Quite a few people have pointed me to this piece by Barry Cohen which produces the unsurprising conclusion that Labor’s MPs are drawn from a very narrow range of occupations: union officials, 29; teachers, 18; state MPs and ministerial staff, 16; public servants, 14; party officials, 8; lawyers, 8. Before discussion what’s wrong with this, it’s worth pointing out that the situation is not that different on the other side of the aisle. Replace union officials with employer group officials, teachers with farmers and public servants with doctors, and you’d account for the great majority of Coalition MPs and ministers.

Whereas people once went into politics after spending a fair bit of time doing a variety of different things, political office is now part of a small set of fairly well-defined career paths. What’s mroe disturbing to me is that, at least for people who reached the heights of ministerial office, politics was almost always the last stage in a career. Now aspirants to the ministry are setting themselves up with contacts, and obligation networks for the time when they can really make big money, as consultants, lobbyists, chairmen of boards and so on. We don’t have to imagine the effect on public policy – there are already some egregious examples out there.

The only way to fix this, in my view, would be to greatly expand membership of political parties, and the only way to do that would be to give the members a real say in determining policy. Since that’s not going to happen, I don’t see a solution for this problem.

29 thoughts on “Careerists

  1. tony abbott wants to make unions engage in a secret vote of its entire membership before they can affiliate with a political party – i.e. the ALP. once he’s through putting the cleaners through the unions the ALP will end up with its membership in control of the party. he might be doing his own party an enormous disservice in the process.

  2. I sometimes wonder how politicians’ views would change if we hired them through labour-hire firms, with 24 hour termination clauses. None of this rubbish about three year terms and superannuation. And then if we made Tony Abbott actually go out and find a real job for the first time in his life, the way working people do. Not using his mates network. No car. No air-conditioned office.

  3. A particular aspect of the political careerist that concerns me is the dominance of lawyers in the Liberals’ technology portfolio. The last three Ministers have been lawyers and I think that’s had deleterious effects just at a time when real engagement is required.

    Alston treated it like a purely legal, regulatory issue and thought IT was the guy that fixed his email program. Williams was just out of his depth. Senator Coonan at least displays a reasonable willingness to engage with the topic. But in this portfolio I think Labor’s generalist approach is much more appropriate. Lundy’s initiative to separate development from regulation was far more insightful than anyone recognises.

  4. ah 93 is so far away now.
    Then it was the ALP that had all the talent and the Libs couldn’t find many people and most of their pollies were solicitors.

    The ALP had a natural advantage because thier potential pollies came up thru student politics and then went into trade Unions which assisted in the process.

    in ten years it is now a disadvantage and the Libs have all the advantages and talent.

    Dear me what has happened?

  5. Every now and then some senior party official will make pious remarks about membership recruiting. It won’t happen. Members are a nuisance for they have to be serviced. Once they were valued, needed to attend rallies, distribute leaflets, etc. Now all the party wants is money and membership fees are not worth the bother. So membership is confined to careerists. By the way, there is now a significant dynastic aspect, too.

    I think in their hey-day in the late 40s Labor and the new Liberal Party had about a quarter of a million members each. Australia’s population was about 8 million. Now they might have 35000 each. (No one knows.) The Nationals have more.

    Once most citizens would have counted a party member or two among his or her friends and everyone knew someone who was acquainted with the local member. Now they are remote. It suits the pollies.

    Well, John, there is a theoretical solution: direct democracy. I presume it is the only solution but of course the pollies are very much in control and, as professional power brokers, will not relinquish power willingly.

  6. How about separating the executive and legislature? Have Ministers selected by majority senate vote as in USA. They’re aren’t many party hacks in GWB’s cabinet.

  7. My Lord! The last thing the Howard government needs is people like Douglas Feith.

    If we’re really into American ideas, we should introduce party primaries. I believe ACT did so in New Zealand. It didn’t do them much good, but they were skating into oblivion anyway.

  8. The criticisms of careerism in politics are similar to standard criticisms of specialisation in the social sciences and life generally. There are costs and benefits of specialisation but most of the time the benefits are stronger.

    Politicians do pursue a specialised trade and, as in modern firm management, where professional managers have replaced owners and those with in-depth knowledge of particular firms, the skills of politicians are increasingly becoming the generic skills of being good managers.

    This is particularly so since differences in ideology between major parties are declining.

