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There are already many talented politicians helping to lead this country

By Peter van Vliet - posted Wednesday, 14 April 2004

Sir Winston Churchill famously declared that, "democracy is the worst form of Government except all those others that have been tried from time to time". It’s a point that should always be kept in mind given how regularly one comes across politician bashing in our community.

Peter McMahon’s attack on our existing politicians is a good case in point. McMahon rails against what he sees as a lack of talent in our parliament but provides no real evidence to back this premise up. Worse still he offers no coherent means of addressing his perceived problem.

McMahon’s whole thesis is blown out of the water in his first sentence when he points out that Malcolm Turnbull is now on his way to the House of Representatives. What’s more Malcolm Turnbull is replacing the entirely competent Peter King, a fact that has caused great upset in some quarters of the Liberal Party.


Let me quickly refute some other points in Peter McMahon’s article. McMahon claims, again without evidence, that not enough politicians have studied politics. A cursory analysis of our federal parliamentary handbook will show that a significant number of federal politicians have arts degrees. Members such as David Kemp and Tanya Plibersek also have specialist expertise in the discipline of politics.

There seems to be a larger percentage of people who have studied politics in our parliament than there is in our community. If anything we have too many politicians with arts degrees. If anything there are arguably not enough representatives with more practical degrees like engineering or science. We could even do with a few more representatives who have some ordinary workforce experience. More representatives from these backgrounds might provide for some fresher perspectives in our federal parliament.

McMahon also claims that politicians do not employ staffers with politics degrees. This claim certainly doesn’t apply to me. The attack on lawyers is again unjustified: much of parliament’s deliberations involve legislation - sometimes known as law. It does help to have some people educated in law deliberating over these processes.

As someone who works in federal parliament, I can attest to their being many very impressive members and senators on both sides. Love or hate the politics of Peter Costello, John Faulkner, Mark Vaile, Nicola Roxon, Robert Hill, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Bob McMullan, Philip Ruddock, Brendan Nelson or Stephen Conroy, none of the aforementioned frontbenchers are fools. Christian Zahra, Marise Payne, Sharryn Jackson, Ross Cameron, Penny Wong, Christopher Pyne and Carmen Lawrence are just some of the ambitious talents currently on our backbenches. On the cross benches Bob Brown, John Cherry, Andrew Murray, Kerry Nettle and the wily Brian Harradine remind us that the major parties do not have an exclusive grip on parliamentary talent.

In representative democracy you get the politicians you vote for. While not all of our 226 federal representatives are JFKs in the making, they have all passed the test of public opinion, at least for now.

McMahon also needs to appreciate that too many generals and not enough foot soldiers would see our federal parliament quickly descend into leadership chaos. It’s good for equilibrium to have a few parish pump politicians about the place.


McMahon would get closer to reality if he explored in more depth the preselection processes of the major parties. Certainly some state branches of the Labor Party could benefit from more democratic and less centralised processes when they preselect their candidates for public office. Better still, Labor could consider trying genuine mass based rank and file preselection processes amongst large numbers of Labor supporters (and not just members), along the lines of the Democrats in the US. This might be a better way of sorting out the wheat from the chaff in regards to Labor candidates.

But even accepting that not all of our parliamentarians are genii, McMahon’s claim that a random sample of Australians placed in parliament would not lower the quality of our federal representation is both absurd and insulting. It is the equivalent of saying a random sample of Australian males aged 20 to 35 placed on a football field would outplay the Lions or the Panthers. This claim disregards the political skills politicians display to get into parliament. It also disregards the deliberative skills most politicians develop after getting there.

Australians who care about our democracy should always jump to the defence of our politicians, particularly when it comes from those who should know better. To slightly twist another great Churchill quote, when democracy is attacked one should use a pile driver in its defence. "Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time with a tremendous whack." Our democracy is too precious to let cheap shots go by.

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About the Author

Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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