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The phantom MP

By John Spender - posted Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Australian politicians are an inventive lot. Recently, they have invented the Phantom MP. This new species of parliamentary representative which self-exempts itself from the hard work of the front bench is to be found on the Coalition benches of the Federal Parliament. Or, to be more accurate, wherever you can locate them.

While not perhaps as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel, phantom MPs do get around. One instructs startled fellow passengers on the high seas on the sporting give and take of Australian politics. Another struggles through the desert sands to help hard pressed Australian businessmen to make a dollar in the Middle East.

Some, however, are not so adventurous, and can be found slumberous on the backbenches in the House of Representatives, or mentoring young Coalition parliamentarians on the prizes and traps of politics. This work, manfully undertaken by Mr Alexander Downer and Mr Phillip Ruddock, is a role that deserves praise. Their combined experience in the House of Representatives is 50 years or so, and in that time they must have learned a thing or two. This wisdom, they have declared, they are only too happy to pass on to political novices, whom one can heart-warmingly imagine clustered around these sages’ knees. The only problem is, where are these novices?


Any MP who has already been there for at least one parliamentary term - like Mr Turnbull, who doesn’t strike one as the kind of person who’d be looking for a mentor - shouldn’t need any help. If in three years you haven’t worked out how the place works, you should retire quietly from this field of strife. Sadly, as an arithmetical consequence of losing the election, Coalition ranks in Parliament are depleted, and new faces are few. Mentoring is unlikely to be a taxing job.

Mr Costello has not opted for the mentoring game - which is getting a little crowded - and waits serenely on the back of the back benches for a tap on his shoulder from the world of commerce. Mr Vaile is also in the job hunting mode, and wisely rules out retiring from Parliament until he finds something better. It may be a long wait, but in the meantime he can always keep himself busy in distant climes, and stay in touch with his constituents by email.

All of us like to have paid employment to fall back on when looking for the next job, or as a form of semi-retirement, but the problem these ministerial casualties of the last elections presents is that they reinforce in the public’s mind the impression that the Coalition is divided, dispirited, and not serious about its work. Perhaps a question on foreign affairs from Mr Downer? Or on interest rates from Mr Costello? Or a pungent attack on the Government’s brutal decision to deny boat people lengthy and all expenses paid holidays in the Pacific from Mr Ruddock?

The serious point is that the job of MPs is to engage in public debate. This is particularly so for Opposition MPs when they confront an energetic and determined government. That is why they are there: they are democracy’s front line troops. If they don’t carry the debate from the Opposition benches, who is to do it? A weak Opposition makes for a weak Parliament and a weakened democracy. This is never a healthy state.

There is another and unpleasant outcome for the Coalition of this landed gentry approach to political service. So long as it lasts, it will reinforce the poor opinion much of the electorate has of the Coalition. And when these deckchair convalescents give up their seats, they will at the same time give the Government an electoral gift. Labor’s campaign theme would be simple: “They don’t care about representing you. Why should you vote for their replacements?”

Would these phantoms be retiring from seats which Labor has no hope of winning? I expect that is what they would say. Well, go ask John Howard about un-winnable seats.


The best they can do is to offer us an Australian version of American politics Super Tuesday: retire en bloc, and soon.

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About the Author

John Spender QC was the Member for North Sydney between 1980-1990. Positions held during opposition included Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Foreign Minister and Manager of Opposition Business in the House of Representatives.

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