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A plague of 'whitebreads'

By Paul Williams - posted Tuesday, 22 August 2006

What do we want to see in any candidate seeking public office?

A quick scroll down of the list of people Labor has preselected for the coming state election reveals a smattering of experience, with teachers, nurses, academics, police officers and administrative officers among them.

But the list also contains a large number who, for at least some of their working lives, have served in paid positions for either the Labor Party or an affiliated trade union. Many, for example, boast experience as electorate officers and policy and media advisers to serving ministers and MPs.


And the news this week that Labor has endorsed family members of former and retiring MPs has drawn further fire for perpetuating a culture of political machine men and women, where future generations of politicians are being recruited from increasingly smaller pools. This perception is not new, and the ALP has been aware of community disdain for the "professional politician" for some time.

In 1996, Queensland Labor commissioned an inquiry into why it was unexpectedly mauled at the 1995 state election. Investigator and former federal MP, the late Mick Young, reported what many of us already knew: There was a fundamental disconnection between government and people, and that most voters saw Labor as an elite party organised in the interests of professional politicians.

A second inquiry, the 2002 Hawke-Wran report, found a similar problem of elitism at a federal level, where membership of factions and "inner circles" counted more than hard work at the "grassroots" level.

Yet even before this, Labor's then retiring national secretary, Gary Gray, urged all aspiring politicians to "get a life" away from party offices before embarking on a parliamentary career and avoid becoming just another cardboard political cut-out.

The term used to describe this type of MP is, of course, the "whitebread" politician: One who is bland, lacking in fibre, at risk of growing stale, and exactly the same as every other slice in the parliamentary loaf. While Labor is the worst offender here, it's by no means alone.

For years the Nationals relied heavily on the recruitment of serving local government politicians - councillors, mayors, shire presidents - to fill their parliamentary benches.


While the Liberals are amateurs by comparison, they're quickly catching up. We're now seeing a growing regiment of Liberal Party organisers and factional warlords taking their own seats across Australia.

But, as much as we lament it, our collapse into "professional politics" has been largely inevitable.

Media images, the value of party unity and the fear of uncertainly have backed parties into a corner of risk avoidance. They feel it's better to stick to a single, proven type of candidate - one who already knows the "rules" of politics - rather than risk defeat with an untested formula. They can be forgiven for such caution.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on August 12, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Paul Williams is a lecturer with the Department of Politics and Public Policy, Griffith University

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