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What do our politicians do?

What, exactly, do our politicians do?

Today, Monday 18 April 2016, the Turnbull government took the almost unprecedented step of recalling all of Parliament for a three-week “emergency sitting” to debate and pass – or, hopefully, fail to pass – two specific pieces of legislation.

Much has been written about the government’s real motivations behind this recall and debate. With the repeated defeat of the ABCC “productivity” bill, Malcolm Turnbull has his double dissolution trigger. But before the vote, with its commonly expected outcome, the Senate spent a large portion of the day discussing the bill.

I had the pleasure of listening to Senator Scott Ludlam’s speech on the subject. Senator Ludlam’s speeches are almost always worth listening to – go on, listen to one or two right now, we’ll wait.

If you just took the opportunity to watch some of Ludlam’s speeches, or have previously done so, beside the clear speaking, reliance on facts and withering irony that he brings to his every contribution, the other notable feature of Scott Ludlam’s speeches is that the chamber is almost invariably almost empty.

It would seem fair to assume that on a matter of such national importance that Malcolm Turnbull would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring “nearly 150 MPs and their staff… back to Parliament from around the country”, that said MPs would want to listen with avid attention to the speeches in response. Presumably the job of an MP is to attend sittings of Parliament, engage in the discussions and debate there, and form an opinion on the subject at hand prior to casting their vote.

One might make that assumption, but one would evidently be wrong. Any cursory viewing of either Parliament or the Senate will show the real situation – wide swathes of benches, primarily governmental and opposition, clear of occupants. That is, until the bells are rung for a vote.

Debates in the Parliament and the Senate, it seems, exist for the sake of posterity and inclusion in Hansard, not to inform the level of understanding of those about to decide on the future of the country. Is it any wonder Question Time so often descends into farce? The stakes are so low, with all – or at least most – MPs already set in their intended vote, that they need to pass the time somehow. The result is a system of government too easily interrupted by process – filibusters, suspensions of standing orders, points of order, and political games such as tying unpalatable bills to legislation of clear national and popular importance, forcing MPs to vote against the good to prevent the bad, or to vote for the bad to achieve the good.

So if they’re not spending their time in their seats in the Chamber, what do our politicians do?

They don’t write their own articles.

They don’t even fact-check, or apparently have very much knowledge about the subject matter of their portfolio. Scott Ryan’s recent snafu with plagiarism is only the most recent of a continual string of egregious failures. Sometimes it seems that if politics were a school class, most Australian politicians would get a failed grade on account of not bothering with even the most rudimentary editing of their copied work.

They don’t rely on expert witnesses.

Greg Hunt, apparently the closest thing the Coalition has to a climate expert, went no further in his research than to visit a wikipedia page. Relying on Wikipedia would bring a failing grade for a student’s essay; why should we accept it from our elected leaders?

They don’t appear to have much knowledge of party processes that fall into their direct remit.

Nor do they seem to take an active involvement in running the companies of which they are the directors. Sometimes it appears that politicians spend more time disavowing any knowledge of things happening in their own department than it would have taken to simply be aware in the first place. It helps that they seem to have such fallible memories. Even if they know something now, they almost certainly won’t know it by the time it becomes the subject of an inquiry. This is a peculiarly specific talent that seems unique to our politicians.

What our politicians do appear to spend plenty of time doing is sledging. Almost every federal politician in Australia, a refined product of the political system, is well-versed in holding the party line, spouting off talking points and heckling during whatever speeches they don’t manage to avoid being present for. Some might consider these to be lower-order priorities than the activities that might actually lead to better legislation.

It’s not as if we don’t pay our politicians enough. Even the most obscure of backbenchers [not] sitting in the pews at the back of the chamber is earning six figures – twice. If you’re reading this, almost certainly every federal politician earns more than you by a number of multiples. It has been said that “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”, as if that were a defense of exorbitant parliamentary salaries, but research has shown that the benefits of lifting politicians’ pay start to even out once the level of remuneration reaches a comparative middle class wage. Middle class wage is approximately the average full-time wage, or just under $81,000. Clearly we pay above the curve. Politicians and economists are wont to point out that if you pay less, you won’t attract the people you want into politics, or keep them there. Amanda Vanstone has argued that Australian politicians earn much less than company directors and others in big business. This brings us to the corollary. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys; if you pay a corporate salary, you get businessmen. Oddly, people rarely seem to question whether businessmen make the best politicians.

