Professional politicians? Career paths and voter disconnectedness

Former Whitlam Minister Barry Cohen postulates a provocative reason why, at least in his opinion, current federal ALP politicians lack breadth of policy vision and an ability to engage effectively with the interests and concerns of ordinary Australians. Their career paths and life experiences are far too narrow:

It must have been a quiet news day when, in the aftermath of the 1998 election, I was rifling through a Labor publication containing pen-portraits of the 90 odd Labor MPs and senators and noticed something that was more than passing strange. In the section titled Occupations Before Entering Parliament, there seemed to be a singular lack of variety. I amused myself by doing a detailed analysis.

When I finished, I could hardly believe my eyes. With three exceptions, all fell into one of six categories: lawyers, public servants, party and union officials, state MPs and their staff, and teachers.

It is difficult to imagine a more incestuous group. An evening listening to a discussion of their life experiences would have been riveting. Almost all, if you’ll excuse the expression, had spent their lives on the public tit. When I raised the matter with former colleagues, they seemed surprised at my concern.

With everyone seeking answers for Labor’s latest humiliating defeat, I thought the time was opportune to find out whether there had been change in the interim. It is my melancholy duty to report that, if anything, the situation has worsened.

Behold the results of an analysis of the recent parliament: union officials, 29; teachers, 18; state MPs and ministerial staff, 16; public servants, 14; party officials, 8; lawyers, 8. Quite a number had more than one career but, amazingly, those other careers were covered by the same six categories.

Cohen contrasts that mix of backgrounds with those of the Labor pollies when he was in Parliament back in the early 1970s:

TURNING back to 1969 and my first parliament, a glance at the previous occupations of the 1969-72 caucus highlights the difference: accountants, 2; chemist, 1; clerks, 5; company executives, 2; journalists, 3; lawyers, 8; doctors, 5; religious ministers, 2; party officials, 3; policemen, 2; farmers, 2; public servants, 8; retailers, 4; teachers, 7; tradesmen, 5; union officials, 18; and others, 2. (For the record, I was one of the retailers menswear and I have to admit it’s difficult to lose a finger handling cashmere sweaters.)

However, I wonder whether this really provides as strong a clue to the reasons for political success or failure as Cohen seems to think. After all, the class of 1972 didn’t end up being all that successful, at least if you judge success by longevity.

And are the backgrounds of conservative politicians any more diverse? I’m too lazy to do the exercise myself, but I suspect that the career backgrounds of Coalition federal MPs would also be quite heavily skewed to a narrow range of occupations (although they’re unlikely to include very many union officials – except Brendon Nelson).

And what of state and territory Labor MPs? After all, Labor is in government in every state and territory. Is their range of experience any broader than their federal counterparts? Is that part of the reason for their success? Again I’m too lazy to undertake an exhaustive analysis. But I can provide a rough list compiled from memory) of the career backgrounds of the 12 Labor MLAs in the current Martin government in the Northern Territory:

  • Clare Martin – Journalist (ABC)
  • Syd Stirling – Teacher
  • Paul Henderson – Public servant (?)
  • Dr. Chris Burns – Biological scientist (public and private sector background)
  • Marion Scrymgour – Aboriginal organisation administrator
  • Len Kiely – NK
  • Jane Aagard – Public relations consultant (private sector)
  • Elliott McAdam – Aboriginal organisation administrator (?)
  • Dr Peter Toyne – Aboriginal organisation administrator
  • Kon Vatskalis – Public servant
  • John Ah Kit – Aboriginal organisation administrator
  • Matthew Bonson – Lawyer (and one of my former students – but only practised
    briefly, and only in public sector)
  • Delia Lawrie – Journalist (Murdoch)

So their range of experience is arguably a bit broader than their federal counterparts, but not by much. Nevertheless, it’s in many (though not all) respects quite reflective of the Territory population mix. For example, one third of the MLAs are Aboriginal, which closely reflects the fact that 28% of the NT’s population are Aboriginal. And most Aboriginal people who hold paid employment work for Aboriginal organisations.

And one third of the MLAs are women, which means they’re somewhat under-reperesented, but closer to numerical equality than in most (if not all) other Australian parliaments.

