14 March 2015

'After the ball is over'

We seem to have hit the ground running in Queensland. Cyclone Marcia has left us with no obvious political fallout. The Callide overflow was artfully diverted, notwithstanding the Wivenhoe fiasco not so long ago; and the press and the Opposition have been restrained. It is comforting. After all, Labor did not expect to win government. And the LNP did not expect to lose it. Hopefully ‘Abbottism’ – tearing down an elected government by hook or by crook - has finally run its course.

Yes, these are grounds for rejoicing!

But is the victory all due to our superior campaigning? Connecting with the community, targeting those to be persuaded? Whilst all the while bugling about the Unions’ boisterous campaign to expose the Newman regime, and lauding the boundless energy and dedication of Young Labor?
Yet, the morning after ‘the ball’ awaits us. The high unemployment, the much bandied about budget deficit, the decline of mining royalties. The list goes on, and the best of plans could go down with just one unforseen by-election.
Such being the case, is it time to take a cool look at how an alternative scenario to our triumphal narrative might inform the “substance” of our future endeavours?

Bill Shorten was interviewed on ABC24 TV on the morning after ‘the ball’. He made a point about style and substance. I do not remember anything else about that interview, save that it struck me as another move on his part to keep his reform drive on the road.
 
The Australia Institute commissioned an exit interview for the Queensland election. Inside Story published the results, a few days after the election, which suggested that one third of voters were influenced by the interview that Tony Fitzgerald gave just days before the election. Did a proportion of these voters confer us the unexpected windfall?

It is just possible. If so, are we putting too much faith in our campaign strategy? Particularly if we were to embark on a permanent campaigning mode, as though we have found the golden formula? (Did we use that same formula in 2012?)
 
There is little doubt that such a state is helpful in keeping the troops on a war readiness footing, and some of their commanders in honing their leadership styles for their ascent through the hierarchy of the Party and into the seats in Parliament.

What is wrong with that?

One thing is obvious.  The exclusive way in which we traditionally beget MPs, and Senators especially, through our Party and Union nurseries has bequeathed us a legacy that makes John Faulkner counsel us, more than once, on our need to make the Party “electable and worth electing”.

Just think of Craig Thomson, or that Senator in WA. Just two rotten apples or the tip of the iceberg? And lest we forget, Caldwell and the faceless men had sewn up the deal to expel Gough Whitlam in 1966. For many of us, the Union-spawned power brokers’ role in the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd era is still burning in the ashes of our collective despair.

Perhaps there is the glimmer of a light at the end of the tunnel first lit more than a century ago.

If Bill Shorten is to succeed in his ambition to increase the size of our membership by 50%, or as some say 150%, and to urge those from outside our traditional base to join us, he would do well to ensure that the quality and substance of the candidates we present for the next Federal election is second to none.
 
He could open up the selection process with published selection criteria, in line with how jobs are generally won in the real economy. He could replicate the successful primaries trialled in NSW. That would make candidate selection more democratic and believable, and attract those who would otherwise feel daunted by the burden of going through the Party nurseries. The more we attract candidates who have had substantial careers in the real world, and put them in reasonably safe seats, the more we will look electable and worth electing as a modern democratic political party.

This is Bill Shorten’s do or die challenge. As a leader he has the prerogative to decree this new dawn if he so chooses to exercise it. Precedents abound: Whitlam in defying the 36 faceless men; Hawke and Keating in ignoring our socialism shibboleths; Bill Hayden in doubling the number of delegates to the National Conference; Gillard in her captain’s pick to install our first Indigenous senator; and Rudd with his 50/50 leadership plebiscite. 
 
Bob Hawke, Bill Kelty, and Greg Combet, all union princes, managed to take the unions into new pastures, by convincing them of their need to survive and at the same time do the right thing in the interest of the generations who will come after us. Bill Shorten’s place in history might be a new breed of MPs, a reinvigorated democratic Party released from the strangle hold of union power brokers, often scions of comfortable middle class families, nurtured with the wherewithal to reign over fiefdoms of relatively lowly paid workers.

We scored a few of this ‘new breed’ of MPs in Queensland at the recent election, thanks in large part to the 2012 near wipe out. This new breed comprises people who have made a success of their careers over decades outside political nurseries. In Parliament they are likely to feel free to make enlightened contributions, based on their substantial career and life experience, as they are not tethered to the power brokers or the Administrative Committee through their apprenticeship in the nurseries. They will exude the demeanour that every day voters will see on the whole as believable, honourable, and trustworthy.  Peter Wellington comes to mind.
 
In the Federal arena I can think of Andrew Leigh, Mark Drefus, and Melissa Parke.   And on the other side, Susan Ley, who found her own way to become a traffic controller and a commercial pilot before raising a family on a farm and then became a tax accountant at a regional ATO centre. These are MPs who speak with authenticity about what to do with the ailments of our nation. They do not have the predisposition or need to resort to the unseemly trench warfare that so many MPs with no career or life experience outside the political nurseries rely on for justifying their pay and privilege.

In Queensland, the LNP’s Tarnya Smith is one I would put in that same category. She possessed no university degree. She left school to pursue her dream to become a beautician, and ended up as the manager for Harrods at the London Airport. This is a woman of substance, committed to hard work, adjudged to have been of high value to successful businesses.  No alluring style of any sort that I could discern. She retained her seat of Mt Ommaney by some 170 votes. For my money, she does not look as though she has the requisite intellectual endowments for a reasonably highly paid position in public life.

Would we have won that seat if we had a more substantial candidate? One with the requisite intellectual and knowledge grounded through higher education, demonstrable career achievements, and considerable exposure to life’s many facets? Would such a candidate win over at least 90 more of those voters who value substance over style - among the professionals, business people, and the educated who form a significant part of that electorate? What difference that would have made to our Parliamentary position!  And needless to say, there may be two or three other marginal seats in that situation.

The ball is over.

One swallow does not make a summer. Drumming up war readiness is all very well, but let it not divert us from our duty to become more “electable and worth electing” on an enduring footing. Having competent, believable spokespersons in Parliament would go a long way towards that.  As they say, the medium is the message.  

Chek Ling

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