Federal Politics

Respecting our politicians

Despite their poor public image, most of our representatives work hard in thankless jobs, NICK DYRENFURTH writes

During the past few weeks a depressingly small number of Australian athletes have stamped themselves as national heroes. Nonetheless, for many Australians, the London Olympics came as a welcome respite from the political games that have taken place in our parliamentary colosseum known as Canberra over the past two years. Indeed, politicians are presently regarded with barely concealed contempt. According to a recent Roy Morgan survey, in terms of ''honesty and ethical standards'', Australians ranked their state and federal politicians above only ''real estate agents'', ''advertising people'' and ''car salesmen''. How must those poor sods be feeling?

In some respects this lowly standing is deserved - witness the sleazy Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson scandals. The achievements of Julia Gillard's Labor government are all too often marred by poor communication and sloppy tactics. The opposition, meanwhile, confuses robust scrutiny with nihilistic partisanship and empty sloganeering. The recent Council of Australian Governments shenanigans over the introduction of a trial of the much-feted National Disability Insurance Scheme - NSW and Victoria agreed that the NDIS was a vital, moral imperative but almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory - left many Australians utterly despairing.

All else being equal, Tony Abbott will sail into office next year, Steven Bradbury-style. Boasting neither costed policies, nor a coherent governing philosophy, Abbott will become PM in spite of himself, courtesy of the government's internecine warfare and public cynicism towards ''brand Labor''. Yet Abbott almost certainly wouldn't enjoy a long honeymoon. Why is pollie- bashing our fastest-growing spectator sport? Doubtless, the current parliament's ultra-partisan brutalities militate against rational debate, nor does sensationalist media coverage help. Personnel-wise, the ever-shrinking gene pool of politicians and the hollowing-out of hitherto mass parties are each contributing factors.

Many Australians are questioning the value of democracy itself. A recent Lowy Institute poll revealed that only 39 per cent of Australians aged 18 to 29 believe democracy to be a superior form of government. 23 per cent think that 'for someone like me, it doesn't matter what kind of government we have'. A staggering 37 per cent reckon non-democratic rule, well, rules. Our current contempt for politicians utterly lacks perspective. Brave protesters are shot down like dogs in Syria and much of the Arab world. ''Democratic'' Russia witnesses growing repression. These folks would die - and literally are - for our standard of government, one that is, by global standards, relatively efficient, honest and accountable.

Donald Horne's sense of 1960s Australia as the ''lucky country, run by [the] second-rate'' lives on. Yet our economy is the envy of the world; (non-indigenous) citizens are mostly healthy and well-educated. Ours is a generally tolerant society, and, despite Treasurer Wayne Swan's warning in his recent John Button speech, still relatively egalitarian. To paraphrase former British prime minister Tony Blair, a simple way to measure Australia is to look at ''how many want in and how many want out''. Truth told, our politician-loathing says more about ourselves than those toiling in Canberra. Most Australians have little idea of the work pollies do, nor the sacrifices their careers demand of their families and health. Who among us would tolerate the demands of a working week averaging about 70 to 100 hours? Surely few right-thinking Australians would countenance staying in an occupation entailing ever-increasing expectations, invasive scrutiny of one's personal life, all without the prospect of the boss saying ''thanks for a job well done''.

If pollies do disappoint, which, as humans, they inevitably must, who's to say that we aren't partially to blame? Pollies regurgitating focus- group studies merely reflect our hopes, fears, virtues and vices, and, crucially, our refusal to involve ourselves in organised parties. It's far easier to click the latest GetUp! link or ''like'' a ''Juliar'' Facebook page. For many Australians, politicians aren't really ''one of us''. Yet, if we are to suffer yet another reality TV show, why not A Week in the Life of a Politician, with average Joes and Josephines filling in for their local MP? Reality TV would, for once, provide something akin to a reality check: pollies can be heroes too. It was not always thus.


In a 2004 study, British historian Angela McShane showed how the celebrity-hero of 17th-century England was not a sportsman or musician, but a politician. Ballads revealed a deep and abiding respect for parliamentary politics.

In that spirit, this sport-lover will admit that his personal hero is a politician, Australia's legendary wartime leader, John Curtin. Born into poverty in then working-class Brunswick, Curtin became a skilled orator, journalist and Labor activist. Barely 30, he famously led the ''No'' case against military conscription during World War I.

Curtin's politics eventually mellowed. He entered Parliament in 1928, but concerns over his drinking saw him denied a place in Jim Scullin's calamitous Depression-time cabinet. Curtin lost his seat in 1931, but re-entered Parliament three years later and was elected leader.

He painstakingly united a divided party.

In October 1941, Curtin was sworn in as prime minister of a minority Labor government and steered the country through World War II.

He died in July 1945, six weeks before the conflict's conclusion, a war victim if ever there was one.

More than 100,000 citizens of Perth turned out to watch the funeral procession of a true national hero.

Political hero worship is not quite dead. Witness the poignant ''thank-you'' letters appearing in newspapers on the occasion of Gough Whitlam's 96th birthday last month.

Perhaps, too, some Australian teenagers will be less inspired by the men's 100 metre freestyle than the underappreciated deeds of our current Prime Minister.

Dr Nick Dyrenfurth is a lecturer at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University and the author or editor of several books on Labor politics.