And even the fairly high proportion of teachers and public servants rather reflects the Territory itself. Darwin is very much a public service town, with an overlay of small business and mining, pastoral and farming support industries, and tourism. The Territory Labor caucus contains little representation from those business/private sector areas (Jane Aagard mostly consulted to government, and Chris Burns’ employment was also mostly in the public sector, I think), and that is clearly its major deficiency in ‘connectedness’ terms. But I suspect that’s a deficiency shared by Labor caucuses throughout Australia.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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(and wendy)
(and wendy)
2024 years ago

Ken, sorry to use your comments, but could you e-mail me on your current email?

ps. I think Geoff once posted a list of former occupations of Federal Coalition members — can’t recall why or where — it may have been in comments.

Scott Wickstein
2024 years ago

Ken, I’m not sure about the specifics, but it seems to me that the Liberal Party has embraced the philosphy of “All Politicians are Local” in a big way. They are pretty concious of selecting locals for seats, and mix and match accordingly.

So in Sydney for example, you get a Jackie Kelly in Lindsay and Malcolm Turnbill in Wentworth.

Jackie Kelly is the model of the new approach to preselection, and it seems to work very well. Take, for example, the ALP’s marginals in South Australia. Instead of preselecting “High Flyers” or party “backroom boys”, the Liberal Party decided to pick well respected locals.

In Kingston the Libs picked Kym Richardson, a former footballer and local policeman. And in Wakefield they preselected a well respected local that had only been in the Liberal Party for 18 months!

The ALP is starting to wake up to this. To contest Makin, held by Trish Draper, they originally preselected a union hackette under a factional deal, before the local Bruvvas kicked up a stink and insisted on Tony Zappia, a popular local mayor. Zappia failed, but he ran Draper much closer then Dana Wortly would have, (Ironically, she was given the third place on the Senate ticket, which she is likely to pick up.)

The Liberal approach means that the new breed of Liberal MP’s is far more likely to be ‘in touch’ with their electorates. However it has the disadvantage in that the sort of person who makes a good local MP in a mortgage-belt marginal seat does not necessarily translate into likely Ministerial material. As a result, the Liberals may be more likely to look to the Senate for ministers in the future.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2024 years ago

As I’ve noted here before, Senator Abetz wrote a paper about the “Labor Peerage” which was submitted to the Hawke/Wran Review in 2001. Unfortunately it does not seem to be available online. I shall email his office to see if I can obtain a copy.

I don’t the difference is due to some kind of overall preselection strategy; I suspect its institutional. Labor is heavily factionalised and has a strongly centralised power structure. The Liberal Party is consciously divided into state divisions, each of these leave a lot of power in their branches.

This is not perfectly accurate. There are a lot of hacks in the Liberal party, and there’s a certain degree of factionalism (more like warlordism, actually, since most of the ‘factions’ are personality driven).

Seriously though, the Liberals have Howard and Mark Textor. They cannot be underestimated.

2024 years ago

Scott’s right on the money with regard to the Liberals paying more attention to putting up decent local candidates. This was particularly noticeable in (non-forestry) marginals that the ALP seemed to think they had a chance in, only to find that the preselected hack posted for the job was chasing leather on the hustings.

And on a broader scale, in safe seats, marginals and unwinnables, dumb candidates hurt the ALP in the Senate as the carry-through – where most people vote the same locally and in the Senate – was diminished. The ALP preselected an utter pillock in Farrer against the popular sitting Liberal, and probably lost 5% of the primary from 25% to 20% or whatever as a result. Obviously they’ll never win Farrer*, but Senate votes count wherever they come from – 5% across the state might mean all the difference in the calculations.

(* Although the ALP did hold the NSW state seat of Albury during the 80s with a popular local in Harold Mair, though he was finally ousted during the “gun control” election of 1988.)

I think, in the case of Peter Garrett, even though he wasn’t a local per se, he was a good fit for the area that Kingsford-Smith covers. Probably a better fit than whoever the locals were going to put up. Safe ALP seat either way, though.

2024 years ago

Yeah I had to wait three elections for a decent Labor candidate in my electorate – the SA branch is apparently in tatters. The whole idea of Labor factions should be killed off I think – whatever its benefits in the past, it has now become a liability (says politically ignorant me).