    Given that education markets don’t provide formal training in the acquisition of political skills it is unsurprising that nepotism and the promotion of party and trade union hacks, former state MPs and former ministerial staff is a major way of getting into politics. They learn the trade.

  9. The nexus between the numbers in the Senate and the House of Representatives, is producing a steady increase in size of electoral divisions over time, while reducing the opportunity for local influence and participation. If so, an increase in party participation is a function of constitutional change, and therefore not likely.

  10. “Given that education markets don’t provide formal training in the acquisition of political skills…”

    So why did I sometimes think of the election campaign as office politics on a national stage?

    More seriously, what skills do people think one needs to be a good politician? Managerial skills would not be enough (or even necessary) in my view.

  11. I suspect that the coalition figures for occupations before entering Parliament are better, for two reasons. One is age – more of the coalition came in to the Parliament when it was generally thought that some experience of working life outside politics was desirable. In time this difference will disappear. There is now a significant number (in the Libs especially) of young parliamentary aspirants who have chosen it as a career path and are working to it through the route of becoming a ministerial or party adviser. Second, is their greater number of outer suburban “aspirational” marginal seats – where, unlike the trend in safe seats, voters do sometimes look at the candidate rather than the party. Candidates are therefore likely to be more rounded in these seats (applies to candidates from both parties – with some Sydney exceptions in the case of Labor noted already in these pages).

    That said, the difference is one of degree only, and the overall trend is obvious. Where to begin to solve the problem?

    one good first step would be to end public funding of election campaigns – it has effectively meant that party machines don’t need members for the essential fundraising tasks, and in fact find more members are a nuisance, not a benefit.

    Another would be to introduce voluntary instead of compulsory voting. It has long been an article of faith in Australia that compulsory voting is fairer and better; and the left has thought it advantaged working people who would otherwise not vote. There is no contemporary evidence for this – I’d argue strongly that compulsory voting now favours the coalition over Labor. Voluntary voting would greatly increase party memberships.

    Of course these and any other potential solutions are doomed from the start. It’s path dependence at work – the people with the power to change the current arrangements got that power precisely from those arrangements – and thus won’t change them.

  12. Stephen, originally compulsory voting (in Queensland) was introduced by the government because they felt that the Labor opposition had a better grass roots ability to get out the vote, due to the involvement of the labour movement. This supports your point that voluntary voting would make members more valuable to political parties.

    I wonder when compulsory voting started to be seen as a benefit for Labor?

  13. Much waffle little data. This would be a good little project for a student : indentify career paths prior to entering politics and career paths exiting politics for say the last 20 years . A bit of latent variable analysis would’nt go astray.

  14. This all brings to mind Clyde Cameron’s observation of a few years ago that the ALP used to be the cream of the working class, and now consisted of the dregs of the middle class. To see how things have changed over time, it ought to be fairly easy to do a study of Labor parliamentarians since Federation to augment Barry Cohen’s analysis, and show their ages on election as well as their occupations.

    But think about the vocations on Cohen’s 1969 list that are unrepresented now – tradespeople, manual workers, business people, a couple of police, a couple of clerics. What sort of people were they? Mick Young, Charley Jones, Gerry Hand, Barry Cohen, John Brown, Stewart West, Brian Howe. Maybe not all of those specific individuals, but those types.

    So you’re not talking about the A list really. No one of the capability of Beazley, Blewitt, Evans, Button, Willis or Hawke. What the members of the above list did have was a persona and communication style that gave them credibility in the eyes of some elements of the voting public. In some cases (Young) there was an element of personal magnetism that enhanced their communication capabilities, but you could argue that was part of the person, not a consequence of their background. Hawke, the ALP’s star communicator of the 80s, was an Oxford scholar and an industrial advocate.

    So it’s in the area of communication and credibility that something, if anything, might have been lost. What to do about it?

    These days, practically all on the above list would go straight to uni from high school, and that’s a widely accepted part of modern life. So I don’t think there’s any point in desperately recruiting 45 year old tradesmen and labourers in the belief that’s going to win back the blue collars who have switched to the Coalition.

    And I don’t think the punters really care if the candidates are the products of a smug factional numbers machine. From the credibility/communication point of view, it’s the nature of the candidates themselves that is the important thing. It doesn’t matter if they’re under 30. If they’re bright, articulate, personable and well educated, that should do.

