Believe it or not.
Politicians are people. I know that some will howl me down for saying this, but it’s true – technically. They were born just like the rest of us, but for some of them that’s where the similarity to normal people ends.
Being people means that they are probably possessed of most of the usual human strengths and frailties, so they do some good things, they make mistakes, they get pissed off, angry, jealous, exhausted – just like the rest of us – but there’s also something different, something which sets them apart from we normal creatures.
As is the case with normal people, there is, among pollies, a diversity of personality types, cultures, beliefs and practices, which means that it’s a serious mistake to bundle them all into the same basket. There is no one “type” of politician, and to try to describe each specific type would be a monumental task.
Although not a comprehensive strategy, perhaps the easiest way to distinguish between the types is to create a couple of very broad and equally general categories, and then to separate each of these categories into more manageable sub-groups.
We can do this by making some educated guesses about the varying motivations that bring them into politics.
Let’s first consider the broad group of pollies* who feel compelled to use their skills to make the world a better place.
Whilst most aspiring pollies will claim this to be their primary motivation, relatively few will pursue it genuinely as their principal goal. “Making the world a better place” is a “motherhood statement”. Everyone is in favour of motherhood, so everyone is going to be receptive to a politician who claims “creating a better world” as their principal reason for entering politics.
Some, however, do seek to make a difference. In this case, the pollies’ personal experience may be the key to differentiating between the members of this broad category.
Our experiences as children, adolescents and adults combine to create our world view. Someone who has known poverty, and the hardship which it brings, may see a career in politics as a way to help ensure that other people do not have to share similar experiences. The politician may strive (and inevitably fail) to influence the formation and implementation of government policies that are designed to reduce poverty and provide opportunities for advancement to those who would otherwise be unable to improve their lot.
A person who has been fortunate enough to enjoy a young life in which all needs have been catered for, may have developed a world view which holds that all people should share similar good fortune, and a personality which encourages that person to strive to achieve this through promoting political change. Sadly, this person also is almost certainly doomed to fail.
There are also true altruists, people who genuinely believe that the purpose of living is to create a better world. They will sometimes take actions which, while beneficial to others, are perhaps detrimental to themselves. These people are exceedingly rare.
For someone whose principal motivation is to make a positive contribution to society, the failure to do so in any significant way may be devastating. Let us consider a hypothetical example. We’ll call him Mark.
As a child from an underprivileged background, Mark experienced the evils of poverty and the discrimination felt by many who, for example, live in a dwelling owned and managed by a public housing authority. His home was one of many hundreds constructed by a government in an area of south-western Sydney. He attended schools which were populated almost entirely by similarly disadvantaged students. There would be no private-school advantages for Mark, but with his intelligence and aptitude for learning he would find a place at a university where he would attain a degree.
Mark’s childhood and adolescent experiences of a society which enabled, and some say fostered, discrimination against its less privileged members, created in him a desire to use his considerable abilities to bring about change for that particular social “class”. (Anyone who believes the myth that Australia is an egalitarian, “classless” society is deluded.)
Knowing that the political process is the only viable avenue through which to initiate change, Mark joined a political party. For the sake of convenience, let’s say that it was the Labor Party, since, at one time, this party was believed to represent the interests of the less privileged Australians. His tenacity and fire enabled him to win a seat in parliament, representing the people from his south-west Sydney homeland, and he gained promotion to a position of influence within the party.
However, having appeared to achieve his first goal – to attain a position of power from which he might initiate socially appropriate change – he found that the wheels had been removed from his trolley. They had been stolen by members of his own party.
Once considered an asset to his party, Mark had now become a liability because of his vociferous determination to bring about changes which would benefit the disadvantaged, but which might also have some detrimental side-effects upon the bank balances of the most advantaged members of our society.
Perhaps some of those extremely advantaged members provided significant funding to Mark’s party. It may be that those generous donations were hugely appreciated by the party’s power brokers, who thanked their benefactors by creating a climate in which the business opportunities for those donors were seriously enhanced.
Some may call this behaviour corrupt, whilst others would suggest that it’s “just politics”. Whatever you call it, the bastards won.
Disillusioned, disheartened and disgusted, Mark did the sensible thing and bowed out of politics, entering the business world. The status of his personal principles remained unchanged, but the headache, which he had acquired as a result of banging his head against a brick wall, vanished.
It is clear that a venture into the political arena can change people. Some change a little, whilst others change a lot.
There have been numerous other politicians who entered politics, spurred on by a belief that they might accomplish important and appropriate social change, or simply by a desire to “keep the bastards honest”.
I could scarcely believe it when Peter Garrett became a politician. Wealthy, and world famous for a multitude of achievements in creating a better world society, for him it was not an exercise in ego building or an attempt to increase his personal fortune. I am convinced that his motivation was entirely altruistic, that he wanted to “give back” to an Australian society which he believed had given him so much.
My hope was that he would achieve something remarkable. My fear was that he would be prevented from doing so.
Perhaps because he was eventually forced to follow the “party line” and, possibly, to compromise on some of his principles, Peter Garrett left politics after almost a decade of service during which little, if any, progress was made in enhancing social justice in Australia.
