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Are Australian politicians disconnected from their electorates?

By Graeme Campbell - posted Sunday, 15 July 2001

There are several types of electorates, all of which, while having things in common, also have very different demands and expectations: safe Labor seats, safe non-Labor seats, marginal seats and country seats of the safe and marginal varieties.

Politicians have to perform three basic functions. One is to represent their constituents. This often entails acting as an interface between the constituent and an often arrogant, sometimes incompetent bureaucracy. Even in safe Labor seats this takes up a large proportion of a member’s time. For socio-economic reasons this happens less in safe Liberal seats.

Their second responsibility covers parliamentary duty. For most backbenchers this is a responsibility of a much lesser order of magnitude and consists of attending party meetings, going to various committee meetings designed in part to create the illusion that backbenchers are doing something useful. The reality is that committees take up so much time they keep participants occupied and out of trouble.


Their third function is to make the occasional speech in the Parliament, This often consists of re-hashing the Minister’s second reading speech. This is a safety mechanism that ensures that you do not get offside with the Minister and enhances your chance of being looked on favourably for a Chairman of Committee’s position.

A fourth function is to represent the interests of your electorate. This is not a big issue for members in safe seats, where being in good standing with the party is more likely to lead to reward. This is understandable in city constituencies where the conventional wisdom is that it is hard to create a profile in big cities, and no matter how hard you work, if the swing is on you will get swept along with it.

Country seats tend to be different in that the member is much more visible, and it is possible to create a profile that can protect you against the swing. Country people tend to demand more of their members but in turn are more likely to appreciate good service and reward it with loyalty. This generalisation is more likely to be true of the more marginal seats. In today’s political reality, there are very few safe seats left. Seats where just a few years ago voting patterns seemed to be congenital are now very volatile. Voters are angry and are out to punish. They feel betrayed and indeed they have been so. It is this phenomenon that will see the National Party voted into oblivion and the major parties lose ground to independents and new parties.

Over the last few decades the political parties have become shadows of each other in terms of political philosophy. Now the differences within the parties are greater than the differences between them. This leads to political instability. It should also be remembered that when the main parties have the same policies it simply disenfranchises a large section of the community. For example both political parties and the media along with Australia’s sick academia have known for years that the community at large is apprehensive about large-scale migration and is opposed to the imposition of multiculturalism. Yet, when Bob Hawke was asked about his achievements, he said that he was pleased that he been able to talk with the Liberal party and the ACTU to keep immigration and multi-culturalism out of the media and off the agenda. He either wanted to deceive the public, or more likely he did not believe that we are mature enough to discuss such issues. In either instance he was wrong.

One of the most pernicious exports ever to come out of Canada was "political correctness". Unfortunately it found a very fertile breeding ground in our country, being readily embraced by the elites. This has simply compounded the sense of alienation and disenfranchisement felt by many people. The advent of factions was an attempt to smooth over this alienation within the parties.

Factions started first in the Labor party, but the Liberals were only a month or so behind them. The official reason given for their formation was to present a united face to the public. Since politics is about argument, often robust argument, it is probably more accurate to say that the effect of factions was to take the politics out of politics. Whether it was intended or not, it certainly stifled debate within the caucus.


Whenever someone sought to discuss the merits of legislation handed down to us from on high, one of the faction leaders could be relied upon to move that the motion be put and it was duly carried on the voices. I remember fellow back benchers coming to me and saying that they thought I was right but they could not support me because the factions would make it hard for them, often by threatening their preselection. What faction one joined was not determined by any ideological association, for there was very little political thought of any sort. The main determining factors were personalities and self-protection.

It is not surprising therefore that politicians have become disconnected from their electorates. They are only answerable to their electors once every three or four years where the factions are with them all the time. Many politicians sincerely believe that they can handle this bigamous relationship. I recall telling one now senior front bencher that he would be in trouble if his constituents became aware of the content of his speech. He told me that there was no problem as nobody read Hansard.

However the Gods of the copybook heading eventually catch up, and the old adage holds. You cannot fool all the people all the time. In the Liberal party in Western Australia the factions have split along city-country lines. The city has the numbers, and if Mr. Birmingham, the front-runner for the President’s position, continues his "winner takes all" strategy, the inevitable result will be growing discontent and an ever-widening dichotomy between city and country. This city country alienation is already one of the biggest dangers our Nation faces.

The increase in the power of executive government can only be at the expense and status of members of parliament. Parliamentarians are already being seen as irrelevant and despised. The end result will be the election of independents and small parties. The people are coming to understand that rather than the uncertainty and confusion that the big parties continually warn them about, it is probably our last hope.

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About the Author

Graeme Campbell was an endorsed One Nation Candidate for the Senate. He was Federal Member for Kalgoorlie from 1980-1998.

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