational view of trust by appealing to the electorate on the basis of his government's economic performance and his ability to meet their needs”, she writes. “In highlighting ethics and honesty, Latham was taking a relational view of trust”.

We know that the “rational” line won out.  However Job argues: “Appealing to the public on the basis of effective economic performance might be successful in the short term, but to build trust and to encourage the co-operation of the community in the long term, government and government organisations must focus on both the rational and relational aspects of trust”. (4)

Her point seems reinforced by the recently-leaked report from the Liberal party’s consultants Crosby/Textor. That suggested the “relational” side of trust was cutting through, with pollster Textor noting “significant disillusionment with Liberals” over the issue of honesty.

There is also dispute about the precise level of public cynicism and distrust towards politics and politicians in Australia.

Senator John Faulkner in his 2005 Henry Parkes Oration saw our democracy “drowning in distrust”.

“In Australia today there is a dangerous indifference to politics accompanied by a simmering resentment of politicians”, Faulkner said. “Citizens who haven’t enough interest in the democratic process to stay even vaguely informed of the issues of the day have only one profound political conviction: that politicians can’t be trusted”.

Academic researcher Clive Bean does not see a crisis of trust nor a dramatic change over the last few years. Working with 2005 survey data, Bean found two thirds of people thought that most of the time people in government could be trusted to do what’s right. But in what he described as “a fairly damning assessment of elected politicians” 49 per cent said politicians were only in the game for what they could personally get out of it.

Bean concludes that overall, “a significant proportion of Australian citizens harbour distrust of their government  - one third agreeing  government cannot be trusted to do what is right, and nearly one-half viewing politicians as dedicated not to the needs of the people, but to their own self-interest”. (5)

He does not, however, see the distrust getting worse. Evidence also suggests Australians are fairly satisfied with the democratic system as a whole; it’s the practitioners with whom they have issues.

Even if one is not as pessimistic as Faulkner, it is obvious that our politicians are working in a cold climate.

I think one reason is that the public feels bombarded by politics. Encountering so much of it up close - by which I mean mainly on TV and radio (the papers are less pervasive, the internet in another category) does not make voters more likely to respect their politicians.

We would all agree, I’m sure, that the ban that remained for a long time on the televising of parliament was antiquated and ridiculous. 

 Yet it is probably true that, like the old joke about watching sausages being made, getting to view politicians behaving ferally in their confined parliamentary cage puts the ordinary citizen off.

The excesses in their conflict can betray any notion of politics as a calling, or even a half-decent activity. Watch a rerun on the TV news of a rowdy day in question time, and you might wonder at the sort of personalities that would get into this game. Sit in the parliamentary gallery and it can look like entertaining theatre, or a serious test of talent, agility and nerve. Translated via television, it takes on another patina, and assaulted regularly in their lounge rooms, people are bound to react.

It’s a balance here. Our political democracy is necessarily an adversarial system. And it is hard to be ‘nice’ when you are fighting your political enemy.

Yet ordinary people don’t like the bad behaviour or even such raw-edged conflict.

They wouldn’t tolerate it in their workplace, or practice it on their neighbours. Liberal senator Bill Heffernan disrupts a press conference being held by indigenous people; would Joe Blow do the same to some gathering in his local street? Or would he make his point with a confrontational Mark Latham-type handshake? Not if he were civil. Poor behaviour is off-putting, leading many people to think less of the political practitioners, and inclined to dismiss them with a shrug and the observation “they’re all as bad as each other”.

But it is not this cavorting that is the main danger to the political life's reputation.

There is another dimension of politicians’ behaviour that turns people off. This is looseness with the truth or, put more bluntly, lying or going back on their word.

I don’t know whether this is worse than it used to be, but probably we are more aware of it now. Again, the pervasiveness of the media plays a part. Thanks especially to the electronic media, the archives are so much more extensive.

Howard’s “Honest John” label is something of a parable about the problem. His biographers Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen say it’s a label that can be “literal or ironic, depending on the user”, and it is not absolutely clear whether the pro or anti version came first. (6)

The broken promise has become a standing political joke, and a ritual.