However, I am also aware through other contacts that the old boys club serves the Liberals well, the Democrats don’t necessarily follow their own ‘democratic’ procedure etc etc. And yes well, there is always the usual bed-hopping and the like. Sometimes I just think I am watching office politics on a national scale.

Ken, I looked briefly at the Coalition front bench as background to a blog post last year,
here (Sorry for the link whoreing). It wasn’t an in depth analysis but well…interesting nonetheless.

Scott Wickstein
2024 years ago

Link doesn’t work, saint.

2024 years ago

I’d certainly endorse the critiques related to factional no-hopers being pre-selected by Labor. This has become markedly more common since the institutionalisation of factions around the time of Hawke’s victory in 1983.
However, I’m less hostile on the idea of prospective MPs doing an apprenticeship working as a MP or ministerial staffer. While it’s generally assumed that anyone can do the job if they get elected, being an effective politician involves particular skills/experience/personality characteristics, which can be identified and developed in that sort of environment. This certainly shouldn’t be the exclusive career path for prospective politicians however, and it’s a particular worry when people come from student politics into an MP’s office and straight up the greasy pole through factional affiliation, without anything more broadening.
The compromise is to find electable candidates, and that certainly requires a wider life and occupational experiences. Here the Labor Party’s pitifully small membership (especially active, non-factional membership) is at odds with what’s required.

brian mckinlay
brian mckinlay
2024 years ago

As to Barry Cohen’s remarks about teachers being on the public tit,I found this amusing coming from an ex-politician,who in all probility left parliament with a better pension than most techers could hope after a lifetime in front of large and difficult classes of students .Most teachers would think the back-benches a great deal easier than the classroom.. Nor do teachers in my extensive experience ,get the perks,and free-trips and access to jaunts and junkets that politicians get. In this regard the politicians are not only generous towards themselves whilst in office,but are literally on the public tit forever,until with a bit of luck they geta State Funeral which means they don’t even have to pay their burial expenses. Give us a break ,Cohen !!

2024 years ago

Well said Brian! As a registered teacher that retired some years back in utter mental exhaustion & with barely a drop of altruism left in the tank, whose partner generally spends far more time in the year catering to the needs of her students & constructing work units than tending to her beloved garden, pets & demanding hubby, I find Barry Cohen’s comments ignorant in the extreme. Public school teaching is certainly not the type of career you’d choose if you desired a stress free, well paid, multi-perks career path (regardless of the perception promoted consistently by Right Wing rags, the professional distorters behind Current Affairs shows & private school advocates)…apart from the sharing of BYO food on the occas. morning break meeting, fully funded professional development days (a real riot!) & a gratis ticket supplied to ensure you weren’t penalised financially for coordinating & attending student-oriented excursions, I can’t recall any fringe benefits in all the years i participated in that system. A rather dry tit to drink from indeed.
Can’t imagine Cohen & his mates tolerating such Scrooge-like conditions…if his attitude is widely held in poli circles then it’s not surprising that Education funding is such a low priority in Aussie compared to other nations of similar GDP & capital/asset accumulation. Revealing to say the least…& rather disconcerting.
Nevertheless, I agree with Cohen’s assertion that more career & experience diversity is required in the Labor ranks. It’s obviously important that the wide range of cultural, social & economic experiences that runs the gambit in the Aussie population should be represented in the party as a whole. Tho it should also be recognised that an individuals stated career does not automatically define their personality, skills, knowledge base, experiences etc…most citizens in this day & age are multi-skilled & have dabbled in various disciplines & jobs.
Furthermore, it’s so fashionable in this political era of fear mongering, paranoia & half truths to resort to the reductionist, ‘black & white’ speak of the talkback ragers…but a lack of specificity & lateral thinking can lead politicians into a shallow swamp of ‘guarded moments’ & perpetually distorted & selective sound bytes where integrity & reality are the main casualties.
Feel free to make your own judgment on how relevant the last paragraph is to the thread.
Thanx for reading my winge of the day…:)

Bryan Palmer
2024 years ago

Barry Cohen was a minister in the Hawke Government (not Whitlam).