catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Labor and political hacks

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One thing you notice working in Parliament House, rather than just watching politics via the media, is that our elected representatives are more ‘representative’ of the general population than you’d think from just looking at and listening to the most prominent politicians, who are generally drawn from the professional and managerial classes. Once you start working with the backbench you hear the accents, language and attitudes of ‘ordinary Australians’.

Or at least you do if you work for the Coalition, as I did. The Sunday Age reports this morning on the occupational backgrounds of members of the 41st parliament. It forcefully demonstrates one of Mark Latham’s major themes, that the ALP has been taken over by political hacks. 52 of the 88 members of the Labor caucus had political occupations before becoming MPs, compared to just 15 of the 126 Coalition parliamentarians. That’s 59% compared to 12%.

It’s tempting to conclude that this helps explain why the Coalition’s political antennae seem better than Labor’s, that Coalition MPs more naturally think like voters think, and act accordingly. But unless this occupational shift has happened very recently (and I doubt that – in Latham’s diaries he is complaining about the rise of the ‘machine men’ in 1994) an article ($16, sorry) by Katharine Betts in People and Place last year has statistics that undermine this hypothesis. Using questions on a range of social and economic issues in the Australian Election Survey she does indeed show that there are much wider gaps between the views of Labor politicians and the general public than between Coalition politicians and the general public. But this was true of every election she analyses between 1987 and 2001, of which Labor won three and the Coalition two (there was no candidate survey with the 1998 election, so the actual tally is likely to be three each). A truly professional political class should be able to use market research to package itself in ways that appeal to the general population, in the same way that corporate elites whose lives barely overlap with those of their customers nevertheless are able to successfully devise products and services ‘ordinary Australians’ want to buy.

The real problem, which Latham’s book highlights, is that rather than being a truly professional political operation modern Labor operates on a patronage system. An appendix to Latham’s book lists a bewildering array of factions and sub-factions, identifying ten sub-factions within the Right alone. Some of these are union linked, letting mediocre union hacks find their way into Parliament. There is endless squabbling and dealing over front bench positions, with talent no guarantee of a spot. In government, the authority of the leader can impose some discipline, and public service policy advice reduces the party’s role in policy formation, but in Opposition things go all over the place. It’s fanciful to think (as some Labor pessimists and Liberal optimists do) that they can’t win despite all this. But pre-selections based on connections rather than skills certainly don’t make things any easier.

Written by Admin

October 30, 2005 at 8:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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