Malcolm Fraser got lambasted for the “disposable” promise; John Howard for “non-core” ones (the leaked Crosby/Textor report mentioned broken promises as a voter criticism of the Howard government). Nobody will forget Howard’s “never, ever” GST promise (made in opposition), although the sin of breaking that one was mitigated by taking the issue to an election.

A new government comes in, discovers a black hole in the finances and uses this as a rationale for ditching a raft of policy. An MP interviewed for an academic study of political cynicism described the process: “It's so convenient when you get in, you do an audit of the books and you say ‘oh, Jesus, you know, things are so much worse than we ever expected’ and that gives you an opportunity to break every promise you made in the run-up to the election. That creates enormous cynicism out in the public arena”. (7)

This happened with the Howard government and the Hawke one. 

Gough Whitlam, in contrast, got lambasted for not breaking promises. Economic circumstances changed but he didn’t, insisting he would stick with his “program”. A bad decision, as it turned out.

As a politician, the more promises you make, the more you are likely to break, for good or bad reasons. We insist - probably “we” in the media rather than “we” in the public - on getting so much more detail before elections these days that the process has become ridiculous.

Things change over a three-year cycle; a new government, especially, cannot expect to anticipate all that it will inherit and how its policies will fit circumstances.

Of course voters want to know what the parties will do. But trying to create a false certainty just leads to people feeling let down. Insisting on hugely detailed programs is the way to tears and more cynicism. 

Another dimension of truth - or untruth - in politics is party political advertising.

We’ve seen a nice example this week. In the 2004 election Howard was extremely careful with his words on interest rates, claiming they’d always be lower under a Coalition government. The Liberal party’s advertising took more licence, promising to “keep interest rates at record lows”. When asked about it this week, Howard left the party carrying the can, saying he had never promised that.

There have periodically been calls for and attempts at regulation. In 1984 a provision was introduced, spurred by the Democrats, making it an offence for electoral advertisements to contain something untrue or misleading.

Within a short time, the Labor Government had repealed it. For some years, commercial TV tried to regulate the truth of advertisements, but then abandoned the practice. South Australia has had a truth-in-advertising provision for two decades. The federal Labor Government went so far as to ban political advertising, only to have it struck down by the High Court before it could apply to a federal election.

It seems to me that for all the problems posed by political advertising, a ban is entirely inappropriate. Advertising is a form of political expression and stopping it would be simply another curb on freedom of speech. Nor can I see that federal rules for truth in advertising would do much more than lead to endless disputes and a mammoth bureaucracy.

The question of what’s true is problematic in politics. Take this week’s Liberal advertisement proclaiming “Labor can’t manage money”. Who’s to say and how do you judge?

So I don’t think there is any easy fix. But when we look at the trend to gross negative personal ads in the US – we’ve always had a lot of negative ads in Australia but not personal ones - the issue is potentially an increasing worry.  The onus is, I think, on the practitioners to exercise self-restraint, remembering that if things get out of hand, it can be mutually destructive, as well as destructive of the democratic system.

I’ve been talking about party political advertising. There is another advertising issue that fuels public cynicism. If it doesn’t, it should. That is the gross politicisation of government advertising.

Here is a major outrage.

It was becoming serious under Labor. The Howard Government has been shameless, with its many campaigns ranging from GST to WorkChoices. In this area, I think strict rules are justified and should be introduced. This is taxpayers’ money being used in an entirely inappropriate fashion.

Government advertising should be stripped right back to factual information ads, armed forces recruiting and the like.

Another trend tarnishing politics as a vocation is the increasing importance of money, in various guises.

It would be naive to think that money has not always played a big part; indeed before politicians were paid, money helped determine who entered Parliament.

But if we look at what’s happening today, I think we should be concerned about the role of the dollar.

And here, obviously, I am not talking about politicians’ remuneration.  That is relatively modest, compared with their peers in other professions and in business.

And I am talking only marginally about entitlements and access to the public purse for keeping yourself in power, although this is becoming gross.

A House of Representatives marginal seat holder has vast resources to help him preserve his job, and the amount has increased greatly in recent years.

And I have already spoken of the misuse of government advertising.

What I am here referring to specifically is the buying, at high prices, of access to those with power.

Let me give a small example that I think illustrates how things have changed.

