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Repairing politics

By Mark Latham - posted Friday, 15 February 2002

There’s no question that Australians have a low opinion of politics and politicians. There are those who say that this is actually a good thing, that Australians are sceptical rather than cynical. In other words, while Australians doubt the goodness of politicians, they do not doubt the possibility of goodness.

This defence of political scepticism, however, is no longer valid. Throughout the troubled 20th century, scepticism was a necessary defence against the rise of bureaucratic government and a loss of personal freedom. In a world haunted by fascism and communism, Australians did not want politics to play a big part in their lives. Now, in a changed world, dominated by democracy and new forms of global communication and culture, scepticism is a corrosive force. It represents the politics of disengagement and widespread public apathy.

One of the most disheartening aspects of the last Federal election was the large informal vote. Booth workers from all parties reported a record number of people who refused to take how-to-vote cards, seemingly intent on leaving their ballot papers blank. This was a common practice among young voters. To be frank, Australians in their twenties now look at organised politics as a redundant activity for people who like going to lots of meetings.


Our most pressing task in the Australian Parliament is to restore the public’s faith in politics. Otherwise our system of government will become a race to the bottom. Elections will be won by parties that harness the vote of pessimism, rather than the vote of progress. Politics will become a negative exercise in which candidates aim to be disliked by the least number of people and, in their electioneering, to scare the most number of voters. In the eyes of many, this is what we have already become.

I believe that four changes are needed to overcome this problem:

  1. Politicians have to defend politics and its value to the community.
  2. The politics of convenience needs to be replaced by a new politics of conviction.
  3. We should use the potential of the Internet to deepen and enhance the public debate.
  4. We need to repair our civic institutions through greater public participation in politics.

Politicians who defend politics

Only politicians can clean up the image of politics. At a time when politician-bashing has become a national sport, too many MPs have joined in this campaign, denigrating politics as a vocation. In effect, they are fouling their own nests. If politicians do not believe in the value of their work then why should the Australian people?

This problem was evident in the republic referendum in 1999, when the No campaign argued that the Australian Parliament could not be trusted with the power to elect an Australian President. Unfortunately, the offending MPs have been rewarded for their efforts. Tony Abbott, for instance, has been promoted to manage the Howard Government’s parliamentary business. That is, the politician who, more than any other, has said that the Australian people cannot trust their elected representatives has been appointed to run the House of Representatives.

This is the most illegitimate appointment in the history of the parliament. It is like putting Mike Tyson in charge of a conflict resolution class. It is a further sign of the contempt with which the executive wing of government now treats the parliamentary wing. Worst of all, it shows that the Howard Government has given up on its promise of improved parliamentary standards.


Tony Abbott likes to quote George Will, who said that, "the cry for leadership goes up from millions who wouldn’t recognise it if they saw it and would reject it if they did." Yet when other Australians try to lead public opinion in this country, Abbott habitually equates public service with private elitism and denigrates it for that reason. This is one of the saddest sights in the Australian Parliament: someone who is prepared to attack his political opponents by attacking politics itself.

For politicians to clean up the image of politics, we need to reassert our belief in politics as a vocation. It needs to be seen as an opportunity to lead and serve. Indeed, I believe that a full and rewarding life can only be lived in the service of others. We need to rebuild the reputation of public life as a way of contributing to the public good. In summary, we need politicians who are willing to defend politics.

The politics of conviction

For the first time in human history more people live under democracy than dictatorship. Yet this triumph has been associated with a worrying paradox: while democracy has spread across the globe, the reputation of politics has declined. People now talk about politicians with a cool anger. They have a feeling that the system is far from genuine.

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About the Author

Mark Latham is the former Leader of the Opposition and former federal Labor Member for Werriwa (NSW).

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