I suspect that, like our mythical Mark, Peter Garrett believed that an individual, possessed of an appropriate moral compass and a degree of empathy, could make a difference by joining a political party in order to utilize the power of the political system to bring about positive social change. It is a reflection upon the corrupt political system that infects this country, and not upon people like Peter Garrett, that their efforts go unrewarded.
We have seen potentially great political leaders like Gough Whitlam crucified by the system when their policies were seen to be dangerously “radical”, whilst others, leaders with the capacity to achieve great advances in social justice – Bob Hawke springs to mind – “mellow” to the extent that, rather than “keeping the bastards honest” they eventually join the ranks of “the bastards”. By the time he was deposed by Paul Keating, it was impossible to reconcile the Bob Hawke who had been a man of the people, with the shallow character he had become as a member of the ruling class.
It is only independent politicians who may pursue their individual political agendas whilst maintaining their personal integrity, but only if they are first able to get elected. In recent decades we have seen members of parliament who have avoided the party machines, and who have actually been able, to some extent, to significantly affect the political process. Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor, John Hatton and Ted Mack are names which spring readily to mind.
A second broad group of pollies contains those who are driven by greed to make things better for themselves, and who see that politics can provide the opportunity for that to happen. Some will seek to gain wealth, others power, and others may endeavour to achieve both. Again personal experiences and personality types will be the determinants of which goal is held by which individual.
Whilst one political aspirant may have come from an underprivileged background, and is determined not to have the same experience in adult life, another may have experienced a life of great privilege and is determined to maintain or enhance that status.
This group also contains those who are driven by a sense of entitlement, by the need to have and exercise power over others and by the desire to attain wealth for its own sake. Sadly, these people are not exceedingly rare. The need to gain power, and the benefits which accrue from it, drives most of their behaviours. It’s about the only thing which these individuals have in common.
The need to feel that we have power in our lives is natural for us as well, but we tend not to take it to extremes.
At this point I feel compelled to describe other hypothetical characters and to track their paths to political power. I might, for example, describe the journey undertaken by a wealthy Victorian grazier, or that of a fanatical prestigious-Catholic-school-educated god-bothering misogynist, or even a merchant banker with sufficient private wealth to partly finance his own election campaign, but to do so might eventually cause me great financial distress.
Had I sufficient courage, and the financial resources of Malcolm Turnbull, I might delve into to the political histories of one (Sir) Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, master of the gerrymander and a man who never told a lie, or Russ Hinze, a politician and “Queensland racing indentity”, or (Sir) Robert Askin. However, I have insufficient knowledge of the laws of libel, and insufficient interest in learning about them, to travel down that road.
However, I do have concrete evidence of one act of prime political bastardry.
In 1998, under Prime Minister John Howard, a Constitutional Convention was held, at which members voted by 89 votes to 52 for Australia to become a republic by 2001. A further vote determined, by 73 votes to 57 to replace the British monarch with a President. It was decided that a referendum would be held on the issue.
Consummate politicians (that’s not a compliment) manipulated the wording of the referendum’s key proposal. Rather than simply asking whether or not electors wanted Australia to become a republic and replace the English queen with an Australian President, the architects of the proposal also asked if that President should be chosen by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.
Monarchists then fostered a campaign of fear-mongering, building upon the electorate’s ingrained and justifiable distrust of politicians, in order to convince ordinary Australians that the birth of an Australian republic would mean the beginning of the end of democracy.
Australians were not stupid enough to allow politicians to choose a President, who should have been an Australian representative elected by a majority of voting Australians. Allowing members of parliament to choose a President would have been tantamount to leaving the fox to guard the chickens.
The proposal was defeated and Malcolm Turnbull, the republic’s most vociferous advocate (but only whilst it improved his public and political standing) disappeared into the shadows, taking the republic’s hopes with him. Almost twenty years later, Turnbull’s refusal, as Prime Minister, to press for the establishment of an Australian republic, might be seen as an act of bastardry in itself.
Rather than risking lawsuits, I will encourage you to look at the crop of politicians which has been harvested during your experience, and to try to find just a few who are worth feeding. (The Internet enables mere mortals to do this with ease.) Would you choose one who used public money to pay for a helicopter in order to avoid travelling by car in traffic, or one who used money other than his own to pay for the services of personal “intimate physical therapists”?
Pollies such as these might be suitably castigated for their indiscretions, but only when they are caught “with their pants down”. How many more behave corruptly but are able to avoid having their corruption revealed?
Our local Federal Member – is it just by coincidence that the word “member” has often been used as a colloquial equivalent for the word “penis”? – has distinguished himself as devoid of social awareness and without a skerrick of empathy, by publicly decrying those who would change the date of Australia Day, as “crackpots”. Clearly, he sees that Aboriginal Australians should “just get over it” and join in the celebrations of the invasion of their land.
Jeez, Luke, even if you think it, you don’t say it!
It’s undeniably true that not all politicians are bastards, but it’s equally true that there are sufficient bastards among them for people to come up with jokes such as:
- “How do you tell if a politician is lying?”
- “His lips are moving.”
* Colloquial terminology for “politician”. Also a common name for a squawking parrot.