When I first covered budgets in Canberra in the 1970s, the treasurer (John Howard for some of the time) would give a modest drinks party afterwards to which his colleagues, senior treasury officials and media were asked.

Today the treasurer and the PM attend a round of fundraisers on budget night, with large amounts of money going into campaign coffers.

We don’t have overt corruption in our federal politics – it’s a very clean system. But money is having a corrupting effect of sorts. Politicians are selling themselves - literally.  At this year’s Liberal council dinner, up for auction were:

*a bridge climb and coffee with Malcolm Turnbull,

*a corporate jet trip with Brendan Nelson, 

*an evening at the Opera House with Helen Coonan,

*a harbour cruise with Tony Abbott,

*a game of touch football with Joe Hockey.

The excursions with Nelson and Abbott were reportedly worth $10,000 a piece. This can be seen as a bit of a joke, or rather sinister. Why would anyone pay $10,000 to go on a jet plane with Brendan Nelson or a harbour cruise with Tony Abbott (the latter paid for but still pending, I’m told)?

Years ago, political leaders in election campaigns used to do night meetings. Anyone could turn up, there was no charge and the hecklers were a bit of sport. That’s long gone.

You seldom see the leaders’ night activities but they include lots of fundraisers, some of them for big money.

Parties sell access by charging thousands of dollars for business people to attend their national conferences (around $7000 currently for the major parties). This is all about getting close to ministers and shadow ministers. Key frontbenchers spend as much time with the paying guests as with the delegates; the business people are kept in a comfortable lounge, and, as we heard earlier this year, may while attending the Liberal council crack an invitation for drinks at Kirribilli.

At last weekend’s Nationals federal council Dick Honan, head of the ethanol-producing Manildra, was a major sponsor, paying for the entertainer at the gala dinner and sitting next to Mark Vaile. Manildra has a direct interest in how strongly the Nationals push the case for ethanol, which some Nationals such as Barnaby Joyce would like to see mandated. Honan also works hard on Labor.

The Labor government brought in public funding of election campaigns, which for the 2004 election was collectively worth about $42 million. But it hasn’t made the parties any less desperate in their fundraising; they cry poor in absolute terms and relative to their opponents.

This Government has made the system much less transparent by allowing much bigger donations to be made without scrutiny. It raised the threshold for disclosure from $1500 to over $10,000, which was indexed. It is currently $10,500. 

The amount can be much higher - up to $90,000 - if the donations are split between state branches.  Eric Abetz (who initially had carriage of the changes) has claimed the earlier requirement to disclose what he called the “rats and mice” of donations put “untold pressure on political parties”.

A Parliamentary Library paper last year estimated the new threshold would mean, on past patterns, the average proportion of receipts which the Coalition and ALP would disclose would drop from three quarters to two thirds. However in practice, the proportion would likely fall further, it anticipated.

Democrat Andrew Murray has set out the aims of a proper disclosure regime as:

*preventing corrupt, illegal or improper conduct;

*stopping politicians being or being perceived to be beholden to wealthy or powerful organisations, interest groups or individuals; and 

*protecting politicians from pressure being brought to bear on them by ‘secret’ donors.

Murray is highly critical of the present loose system. Even some Liberals have argued for drastic reform.

Malcolm Turnbull, when he was on the backbench, argued for a ban on donations from unions and corporations. He noted community concern that unions and companies used donations to influence parties. While discounting the fear, he said it would continue “as long as businesses and unions with vested interests can finance political campaigns”. Unsurprisingly, his idea was not taken up by the parliamentary committee to which he submitted it.

Meanwhile, Turnbull is doing some entrepreneurial fundraising for himself.  The Daily Telegraph has reported that he had set up an elite club for his supporters. It has five levels - governor, benefactor, patron, sponsor and members, with payments ranging from $55,000 down to a mere $5500.

It seems to me beyond reasonable dispute that the relaxation of the disclosure requirements is a retrograde step, likely to harm the vocation of politics.  It should be reversed.

Whether the influence of money should be tackled more drastically, for example by caps on campaign spending, is more difficult, not least because it would be hard to police.

Another aspect of money politics is the growth of the lobbying industry, which smooths the process for many companies buying access and putting a case.

