Federal Politics


Legal attitudes befoul politics

Few admire our braying lawyer-politicians, writes DEAN FRENKEL

It is no surprise that Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd are clever enough to publicly disassociate themselves from their colleagues. But their acknowledgement that politicians are responsible for the current tide of voter discontent does little more than scratch the surface.

The problem is more serious and substantial than mediocre communication standards, vitriolic behaviour and juvenile antics. Voters are alarmed that governance of the country has been reduced to a loud game of political football between two main teams and their players. The siren is sounding but the politicians can't hear it.

Politics attracts large audiences but few fans. It is not the most attractive of games; it is monotonous, predictable and each political season can last for three years - a long time for a game. Yet as politicians play for election day like footy teams for Grand Final day, voters want committed service to the best interests of the country all year round. They don't want constant bickering between two teams of spoilt, sneering players. Regardless of how well politicians play, voters are sick of the game. Politicians beware; this is where the public is losing patience.

Yet the status quo suits politicians with legal training.

Lawyers may well be responsible for the public image problems facing politicians. The legal culture has infiltrated political culture with its adversarial game and all that accompanies it. Values that exist in politics can be traced to the legal culture including relentless competition, ruthless pursuit of success, professional loyalty to the team and conformity to process.

Political language is semi-legal speak; it has its roots in the law. All politicians speak it, even those not legally trained. It is effective communication for power-playing and clouding issues but an abrasive and alienating form for most listeners. It usually toes the party line and routinely covers up the true feelings of the speaker. Even though it can be strategically adapted to shorter media grabs, it always rates poorly on the listenability scale.


Legal training develops a professional ability to role-play in pursuit of desired outcomes. It trains lawyers to be terrific advocates; to learn the rules and use them to advantage; to use language and tactics to manoeuvre within the discipline to achieve the critical edge that helps them win the game. Legal training is the best academic preparation for contemporary politics and gives lawyers a home ground advantage.

Lawyers require a thick-skinned and detached mindset that enables them to tolerate vast amounts of mind-numbing detailed information. Where some legal-eagle politicians can handle it and step outside the box when required (Turnbull), others struggle to shift out of the mindset (George Brandis) and carry their legal training to their political personalities.

Legal training is all about playing the system and while it helps individuals to rise to the top, the best interests of the country are not necessarily served by it. Lawyers are trained to think and communicate in a way that is not necessarily compatible with public interest, policy creation or communication with the public.

The best lawyers will not necessarily make the best politicians and the best leaders need to be much more than brilliant legal strategists. Though lawyers can be masters of persuasion, intellectual persuasion doesn't often win the hearts of voters nor necessarily lead to the right decisions. Politicians need ethics, vision, judgment, policy development, administrative and communication skills and leadership.

Both the major parties are stacked at the top with lawyers. Labor: Julia Gillard, Bill Shorten, Nicola Roxon, Stephen Smith, Penny Wong, Peter Garrett, Simon Crean, Brendan O'Connnor, Mark Dreyfus, Joe Ludwig and more. Liberal: Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Greg Hunt, Christopher Pyne, Matthias Cormann, Sophie Mirabella and rising stars Kelly O'Dwyer, Josh Frydenberg and more.

Prime ministers with legal degrees led the country for 14 of the last 16 years and 23 of the last 29 years.

This is not to suggest that lawyers should not lead the country, nor to question the intent of politicians nor to demean lawyers. Indeed the public is usually unaware of the many positive, compassionate and generous pro-bono work that lawyers do. This piece simply notes that legal minds are dominating and therefore diminishing both political parties, and squeezing out other worthy professionals.

Where are the journalists, academics, sociologists, scientists, engineers and caring professions at the top of the parties? Parliament appears not to be attracting people from a diversity of professions.

Politicians are praying that voters will eventually accept that political football is the game we have to have. But Australian voters don't like politics in their sport nor sport in their politics. Whenever politicians wear their political football boots and simultaneously open their mouths, voters turn off in droves. Yet if politicians don't play the game, they'll be dropped from the team. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, they only have themselves and the legal system to blame.

Dean Frenkel is a speech coach and author of Evolution of Speech.