So, whilst Parliament and the Senate spend the next three weeks in Canberra having already voted down the extremely critical piece of legislation the Government absolutely needed to have passed, just remember they’re earning a bare minimum of $11,483 for their efforts. And keep that number in mind when you see pictures of empty seats. You’re paying for them to not be sitting there.


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  1. kerri

    Excellent article!

  2. Angry Old Man

    I Agee!

  3. ImagiNation

    So how much would it cost so none of them are sitting there?

  4. Gangey1959

    A blank cheque would just about cover them not being there.

  5. You can't be serious?

    What do they do, well at least the Liberals in this case, who are responsible for the expensive charade?
    I just read an article advocating for a system of governance based on the random selection of legislators. Just like the ancient Athenians utilised.
    When can we start?

  6. paul walter

    An honest and therapeutic holding forth from ozfenric. You go for it, friend- plenty out here asking similar questions and getting ropable also.

    Berthold Brecht himself could not have come up with a more absurdist scenario, so many things wrong, teh stoopid burns.

    Jenny Macklin, harshly, to Hon. Bronwyn Bishop, health minister at the time of the kero baths scandal, revealed as a persistent refusal of oversight : “Minister, what DO you do”?

  7. paul walter

    You can’t be serious?

    Not much sign of the healthy interactions of the Agora these days? Thinking on it shows just how oligarchic it has all deteriorated to.

  8. Stephen

    If you pay peanuts you get monkeys perhaps so.
    But if you are getting monkeys anyway why pay more than peanuts since when did paying top dollar ever become a guarantee of getting the best person anyway. Think movie stars politicians business and company leaders political advisor authors and endless others examples.
    I would be more interested in some one giving examples were top dollar was the best solution and got the best result for the situation rather than someone who lined their own pocket by self promotion and bloated egotism, they must be a few but not to many.

  9. June M Bullivant OAM

    This is what they do, when they are not in the chamber they sit in their offices and discuss how they can get at the people who are paying their wages.

    The problem is this, that everything Turnbull is doing is affecting all the taxpayers, the sick, the old, farming, food, environment, foreign ownership of our ports, our food bowls and the disability sector, he is doing nothing to the big end of town and his rich mates. Baird was doing the same and after the election he is going to be worse. You cannot take them at their word because you cannot trust them, if Mr Turnbull is doing this before the election what will he do if he is elected, we need him and his advisors gone.

  10. paul walter

    Indeed! Worse beyond our wildest imaginings, if some of the sheep don’t wake in a hurry.

  11. Miriam English

    It is interesting that in many situations paying money actually deters people from giving their best.

    The open source movement shows this better than most. Free computer programs and operating systems are generally as good as, often better than, their expensive proprietary counterparts.

    And then compare Encyclopedia Brittanica with Wikipedia, the latter being the largest, most accurate encyclopedia to have ever existed. Wikipedia is created for free by hundreds of thousands of people, each with some expertise in some area.

    Watch this talk on why paying money doesn’t necessarily get good results and can actually make things worse:
    Dan Pink – The puzzle of motivation

    I feel strongly that politicians should have their wages tied to (though not equal to) the minimum wage. So that it might be twice or perhaps three times the minimum. There should be no attraction for the lazy to have lavish lifestyles doing little more than polishing seats with their backsides. We need to have politicians who want the job for the right reasons.

    Also I think they should have to clock on and off. If they are not working then they should not be paid. Long lunches, not attending debates, and sleeping off a hangover in their room should not be paid for. These sorts of measures would hopefully bring improvements in performance, but even if it didn’t, the slight invasion of their privacy it would require would perhaps make them think twice about laws that enable massive spying on every man, woman, child, dog, budgie, and goldfish in Australia.

    It is ridiculous that many politicians have become our enemy instead of our representatives.