Some former politicians carry their “vocation” into lobbying, trading off their contacts. Put aside the notorious Burke and Grill. A politician, especially a government one, moving straight out of Parliament into lobbying does raise ethical questions. Obvious recent examples were former defence minister Peter Reith representing a defence industry company, and former health minister Michael Wooldridge’s connections with pharmaceutical interests.

Canada, Britain and the United States have rules relating to ex-politicians’ work; here it is open slather, and needs to be addressed. One politician notes that MPs’ retirement remuneration is relevant here. The community resents politicians getting a good deal – a sentiment Mark Latham exploited – but if provisions are squeezed people are likely to be more inclined to take up compromising post-politics positions.

Even apart from such cases, the growth of the lobbying industry does put a distortion into the democratic process. Those with resources can muscle up their representations via a lobbyist. And most of this is shrouded from view.

After Hawke minister Mick Young notoriously mentioned to a lobbyist that the government was about to expel a Soviet spy, Labor brought in a lobbyists’ register. It was private, so hardly promoted transparency. The Howard Government scrapped it.

In a report just released the Australasian Study of Parliament Group has ambitiously called for the on-line public registration of all lobbying contacts with ministers and parliamentary secretaries, who would be responsible for ensuring the contact is noted. While this sounds good in theory there are snags in practice, including getting comprehensive coverage (would you call the Business Council of Australia or the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry “lobbyists”, for example?) and no doubt pleas of commercial-in-confidence.

As Weber noted, the political vocation can be pursued in various guises. Over the past generation, we’ve seen big shifts in vocational profiles. These include:

*Rank-and-file party members (those who practice politics as a part time vocation) have fallen away drastically; 

*Politics has been professionalised and, as part of this, it has been “buffed” by the spin merchants, a mixed blessing;

*The disincentives to a parliamentary life have grown; and 

*A veritable army of political apparatchiks has arisen who are parliamentary

wannabes.

The vocation is being deserted by the amateur foot soldiers who used to inhabit the parties and sit through endless branch meetings, debating policy earnestly or passionately, passing resolutions, intriguing, raising modest sums, stuffing envelopes, or just socialising over cups of tea.

Party memberships have fallen drastically and parties are hollowed out, a gift for the factional manipulators.

Dean Jaensch records that the ALP fell from around 370,000 branch members in 1939 to 50,000 by the mid 1990s. Liberal membership went from an estimated 220,000 in the early 50s to 70,000 in the late 90s. Quizzed this week, the Labor party said it has about 50,000 members; the Liberal party put its numbers between 60,000 and 80,000. (8)

Not only are there many fewer rank and filers; they are less important.

Party conferences have become show cases for leaders rather than occasions for robust engagement.

Modern campaigning methods mean branch members aren’t so needed to help with the work (although people are still required on polling day).

This decline can partly be seen in the context of a wider phenomenon of people opting out of various forms of activism. But parties have fared a lot worse than many other organisations. One reason is probably that ideological convergence means the parties don’t these days embody “causes” that attract ordinary members - that is, those who don’t aspire to fulltime political life.

Nevertheless, the decline of parties does add to the problem of getting a strong talent pool from which to recruit parliamentarians.

Fewer good people will gravitate to parties which have low memberships and high factional friction, where winning preselection can require sucking up to warlords, and branch stacking is rife.

Parties are turning to people who haven’t been members, especially for their high profile candidates, such as Maxine McKew and Peter Garrett in the ALP, but also for the “local champions” they value so much for marginal seats.

The barriers to recruiting good candidates, however, go beyond the state of the parties.

In some ways the attractions of the parliamentary life are better than previously. The pay is reasonable if not great. Quarters are good (Parliament House is like a gated city, albeit one with high levels of violence of the non-physical type). The taxpayer finances generous support for the humble backbenchers - higher up the tree, a Cabinet minister has a staff of 15-20. 

An MP friend still says, “Why would anyone be a politician?” He laments the hours, the pay, the intrusions and the ingratitude - although I note he is standing again.

The disincentives to recruiting good people range from the relentlessness of the media pressure to the competition from other occupations, the decline of the notion of “public service”, and the regimentation of parliamentary behaviour.

