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.