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Mike Baird and political bloodlines

Premier Mike Baird  visits the new south-west rail link station at Leppington.

Premier Mike Baird visits the new south-west rail link station at Leppington. Photo: Jeff de Pasquale

Mike Baird's surprise elevation to the position of premier of NSW has produced a remarkable statistic. There are now three state premiers – Campbell Newman in Queensland, Will Hodgman in Tasmania and Baird – whose fathers (and also mother in Newman's case) were federal or state ministers of significant standing.

Bruce Baird, Mike's father, was a senior NSW state minister before becoming a federal backbencher. Newman's father and mother, Kevin and Jocelyn, were both federal ministers in the Fraser and Howard years. Campbell Newman was even born in Canberra. Hodgman's father, Michael, was a federal minister too before making a comeback in state politics. The many Hodgmans are legendary in Tasmanian politics.

This remarkable occurrence is the most striking example so far of the persistent role of political families not only in Australian politics but also world politics.

These families are political in that generation after generation they keep producing elected representatives both in a direct line of descent and also in the wider family – uncles, aunts, cousins, and increasingly in-laws, with husband-and-wife teams such as Anthony Albanese and Carmel Tebbutt in NSW Labor.

There are many prominent Australian political families that have produced not just elected representatives but government ministers, such as Labor's Beazleys and Creans, the Liberals' Downers, and the Nationals' Anthonys. There are many more, including Labor's McLellands and Fitzgibbons and the Liberals' Wilsons. As well as the two Labor speakers from the Jenkins family.

Political families are widespread. By my estimate, up to 8 to 10 per cent of representatives come from political families narrowly defined and perhaps 15 to 20 per cent from political families more broadly defined to include the wider family, including in-laws. Political life seems to be in the genes of some families.

Since World War II, prime ministers Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke were from political families. Fraser's grandfather was a senator and Hawke's uncle was a premier of Western Australia. Gough Whitlam's son was briefly in federal parliament.

At the state level there have been the Courts in Western Australia and the Playfords in South Australia for the Liberals. Labor has had the Burkes in Western Australia and the Cains in Victoria. There are many more less prominent families. Canberra has had Labor's Fraser brothers in federal politics while the Berrys, father Wayne and daughter Yvette, have served in the Legislative Assembly. Labor's Bob and Steve Whan have represented the region.

Almost always families stick to the one party, but not always. The Victorian Delahuntys have represented both the Nationals and Labor at ministerial level in state politics. But there can be factional differences. Will Hodgman is more progressive than his father Michael, while Mike Baird is more conservative than his father Bruce.

More widely, the United States has the Bushes and the Clintons, and Canada has the Trudeaus. Then there is the famous Kennedy clan in the US. The Gandhis and Nehrus have dominated Indian politics.

What explains this phenomenon other than mere fluke? The first thing to remember is that it is not an isolated phenomenon. Other professions exhibit a similar pattern. The military, medicine and the law are prime examples. So any explanations must be general ones rather than specific to politics.

I can think of a few. Politicians like other parents are role models and other family members learn by example. They are socialised into a way of thinking that public life is not just worthwhile but enjoyable. They see their parents in action as politicians and ministers. They may even share in the social benefits, including attending public events and meeting famous people from all walks of life. They see that their parents are appreciated and flattered by attention.

Politics then becomes a possible life career. It is at least thought about, even if later discarded. Some young people are even effectively trained for politics, as happens in business families and for other professions.

Other explanations are more specific. Family members in the next generation are given advantages, including early introduction to the political party of choice and party membership at a young age. They benefit from family goodwill, mentors and networks. Sometimes, younger family members are eased into favourable situations and even directly into seats in parliament, whatever the formal party rules may be. Nepotism is not unknown.

No democratic theory of representative democracy that I know of takes political families into account, though insider politics and oligarchy are well-known and worried about as anti-democratic. Family politics makes political representation too exclusive if it is overdone and effectively clogs up the representative system. If all is transparent and above board as far as selection processes are concerned, then there is less to worry about. On the other hand, turnover is still something to be encouraged.

What is the practical impact, if any? Are members of this exclusive political class based on family ties better at what they do compared with others with no such political background? I doubt it. At least, there is no evidence for such a conclusion.

They have some early advantages and sources of advice, but they should also beware of a false sense of innate superiority because they are in what seems like the family business. The average voter probably doesn't know or care about their representative's family background but will judge them on their performance. But the phenomenon is still a curiosity worthy of further attention.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.

john.warhurst@anu.edu.au

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