I’d be the last to say the media should not be robust in applying its attention to those in the political class and all they do.

However I do acknowledge that this 24/7 media world makes quite a few people reluctant to expose themselves and their families to the attention and the attacks, both of which are often excessive. It’s the old story of a good story not being a story, but it comes at a cost to politics as a vocation.

In one sense, being a politician in 21st century Australia is a bit like being a senior public servant or a teacher - all these jobs have declined in status compared to some other professions. 

Kate Jones in a paper describing the professionalisation of Australian politicians, observes that at federation MPs were “amateurs serving the nation from a sense of duty and explicitly eschewing the idea of politics as a job or profession”. Now the parliamentarians have become “managers in the parliamentary industry”. (9)

Well, “managers” can make a lot more money and have less hassle in other jobs. In a world of constant change and churn, parliamentary politics will be a career where people by choice (rather than by the decision of the electorate) stay for a limited period, which is not a bad thing. So you can do a Bracks and leave early, enabling a second career, or do a Turnbull and arrive late (which requires the foot to be put down on the accelerator very quickly when you get there, if you are ambitious).

I also think the excessive discipline of parliamentary politics must put off some good people. “Division is death” the slogan says, and discipline is lauded. As, up to a point, it must be.

But taken too far discipline puts the vocation of politics into a coma. When you raise this with politicians they blame the media, saying any outspokenness will be written up as a split, making it impossible except at high cost.

This is a dilemma that is almost impossible to resolve. An effective government, a functional opposition, require discipline. And, for all the talk of the importance of the local member, voters have a right to expect the person they elect will follow the view of their party.

Yet conformity and uniformity imposed excessively tightly can go against good government, flout common sense and undermine public confidence.

Before Australia invaded Iraq, hardly a coalition MP breathed a shadow of doubt. I can think of only one - Judi Moylan, and she got no thanks. Maybe few had doubts. 

Yet surely, one would hope, some foresaw how things could go wrong. Would it not have been better for the democratic process, indeed for the national interest, if there had been some more robust debate in the governing parties?

When politicians behave like a merino mob huddled with heads together, they’ve lost their vocation.

One cringes sometimes, at the indignity of how frightened backbenchers are of a possible harsh word from some prime ministerial staffer. Yet if they scatter like an untended mob, a government will not survive long. A balance between collective discipline and individual thought is a challenge to strike, but the scales are tipping too far. 

Does not a government make a mockery of question time when all its backbench questions are dorothy dixers written by tacticians? Even in my time, I recall when government backbenchers asked more individual questions, some of which they appeared to have written for themselves.

These sometimes elicited unexpected information, rather than just a prearranged announcement or diatribe against the Opposition.

The role of the backbencher has been diminished. Few parliamentary backbenchers’ speeches are reported (newspapers have gone out of that) and senior backbenchers have less status than once. Backbenchers are regarded mainly as just the foot soldiers who should be seen but not heard, at least with any non-conforming ideas. This is despite a few revolts now and then, some worthy work in party and parliamentary committees, and constant squawking behind the scenes for their electorates.

Surely the talents of backbenchers are under-used, and they too sell themselves short, maybe because they believe the meek inherit frontbench spots.  But many MPs will never do so: since federation fewer than 30 per cent of federal parliamentarians have become ministers.

No wonder the half way house of parliamentary secretary (which comes with its own chains, further limiting dissent) is welcomed by back and front benchers. 

While recent years have seen the vocation in decline for the party activist (but still live for the interest group activist - such as those in the environment movement), and the parliamentary vocation spurned by many good people, the professional apparatchiks have flourished, their numbers expanding dramatically since the 1970s.

This expansion has paved a new political highway to Parliament. Labor had always had a track of this sort, coming from the union offices.  With the explosion in the numbers of ministerial staff, more and more Liberal politicians are travelling this route. While the Liberals complain of the narrow union base of the Labor recruits, they are trending in the same direction, with many candidates for preselection having worked as political staffers.

At the same time the Labor recruits coming through modern union offices are nothing like the union officials of past times. Not a shearer or labourer to be seen, but educated ambitious professionals for whom the union offices are political boot camps.

