The candid truth or slick spin - we can't have it both ways

Lisa Clutterham is an Australian diplomat who has been posted to Papua New Guinea. This week she was also touted as a contender for Julia's Gillard's soon-to-be-vacated seat of Lalor. So, on Thursday, Clutterham went on ABC radio in Melbourne. What ensued had people wincing in awkwardness and disbelief.

To recap: at the very start of the interview, the 29-year-old was asked what her connection to Melbourne was. ''I don't have a connection with Melbourne and that's not something I'm shying away from,'' came the reply.

When asked how long she had been a member of the ALP, the answer was no less convincing: ''Since mid-June''.

The interview was almost immediately laughed out of town. On Twitter, people could not believe that Clutterham was putting her name forward with these (lack of) credentials. Over at the National Press Club, Kevin Rudd called the interview ''interesting'' to titters among the crowd.

His backer Richard Marles may have been willing to endorse Clutterham but Rudd was offering no such support.

Given his push to democratise Labor, he could hardly endorse such a blatant parachute (even if they were a fellow diplomat).


By sundown the consensus was that Clutterham would now join the pantheon of blink-and-you-miss-them candidates, such as Mal Meninga and Nicole Cornes. To be forever held up as an example of what not to do.

But despite all this, are we being too harsh on Clutterham? In many ways, her performance in the interview was actually quite impressive. Jon Faine was in full gotcha mode but Clutterham held her nerve and her temper. The interview could have very quickly gone off the rails, yet she stayed calm on air for the best part of 10 minutes.

Clutterham readily owned up to the fact that she did not have the traditional CV for the role but argued the case that she had other skills (important, diplomatic ones), which would come in handy for the people of Lalor.

''I've built a life before politics,'' she said. ''Just because you haven't followed that traditional pathway it shouldn't preclude you from putting up your hand to represent a constituency.''

Clutterham - who is from Adelaide - explained that like many young Australians, she had lived all over the place and hadn't had a permanent base for years.

She didn't try to spin her way out of trouble, like many other politicians (aspiring or otherwise) would have. And she directly answered the questions that were put to her, unlike many other politicians.

Perhaps Clutterham's greatest sin was that she was not the wily political product we are so used to seeing front the television cameras and radio airwaves.

Melbourne University professor Sally Young observed in analysis published this week that the average Labor frontbencher is a 51-year-old man, while all of Rudd's new cabinet have a background as either a lawyer, political staffer, unionist, journalist or lobbyist.

''All those who are in senior positions in the ministry, even those who have spent most of their working life in another occupation, have tended to go into some type of political staffer role just before they enter Parliament.''

Despite the frequent complaints that politics has become too slick and too professionalised - dominated by union types and political hacks - we do not like it when someone else comes along.

Clutterham's very recent membership of the ALP has led people to question her devotion to the cause. But if she is willing to put her hand up - should it really matter that she hasn't been a member until just now?

With declining rates of party membership, perhaps we need more flexibility around the idea that people must be members for ages before standing for election.

As Clutterham said: ''I'm in the camp of the majority of Australians, 99 per cent of whom are not members of political parties''.

It is also questionable how much emphasis we should place on location, location. Clutterham is an extreme case but there are plenty of examples where voters have accepted candidates who did not live in the area to begin with (Maxine McKew moved from Mosman to contest Bennelong).

Who says someone local is better placed to represent an electorate? It is possible that a candidate who has the ability to quickly learn a new culture and make representations on behalf of others (like say, a diplomat) would do that with more of an open mind than someone who has lived in the area their whole life.

This is not to say that Clutterham is the second coming. Or that it wasn't a dud move for her to go on Faine's show. But the ''stacks on'' condemning her as a ridonkulous political figure is out of proportion. If we are sick of what the current system produces in terms of candidates, why stay so devoted to it?

Judith Ireland is a Fairfax Media journalist.

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