  15. I have a few points to make about this issue.

    1. Democratic political participation requires effective analytical and communication skills, including the communicative competence to solve problems and resolve differences across cultural boundaries. In the absence of a determined effort, in our political culture and our culture as a whole, to ensure that a broad cross-section is able to develop those skills and has the opportunities to exercise them, political parties can be expected to be the preserve of a narrow range of occcupational, social and cultural groups. In other words there is a wider cultural and educational problem, not just a problem with our political parties.

    2. The old Communist Party of Australia, for all its faults, was outstandingly successful in taking blue-collar workers and homemakers with limited formal education, and equipping them with a theoretical understanding of politics, economics and history (albeit with the flaws of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy), and the speaking and writing skills to deploy that understanding effectively. However, the CPA only did this for a small percentage of the population who were able to devote a large part of their time to party activity. It is an example of limited application to our current reality.

    3. One of the problems I notice with young labour movement professionals in the ALP (especially the ones I see on university campuses) is that the party and the factional system constitutes their entire frame of reference. It is a very difficult thing for a young activist to back their own critical faculties against the collective thinking and culture of an organisation as large, politically sedimented, rich in tradition and salted with high-powered individuals as the ALP. It is also very easy for a young activist who’s had a few photo opportunities with Peter Beattie and added a few stars to their CV through student politics, Young Labor, etc., to over-estimate their own importance and their own ability. I have often thought that the ALP could benefit from a rule imposing a compulsory “sabbatical” period on its young members, whereby after a certain period of membership in good standing, their membership would be compulsorily suspended and they would be both free, and expected, to undertake some kind of activity outside formal institutionalised politics – be it a “real job”, travel, business, community work, travel, religious devition, or whatever. This would take up two or three years of their young adult lives. Their readmission to active membership and their further progress within the party would then be conditional upon them convincing a committee of non-factional rank and file members that they had broadened their horizons and their understanding of human, social and ecological reality.

  16. What about pay? I am sick of being told that “if you pay peanuts you get monkeys”. Experience teaches us that if you pay millions you get careerists. Pay every polly the AWOTE (average weekly ordinary time earnings) plus some allowance for travel and accommodation, and leave it at that.

  17. The only way to fix this, in my view, would be to greatly expand membership of political parties, and the only way to do that would be to give the members a real say in determining policy. Since that’s not going to happen, I don’t see a solution for this problem.

    I made a suggestion on how to start the ball rolling to get members more involved in the ALP.

    While I do agree that having MPs with different background does not mean that the party is more electable, the way they are selected is important. If a candidate is selected over the opinions of the members, then they are right to feel aggrieved.

    Also I would think that a well known candidate in a marginal electorate that is well known in the area would be more likely to fall over the line than some person who got selected purely because he/she was part of the machine (Aston, please note).

  18. OK, having read Paul Norton and Guido’s comments, I would add to ‘bright, articulate, personable and well educated’:

    *they have lived in their electorate
    *they have had a ‘real job’, preferably in their electorate, for at least a couple of years (teacher, social worker, agronomist etc)
    *they are not patently machine appointees displacing a popular local

    And thanks Homer, for that correction.

  19. I generally agree with what’s been said, but would like to add a point about union officials in the ALP. While it’s true that quite a few Labor MPs have at some stage worked for a union, few have ever been elected to high office in their union (i.e. as a union secretary or president). Rather, they were union advocates (union bureaucrats) or organisers appointed by the union. And even when they were in positions of leadership (like Simon Crean or Martin Ferguson, for example) they often came to the union as graduates rather than work their way up from the shop floor. Their union careers are also relatively short, and have often led to careers in the ALP or a staffing job for a Labor MP. This gives a lot of credence to the view that there are ‘careerists’ in the labour movement who are exploiting these positions to further their own careers, and are setting themselves up for a lucrative career after politics.

  20. Some good points, but remember, the Coalition parties are not innocent of careerism either. The Labor party’s woes are I think a symptom of a wider problem within our political landscape, even if the Labor party also faces additional problems due to its factional system, links with the union movement etc. (Mind you the Coalition has their own boys clubs, links with employer and industry associations etc)

  21. Two points that haven’t been made on this thread that seem to me to be relevant:

    1. It may be that the ALP factional system is significantly to blame for throwing up both dud candidates for seats and dud Ministers and shadow Ministers. In both respects, I reckon abolition of formal factions and a straight Caucus vote for ministerial positions (and local branch preselections with a non-factionally-dominated National Executive override in crucial situations) would be more likely to throw up quality candidates (as opposed to talentless hacks like Ludwig Jnr in Queensland). But the chances of overthrowing the factional system are remote in practice, so maybe the ALP is condemned to increasing ossification.