According to the Parliamentary Library’s analysis of the current crop, 67 per cent of Labor MPs had politics-related jobs immediately before entering parliament, compared with 16 per cent of Coalition MPs. One third of Labor MPs held party and union administrators and officials positions, but only 2 per cent of Coalition MPs did.

The Library authors say the high proportion from politics-related backgrounds “suggests that those who argue that ‘the professional political class have taken over our national Parliament’ may be correct”.  They also observe that if one looked at people who had worked in the political field at any stage in their career the differences between the two sides mightn’t be as great, concluding, “Given the steady decline in membership of political parties and unions, it may be that future debate focuses less on the ‘professional politician’ and more on the decreasing size of the pool from which tomorrow’s politicians can be drawn”.

This new breed of apprentice politicians has been criticised for narrowing the gene pool.  John Howard has warned, “I think we’re getting too many who are coming into parliament whose only life experience has been working in politics… It’s a danger for both parties should that happen”.

The other side has been put by ALP national secretary Tim Gartrell who argues: “A good adviser knows how government works; understands the  interaction with the bureaucracy and the role of community organisations. As long as they have the necessary skills to be a successful politician they should be encouraged to aspire to higher office”.

IT'S A PARADOX that while there is more political information available than ever before, a lot of people in the community feel cut off.

Some people see a partial answer to this in the so-called new media, so I want to turn finally to the relationship of the new media and the vocation of politics.

The centrality in the political world of what’s now referred to as old media - TV, radio and newspapers - is well established and perennially debated.

Television remains the dominant vehicle, having massively reshaped the way the political battle is played since the middle of last century, although newspapers still have a special capacity to set agendas.

Radio has come into its own: talkback is particularly crucial and extensively used in Australian politics. Howard describes talkback as his “preferred medium of communication to the Australian public” and says it has had greater influence on public opinion in Australia than in any comparable country.

But now the political attention is starting to turn to the internet as the cutting edge of political communication.

You know the internet is starting to have some clout politically when John Howard lands himself on YouTube. He launched his takeover of the Tasmanian Mersey Hospital with a 5 am video. Last night press gallery offices were notified he would be making some crack-of-dawn announcement via YouTube.

It has a certain attraction over yesterday’s news conference in his chilly courtyard - neither he nor we in the press gallery had to get out of bed for it. But it was also a reminder that the new politics is simultaneously interactive and impersonal.

There is a nice parallel with Howard’s hero Robert Menzies. Menzies, coming towards the end of his political career as television was gearing up politically in Australia, understood the importance of the new medium, although he was never quite comfortable with it.

Howard is equally aware the platform of political communication is changing and diversifying, although his own appearances on YouTube recall the rather stilted nature of Menzies on TV.

The theory of the use of YouTube is that the PM can get ahead of his opponent with an early morning presentation.

More importantly, YouTube is seen as a way of reaching the younger voters who don’t tune into the old media.

Just as he knows the potency of talkback, Howard is agreeing to take questions on Yahoo!7, with answers to be recorded to a select few of them. Within the day there were 680 questions and they were still flowing in.

Meanwhile Rudd has launched an American-style web site, in a Kevin07 campaign urging supporters to join up. Labor boasts of 150,000 hits in the first couple of days. Labor also marketed 4,000 Kevin07 t-shirts in very quick time. Parties are hopeful of the “net” as a useful fundraising mechanism in future. Labor says that so far it has raised three times as much through the web as it did in its whole online campaign in 2004.   

Both Liberal and Labor are road testing ads on the net.

Then there are groups like the online campaigning organisation GetUp!

The 2007 election will be the first where the internet is extensively used. 

Writing in Crickey’s election guide - where else? - Matthew Marks says that in this election new media “is set to create the most revolutionary change we have witnessed in election campaigning and reporting since television emerged over forty years ago”. (10)

The parties would be more cautious but they’re anxious to exploit whatever the net offers. One benefit is that they can leverage off the new media to get more and different coverage in the old media, especially while the PM hitting YouTube and the Kevin07 site retain novelty value.

Some see the internet as a transformational form of political engagement in general, which has the potential to make politics the vocation of all citizens who aspire to play. Everyone can have their say.

News can be instant; feedback can be as well.

