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Choose your dinner guests wisely

By Natasha Cica - posted Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Remember that party game where everyone draws up a wish list of who they'd like to have to dinner? At risk of career suicide, I've been toying with a gathering comprising Brian Burke, Santo Santoro and their ilk, including the still-sitting federal MP of my glancing acquaintance who sampled the services of Chinese sex workers while part of an official delegation overseas.

Think of those late-night, back-room war stories my guests could recount over that fifth busty bottle of West Australian red! Bring on that sizzling Szechuan special! Extending my table, there might be room for a fistful of pollies who still think a parliamentary study tour means cricket at Lord's, or maybe a Pacific island frolic or Eurotrash boondoggle with their playmate of the moment. Imagine the postprandial drooling over those strapless sand-or-samba souvenir snaps

Admit it. You'd want to score an invitation too, or at the very least to be a bug-eyed fly on the wall. We're all primed to think characters like that comprise the sexy heart of the Australian political beast. In one sense that's true, not least because the seamy surely and swiftly sells.


As one journalistic wisdom goes, you're not much fussed when you hear respectable sounds of social intercourse gently burbling over your back fence. But your ears prick up at the sound of something sordid or, literally, smashing. You want to know the worst.

This potentially leaves the best - or at least, the least worst - without the attention it arguably deserves. That's a huge practical problem for pollies of the kind of character that would rule them off the A-list for my dirty dozen dudes dinner. By this I mean character in a fairly basic and older-fashioned sense, as pinched from philosopher Raimond Gaita. In Romulus, My Father, Gaita's moving morality play set in his childhood in country Victoria in the 1950s, he defines character as honesty, loyalty, courage, charity towards others in need, capacity for hard work, humility without humbug, and pride - not in a sense that implies arrogance, but rather wants respect only for a serious attempt to live decently. As I keep claiming, the rise of the spiv strata means these qualities are not core criteria for participation or promotion in public life.

That situation cannot improve unless and until more Australians who do appreciate the value of good character put their money where their mouths are. In this critical federal election year, we must give real oxygen to political pretenders who don't fit the rigid, managerialist mould marked "hack".

That's why Maxine McKew deserves continuing attention as Labor's selection for Bennelong and beyond. So do a number of Labor candidates-in-waiting whose political trajectories have been a tad more lateral than that of, say, former party secretary and Woodside adviser Gary Gray, a Labor card carrier for 32 of his 48 years, recently anointed to take over Kim Beazley's seat of Brand.

Watch Labor's upcoming preselection announcements carefully - at least one sitting member's scoured her extensive extracurricular network for a successor with experience, and vision, far beyond the machine.

Spotting and catching talent is no less a crucial challenge for the Coalition. Consider Vanessa Goodwin, a police criminologist who recently survived both a hard-right faction fight and a family values smear campaign relating to her personal life (educated, unmarried, no kids, loves dogs, totally freaky and frightening) to win the Liberal spot for Tasmania's southern seat of Franklin.


Goodwin has a serious chance of beating ALP candidate Kevin Harkins, an electrical union official found by the 2003 Cole commission to have engaged in intimidatory and unlawful conduct on building sites. Harkins was preselected despite the vocal objections - disloyalty or democracy? - of outgoing Labor member Harry Quick.

Back to those sordid sounds of smashing? That misses my point. None of us is perfect, and we should stay eternally suspicious of the puritanical. And Australia is a small society where sooner or later most political players rub shoulders in one way or another, across a range of divides. But we do all make choices regarding with whom we seriously sit down to sup and, more pertinently, which hands we let feed us.

Sooner or later those choices have consequences. So we shouldn't be surprised when a reaper comes knocking, like Mr Death at the dinner party in Monty Python's Meaning of Life - but without that side-splitting salmon mousse punchline. It's clearly a very good time to revise a whole stack of guest lists.

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First published in The Age on March 21, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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