    2. A constitutional amendment to permit at least a few Ministers to be brought in who are not Members of Parliament would also be worth considering. I’m not suggesting a complete separation of legislature and executive (cf the US), but some other countries (e.g. South Africa’s current constitution) allow for a small number of Ministers to be brought in from outside Parliament. When one considers that federal Ministers are running departments with budgets of billions of dollars and sometimes requring specialist expertise, it’s no wonder we can’t find enough suitable talent among the people prepared to submit themselves to the circus of electoral politics.

    Of course, there is a danger in such a proposal. You wouldn’t want squadrons of Dick Cheneys with dodgy connections to Halliburton (or whatever). Nor would you want legions of Michael Wooldridges using politics as little more than an opportunity to develop lucrative networking links. But it ought to be possible to design a system with enough checks and balances to ensure that such abuses are minimised, and greatly outweighed by the advantages of being able to draw on a wider pool of talent for Ministerial office. I suspect that JQ’s ideal of politicians who only stand for election after a lifetime of service in some other field, and without regard for current or future personal advantage, is seriously utopian. We need to develop systemic checks and balances that accommodate and negate those sorts of human frailties.

    Of course, the latter factor (bringing in a limited number of non-MP Ministers) is as relevant to the Coalition as the ALP. But in large part that’s the point. I don’t really think Labor is worth off than the Coalition in terms of political/ministerial talent. Cohen is a typical old duffer lamenting how “things were a lot better in my day”. We need to do some lateral thinking.

  22. Members of the ALP, at least in Queensland, do have a real say in policy.

    We have policy committees which any member can join, as an associate, and have speaking and moving rights. Those committees also have a small number of elected members with voting rights but this is largely irrelevant because the committees operate by consensus. Those committees report to the conference and the majority of their recommendations are generally accepted without amendment.

    Nationally we have a policy committee that members can feed into and a large elected national conference, as well as direct requests for participation in specific issues from time to time.

    It does take hard work to develop consensus across such a broad and diverse group as the party on more controversial issues, of course. Politics is not easy and generally no two views are the same.

    I also don’t think there’s necessarily a problem of careerism.

    Of course the ALP has a large number of union officials in parliament. Union officials are generally people with backgrounds in the industry in which their union operates. My local federal candidate was an independent education union officer because he’d been a teacher in an independent school for ten years.

    The work involved in being a legislator and a representative is skilled work. For that reason I don’t find people who’ve been in politics for most of their working lives particularly objectionable. It is preferable for them to have developed the skills. We don’t hear doctors being chastised for not having had real jobs before becoming doctors. I acknowledge the desirability of broad experience in being a representative but that doesn’t mean other matters such as the development of political skills are not without worth.

  23. First off, we should ban all Lawyers from federal politics. They present a moral hazard to political society, rather like child molesters being asked to run day schools.
    There should be more sci-techhies in politics. Nerds, whose creative juices have run dry, could still make a significant administrative and intellectual contribution to running society. Also, sci-tecchies are inherently more moral than other professionals, since they have to have an absolute committment to real truth.
    They would certainly make an improvement on the current crew of legal, financial and political operators whose power depends on developing solipsistic contrivances to distract the general public whilst they plunge their hands in the till.
    In general, politics needs more people from the reality-based community.

  24. Is it actually a constitutional requirement that Ministers be parliamentarians? I thought that was a convention, as in the original Westminster System (which actually makes it harder to change, when you think about it – changing the rules without changing the underlying pressures is Canute and the waves stuff).

  25. Someone says the members should have a say, someone else says they do have a say. Well, what members? There are almost no members.

    I think the problem that Paul2 overlooks is that his MPs don’t look like their constituents. They are middle class so their constituents don’t identify with them. And basically they look after the middle class population. That’s not through malice, just inevitable because they are the only constituents they can really communicate with.

    It’s a lot of talk in search of the perfect polly. What about democracy? Does nobody think the people should have a direct say over policies, not merely a partial say over personalities? It may be a pipe dream but, in the end, the only solution.

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