We get the candidates we deserve. I truly get grumpy when people tell me that but it turns out to be true.
This week's exhibit is Anne Ruston, the Minister for Families and Social Services. The Murray Valley Standard reported on September 25 that Senator Ruston said: We can't just keep on adding money to this [welfare] bucket, because we're not making a difference. There are many, many people I see on a day-to-day basis (as Families and Social Services Minister) for whom giving them more money would do absolutely nothing. Probably all it would do is give drug dealers more money, give pubs more money..."
I've had a quick look at the Senator's CV which features nine years running Ruston's Roses, six years as chief executive of the National Wine Centre; and nine years working in some capacity for politicians, plus a short stint as vice president of the South Australian state branch of the Liberal Party. Nothing which would make me think the Senator would be a lay down misere as the choice to lead a portfolio which requires an understanding of the needs of Australians on welfare.
Australia's politicians need a giant shot of diversity but that won't happen while none of us will join political parties. We can complain all we like but it's very rare for a politician who is not a member to get preselected as a candidate for one of the major parties (and when they choose someone out of the mould, such as Emma Husar, they do not do a good job of supporting that person). So where does that leave us? A gene pool with zero diversity. Mostly blokes. Just about all white. Definitely middle class, highly-educated.
Political scientist Anika Gauja, associate professor at the University of Sydney, is blunt: "Membership of parties would be over 90 per cent white, very few ethnic minorities, predominantly male, well educated ... when you don't have the pool of people then that reflects what's preselected."
Which, in the case of Senator Ruston, has revealed someone who has zero compassion, an attribute which is surely necessary for someone working in her portfolio.
Gauja and her ANU colleague Marija Taflaga have just completed a study of the preselection process for Morrison's Miracle - the 2019 Australian Federal Election, to be published next year. They trawled through all public records looking for competitive preselection processes. If such processes actually existed, they were nearly impossible to find. It's all deep dark secrecy in most instances, say the researchers. Of the 520 candidate selections the researchers know occurred for the 2019 Australian federal election, they could only find publicly reported information on 326 contests (63 per cent) but more concerningly, in only six per cent of the total pre-selection events was there any evidence at all of a competitive pre-selection contest. In other words, no contest to represent us. It's a bloody good gig with pretty good super for those who stick around. More concerningly, Gauja says it's becoming increasingly difficult to get diversity across class.
"Once upon a time, the Labor Party would have had those candidates but the distinction between the two parties on a class basis has disappeared and it's been disappeared for quite some time."
Which presents us with two problems. The laws and policies developed by these politicians are never going to reflect the diverse interests of society and, as Gauja puts it, if you have legislators who don't look like our country, it leads to disillusion among voters.
It doesn't help change mindsets when the vast majority of political voices are male. Real time media monitoring firm Streem looked at which politicians are quoted most often. It won't surprise you to know that in Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet, it's clearly the PM and the Opposition leader who get quoted the most and even when you take them out, it's still blokes all the way until you get to the Senate crossbench.
It's slightly skewed, of course, because of the deal making by Jacqui Lambie and others but it's also because of the women who are there. They aren't your run of the mill straight white guy with a run of the mill straight white mindset. From Marise Payne to Linda Burney, you get a range of representation you just don't get in the House of Representatives. It's almost as if the parties save many their best women where they will never ever be a threat to the blokes in charge (mind you, Labor has three senators among the 11 women in cabinet while the Coalition has five from seven). Payne is the woman most quoted in mainstream news sites. Of the top 10 women, eight are senators. Tanya Plibersek comes in at number 12.
Streem also looked at the media profiles of 80 high-profile politicians since the federal election in May. Male cabinet and shadow cabinet members generate on average three times the number of media mentions than their female counterparts. And all that does is reinforce the preselection process. Men can see the power they wield reflected in news, all day every day. It's tempting for powerbrokers to replicate that across the generations.
There's only one thing for it. Join a political party today. Sounds awful but the more parties look like us, the less likely they are to tell Newstart recipients, without any proof at all, that they spend their money on drugs and booze.
- Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology with a doctorate in political sociology.