Opinion- 28 March 2007


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Harry Robinson Looks at Pollies Through Dark Glasses

But There is a Moral 

The Chinese calendar says this is the year of the Golden Pig. Our calendar says it's the year of the politician.

And how! Politicians are everywhere. On every stage, every front page, every screen either as abusive critics of their fellows or as fools kicking up Shock and Horror with knobs on. Rudd dined with Burke! Campbell (remember him?) met Burke! Santoro forgot his share transactions! Abbott kicked Rudd's head! Federal police investigate Queensland Libs! In NSW Iemma defended Costa and Tripodi! Debnam came out of the surf demurely clad in budgie smugglers!

And, for goodness sake, the prudish tongued Pru Goward tried to muscle her way into the circus.

A mad menagerie, my masters. It could all pass for low life farce but for the fact that these people are our governors. They decide who will go to war and who not, who will pay big taxes and who will pay little taxes, who will get this benefit and who that.


Even if the buses will run on time or the trains stop dead in their tracks.

People in more sober occupations, such as science and mathematics, must choke on their own irritation and wonder... and ponder. Where does the political class come from?

It is worse if you look at the pol game from the inside. A politician has so many bosses. hurdles, constrictions, restrictions, obligations, demands and lousy choices that his life is never his own. Or her own. To get on the first rung of the pol ladder, a tyro must crawl to party apparatchiks for pre-selection, must put up with abuse from electors, must say things she (he) knows to be either nonsense or lies. "Mr Radio" a.k.a. John Laws summed up the standing of pollies thus: "They are either liars or hypocrites. They have to follow their party line even when they think it wrong. I never listen to their promises because they never keep them." That from a man who lives on the proceeds of the advertising biz.

Once elected, you might suppose the pollie will have a smoother ride, a better chance to be a better person, to make the world a better place. Not so, not so. Arriving in Parliament House on his/her first day, the rookie will be told to report to the office of the Party Whip who will issue orders. Where to be at what time, which way to vote, which policy matters to study, when to ask a Dorothy Dixer at Queston Time, who to suck up to, who to detest. As time goes on the rookie pollie will be pestered by letters from constituents wanting impossibility after impossibility. Delegations will demand reception and audience. Always in the background will be the threat of the next election, now less, much less, than three years away.

The rewards, then, must be immense? Monetarily a would-be MP would do better as a clerk in Macquarie Bank. At least the bank offers a future.

Of course most pollies hope to become ministers and to hold on for six, nine years for the lifetime superannuation payments. Many are called, few are chosen.

Kindly stop your sobbing. The lot of the politician is miserable but it is also self inflicted. Pity is wasted. But we might get more from them if we understand their plight better. The way our system works -- 'Works?' you cry. 'Our system works? It works only to put the squeeze on universities, to wring the life out of research, to block opportunities for knowledge and profit. Our system works like a Model T Ford!'

As I was saying before your agonised interruption, the way our system works, individual politicians have little say and that's a good thing. In its rough way, the system is to produce laws by consensus. Even the incredibly self-centred Bob Hawke knew that and he worked his cabinets to attain consensus. Likewise Malcolm Fraser, although he did it with all the grace of a toppled Easter Island statue. Dewey-eyed Paul Keating lost sight of consensus in his big pictures, won the title of Captain Whacko and pfui! out went his government.

Our present leader, John Howard, seems to have forgotten about consensus and the doctrine of cabinet responsibility. He offered to spend $10 billion on water without once consulting cabinet. His faithful servant, Brendan Nelson, is trying to force a $6 billion purchase of fighters that his service experts say they don't need, don't want, don't believe in. Nelson's eye seems blinded by his prime minister who, once again, seems to have by-passed consensus. Little wonder that the polls are frowning on the Howard Government.

Fortunately, some politicians eat up the stresses and strains of political life. Abuse, pressure, argument spur them on and set them to constructive work on policies of merit. A few are able to override partisan positions and to look for the possible and the useful. If a public sector, such as the Ed-Sci community, can find and capture the ear of such a politician opportunity will knock. But there is one more but: grand and vague proposals are useless. It is useless to say, "We need $5 billion for research." For which research, to which end, along which path, with which result? The politician needs specifics in his search for consensus. He must have a defined proposal to take to cabinet for discussion and approval.

One activator of the Australian film industry reviewed progress over a decade during which government changed hands more than once. "Every time I was able to put a case to a minister, a case that he could take to cabinet with confidence, we got our way. It didn't matter which party was in power, well defined arguments lit by reality won the day."

Such happy outcomes would not be automatic in these days of philistine ministers and a hubristic prime minister.


Moral: Tomorrow is another day and the principle will return -- 'forge something a minister can take to cabinet.'


Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.