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Pollies and image: is it the connection that's wrong?

By Phillip Pendal - posted Friday, 15 February 2002

Given one of the meanings of the word "image", politicians should perhaps be applauded universally for their apparent failure to live up to the mark!

My trusty Concise Oxford reminds me that one definition of this elusive quality called image is "artificial imitation of the external form of an object." Thus it might be said that the last thing we need from those who presume to lead us is more artificiality. After all, is that not where the problem lies? Is that not what we have all come to despise about our public officials liberal Western democracies?

I have, after 22 years in public life, developed a theory on the way people in such democracies perceive their politicians. It goes something like this: we are reviled, even hated, as a collective ("They’re all a bunch of self-serving creeps!") but we can be, and generally are, praised and trusted at the individual, local level ("They’re all a bunch of self-serving creeps -- but that Tom Smith, or Mary Brown, is OK")


Implicit in this is that the punters loath the general run-of-the-mill politician (whom they’ve in the main never met) but have some regard for a local Member, the one who helped, perhaps, on an immigration or public housing matter, or broke through the red tape on their mother’s will. Incidentally, this is not something confined to politicians: my theory is that people have a low opinion of most doctors (but generally think the world of their own GP); they have a poor image of lawyers (but respect their family solicitor); and they think all businessmen are rapacious (except the one they know locally who helped out with the school donation).

So if "image" is in reality something artificial, and if we broadly condemn the collective but exempt the individual, why does the issue continue to cause us so much anguish? And what should, or can, be done about it?

The issue causes us continuing anguish because most people yearn, unconsciously perhaps, to follow and respect their leaders. That’s not some sort of an oddity on their part, but a fairly robust desire to want to trust and have confidence in others.

But what the voters are confronted with are daily challenges to that sense of trust and confidence. The media has the job of challenging and confronting elected officials – and ridiculing them into the bargain. This is not new. One has only to flick through the pages of Punch in 19th century England to see the treatment meted out to politicians. And to those in Australia who, in their twilight years, remember through misty eyes the golden days of the statesmanship of Bob Menzies or John Curtin, a reminder is needed that these leaders, too, were lampooned and derided just as ruthlessly in their own day.

In the early 1990s in Western Australia, public behaviour by the State government of the day reached such a controversial point that a Royal Commission of Inquiry was appointed to inquire into the government’s activities, particularly its links with the business sector. One of the outcomes was the creation of a high-powered five-person Commission on Government (COG) . The role of this commission was to hold the WA Government and Parliament up to scrutiny, look at how things actually ran (as distinct to how we thought they ran), look at the personal and political behaviour prevalent at the time, and find ways of correcting any bad behaviour.

The COG reports were, in my view, classics – well-researched, realistic and idealistic, all at the same time. The three volumes could, and should, be helpful to students from all over Australia for years to come for inquiries into government and government process have trawled so well.


Ethics and image bobbed up time and again. In its No 3 report COG noted:

"Throughout our inquiries we have been aware of significant public concern about the perceived decline in ethical standards of politicians. A recurring theme has been the lack of integrity and honesty of elected representatives…"

Trying to separate perception and reality, the Commissioners observed:

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About the Author

The Hon. Phillip Pendal MP Independent Liberal Member for South Perth in the Western Australian Parliament.

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