  12. Douglas Pye

    Indeed ! The ” Empty Vessel Syndrome ” writ Large !! ….. add to this the Question Time Farce, and one is squarely entitled to frankly feel ashamed about showing this charade to a clutch of school children ! The fresh, ‘ unconditioned ‘ appraisal this would bring to bear would be all revealing … the Emperor IS naked !

    Whenever I sight a picture such as the one above, I wonder just how the member, delivering a speech to the brick wall of an empty room, must think !…. contributing to a Hansard which none of his/her constituents ( average Voters) will read !!

    Seriously, why bother ?? ….why not simply submit in writing thru the Speaker’s Office ? … duh ! …..

    We, the general public of Australia – Voters – have allowed ourselves to be conditioned over the years ….. modern technology is all very well BUT it can remove the vital Human Element from our basic social contact, thus paving the way for standards to actually fade ( virtually into oblivion in many instances ).

    Has anyone here looked at Tweeting recently ? Does it appear to be devoid of Human Element as a means of communication ? or am I just a cranky old man ? ….. another Syndrome ?? ….. 😉 ….. ( back to Meditation ) … 🙂 …..

  13. keerti

    Immagination…So how much would it cost so none of them are sitting there?
    All depends on your calbre!

  14. harry Cohen

    Thank you for drawing attention to Scott Ludlum and his speeches which are all worth listening to and indeed I would say they are all outstanding.They are in sharp contrast to the drivel spouted by most of the members.and the empty chamber says much about the intellect of the absentees

  15. diannaart

    If nature abhors a vacuum, how come we have politicians?

  16. keerti


  17. Anomander

    Pay peanuts – get monkeys.

    Pay big bucks – get money-grubbing, self-important sociopaths.

    I always get frustrated whenever I hear the argument that we have to pay our politicians well to attract “the best”, as if performing a service to the public is not enough of a motivation. The same rule seems to also apply to directors and CEOs of businesses, generating a dog-eat-dog mentality where it is fine to trample all over each other to reach the top.

    Yet this same mentality doesn’t apply to everyday workers. Waiters, truck drivers, public servants, cleaners, etc… all these people are supposedly without any knowledge or skill and should only be paid the minimum amount possible for their efforts.

    Not once in this entire equation does anyone ever acknowledge co-operation, teamwork or altruism.

    The greatest achievements humanity has ever made have NOT been through the pursuit of money, but through committed individuals pursuing their passions, building upon the collective knowledge of those who came before them, freely sharing their expertise, harnessing the diversity, skills and knowledge of others to further our progress.

    Modern politics and business is purely focused upon competition, beating everyone else and making more money. The individual has primacy over the collective good. And this is the principal reason why our society is stagnating, fracturing and stratifying.

    The only way we fix this is to refuse to support those people who don’t exemplify the ideals and models we want to see in ourselves.

  18. jimhaz

    The lack of real parliamentary discussion may also be producing bad policy ideas from the LNP. All those far right ideas and the personalities that foster such ideas are not being tempered before being put out to the public.

    Of course with the LNP full of the fire and brimstone type of Christian – there is no point whatsoever in debating.

    I did not follow politics when young – but I’m sure the two sides were more open to debate during Hawke’s time.

  19. ImagiNation

    You do realise of cause, if there was truth in politics many people would be unemployed, especially in the media.

  20. Deanna Jones

    If I did not show up to work, could not do my work or heckled my colleagues every day, my contract would be terminated.

  21. wam

    the key to rationalising your importance is:
    first employ sycophants
    secondly to claim all collective decisions as your own(eg the chamber looks empty but all senators will claim for being there)
    thirdly attribute everything you do as ‘work’.
    (there is a fourth, to which the xenophons are addicted, claim every penny you can from the taxpayer and if for some reason you spend claim it back – in europe ‘sign in and slope off’)
    As far as my poor brain can tell there is one way to show the pollies how hard they work.
    A monthly diary post show where, how long, who, why and outcome?
    ps I love the cry on resignation ‘to spend time with my family’ – they never work in school holidays or any public holiday and how many get caught with family on junkets????

  22. Pingback: What do our politicians do? | Random Pariah

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