By Paul G. Dellit
Ian Macfarlane and Garry Gray gave a joint interview on their departure from politics. Macfarlane made the observation that Australian politics was not now attracting candidates of the calibre it once had. Gray nodded assent. Macfarlane went further to suggest that the Australian electorate had come, in recent times, to regard their politicians as clowns and their Parliament a circus. Gray agreed and was able to amplify the point.
Macfarlane had served eighteen years in Federal Parliament and Gray nine. Both of them had gained significant experience of life in the private sector before they entered Parliament. Both entered politics because they wanted to make a difference, albeit opposing differences. Both of them believed in the causes they espoused. Both were and remain men of substance.
We cannot pretend that these men were not also motivated by the drive for personal success. Both have healthy egos which gave impetus to all that they have achieved in life. Both have compromised their principles when they believed that pursuing them would be pointless. And as we reflect upon Macfarlane’s disappointment with the current crop of political strivers, we cannot pretend that any one of our prime ministers, for example, not even Curtin, has been motivated by nothing more than altruism.
What distinguishes Macfarlane and Gray from the pratfalling people in funny costumes and red noses whom they wish had never become legislators, is that quality of substance. People of substance have the intellectual humility to know that they have some learning to do when they take on a new job. They are able to understand the dimensions of the task they face, and have the ability to grow to meet its challenges. They are able to solve new problems by extrapolating solutions from academic knowledge and life experiences. They have genuine situation awareness and the sensitivity to recognise that every new situation must be addressed on its own terms rather than some predetermined ideological formula. Above all, they apply these skill-sets to achieving public-interest outcomes, rather than paying lip-service to them as they ruthlessly pursue personal agendas.
In spite of his compromised, equivocal performances as Communications Minister, and now as Prime Minister, before he embarked upon a political life, Malcolm Turnbull was a man of substance. We must also allow that the values he espoused as a layperson might as easily have seen him take his place in a Labor caucus or a Liberal cabal, on the right of the former or the left of the latter.
Now, unfortunately, there are some parallels to be drawn between Turnbull’s current parliamentary leadership of the Liberal Party and Menzies’ leadership of the United Australia Party. Malcolm has not the leadership skills sufficient to the task of leading the Liberal Party along the path he mapped out for it when he became ‘leader’, any more than Bob did as leader of the UAP.
So we must consider Malcolm a wether, rather than a ram, as far as men of substance go in the current Parliament. (For all you died-in-the-wool city slickers, a wether is a male sheep whose nutbush gets dropped off as he leaves the city limits – to mix the metaphors).
As for the rest who currently warm the green and red Parliamentary seats, Macfarlane and Gray make the point that they are predominantly men whose shiny arses have been polished for most of their working lives. They owe today’s Parliamentary salaries to yesterday’s factional elbow grease: they owe their pre-selections much more to their success at the factional game than any ability they may have shown as people who understand real-world problems, real-world problem-solving, macro-level issues of strategic national importance, the philosophical underpinnings of the social policies they espouse, and nor can they claim even a nodding acquaintance with the broad sweep of history and the importance of global cultural similarities and differences. They are predominantly men and predominantly shallow, engaged in a kind of political shadow play dumbed down for those gullible enough to believe their slogans, and enlivened by nothing more than name-calling and ad hominem attacks. In short, they lack substance.
The problem is not confined to the left or right of the Speaker in each House. There are no Whitlams or Hawkes or Keatings waiting in the wings of the Labor Party, nor any Menzies or Frasers in the offing for the Liberal Party. No need to waste time on the agrarian socialists, the National Party. Tony Windsor was the best thing they could ever have had going for them, but they are the Nationals, after all.
The Liberal Party has produced Prime Minister Tony (it’s all been said) Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey (with remarkable insights to offer on the lifestyles and driving habits of poor fringe dwellers, how to run the economy like a take-away shop, and his own brand of doing add-ups).
Treasurer Scott Morrison (“We don’t have an expenditure problem. It’s a spending problem.” And we will all remember his analysis of trickle-down growth and budget balancing by giving tax breaks to companies who don’t pay any tax. Still, he’s no longer the sociopath ruining the lives of asylum seekers. We have the sociopath Peter Dutton for that job these days).
But it’s not all down to the men. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been a stand-out performer in demonstrating how it’s done in the ‘it’s all about me and my career’ current Liberal Party view of the world. She was that lawyer who distinguished herself by seeking to cheat dying asbestos victims and their families out of their compensation. Now she’s the mistress of the eye-catching entrance. Australia should push its image as a modern, forward-thinking country. But in terms of international diplomacy, the way you dress is a form of communication. Wearing a formal jacket over what appeared to be a teddy – the night attire, not the cuddly toy – would be bad enough in any international diplomatic setting, but to turn up as the guest of our nearest, most populace neighbour and show such insensitivity to their Muslim culture is inexcusable. The only mitigation we can find is that she just doesn’t know any better – another to add to the list of our insubstantial political employees.
I have not said anything about the currently players in the Labor Party. They seem to be in a state of flux. To me, Shorten looked really wether-like at the beginning of his tenure, and now perhaps we can hope that he is growing a formidable pair.
If there is any hope for the future, I think it is mostly in the hands of the women of both Parties, women who have had to find their way through the patriarchal maze that no man has been forced to negotiate. Marise Payne and Tanya Plibersek come immediately to mind, and Penny Wong in the Senate. They are all people of substance as their performances to date have demonstrated.
In the wash-up, I believe we are right to think of most of them, and most of them men, as the clowns that Macfarlane and Gray alluded to. Parliament has become a circus. And the whole bloody exercise is costing us a fortune. We pay for professionals and find we are at the mercy of self-serving second-raters. More importantly, the opportunity cost of having these mendacious buffoons charting our future is more than anyone can calculate.
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