Labor’s Carmen Lawrence has argued for party branches to be organised on the internet, to bring together people of common interests, a way of  compensating for the decline of the traditional branch structure.

Marks argues that the language of the new media is democratic and participatory; that it holds the old media accountable, and gives them some competition.

The exponents of how the net can change politics have various ideals in their mind, ranging from Athenian direct democracy to the London coffee houses of the eighteenth century.

The net allows direct access to the debate for individuals and groups who can’t or don’t want to get it easily through traditional media. It facilitates interactivity.

But there is another side. Not everyone has access, so it is a world of outsiders and insiders (admittedly this is changing as more people get online but for the foreseeable future many will be excluded by their circumstances).

Also, the original content produced by the net is limited. This will change presumably as the years go by but for the moment the net tends to cannibalise the traditional media rather than producing a lot of original, fact-based news of its own. It is stronger on opinion than adding to the stock of knowledge.

While most would say the net is a potentially useful but still limited contributor to political coverage, some critics are tougher. 

In his just-published book “The Cult of the Amateur”, Andrew Keen argues “The YouTubification of politics is a threat to civic culture. It infantilizes the political process, silencing public discourse and leaving the future of the government up to thirty-second video clips shot by camcorder-wielding amateurs with political agendas”.

He maintains that “The supposed democratization medium of user-generated content is creating a tabloid-style gotcha culture - where one thoughtless throwaway remark overshadows an entire platform, and lifelong political careers are destroyed by an off-the-cuff joke at the end of a long campaign day”. (11)

We’ve not had anything like this here, but we might note as an aside that the PM’s first YouTube announcement on climate change had to run the gauntlet of some unedifying responses that would never get a look in in the newspapers or on radio or TV.

Keen notes the decline of the old media, which is losing advertising to the net. But the net does not have either the checks of the newspapers, nor the investment in serious trained reporting. In blogger land, the experts have in large part given way to the amateur, and anyone can say anything without editorial check.

The new media, like the old media is a medium. It can provide enormous opportunity for good or ill.

If it does not invest heavily as years go on in news gathering, then it will have taken more than it has given to journalism and politics. If does put in the investment, give the access to widen the participatory base it will contribute to the practice of politics. 

These issues are longer term and primarily for the media itself.

Meantime we’re about to watch a riveting contest as the two leaders try to

out-campaign each other in cyber space. It will be the new frontier of this campaign.

Or, if you like, a new pulpit for those with the vocation. 


References:

 1. Weber, M ‘Politics as a Vocation’ in Gerth, HH & Mills, CW (eds) 1946, From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. Oxford University Press, New York.

 2. Ram, V 2006 ‘Public Attitudes to Politics, Politicians and Parliament’Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 59 No 1, pp 188-197, Oxford University Press on behalf of the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government.

 3. Wade, J ‘Mistrust, Malice and Misinformation’ in Burchell, D & Leigh, A (eds) 2002, The Prince’s New Clothes: Why do Australians dislike their their politicians?UNSW Press, Sydney

 4. Job, J 2005 ‘How is trust in government created? It begins at home, but ends in the parliament’ Australian Review of Public Affairs, Vol. 6, No 1, pp 1-23.

 5. Bean, C 2006 ‘Citizenship, Particpation, Efficacy and Trust in Australia’ in Denemark, D et al (eds) forthcoming 2007, Australian Social Attitudes: The 2nd Report UNSW Press, Sydney.

 6. Errington, W & van Onselen, P 2007, John Winston Howard, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

 7. Jones, K 2005 ‘Politicians and Political Cynicism More or Less?’ Australasian Parliamentary Review, Vol. 20(2), pp 116-129.

 8. Jaensch, D 2006 ‘Party structures and processes’ in Marsh, I (ed) Political Parties in Transition? Federation Press, Sydney.

 9. Jones, K 2004 ‘Parliamentarians’ Staff and the Professionalisation of Australian Politicians’, refereed paper presented to the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Adelaide, 29 September – 1 October

 10.Marks, M 2007 ‘myopponentsux.com’ in Kerr, C (ed) The Crikey Guide to the 2007 Federal Election, Penguin Books, Camberwell

 11. Keen, A 2007 The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy , Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London.