Can a Career Politician Ever be Truly Representative of the Australian People?


Sea of Hands public art installation, Parliament House, Canberra


The key word to think about when considering the question, can a career politician ever be truly representative of the Australian people? is the word ‘career’. A career is a chosen pursuit; an occupation; a profession requiring training where progression through the ranks or up a prescribed ladder is lauded as a measurement of triumph or success.

Public service is about serving the public. The clue is in the title. History is our only reward if we want to serve the citizens of our  country and claim a better future for our children. Democracy is about diversity, ideas, differences and the reconciliation of those differences, not political skill or self-serving, corrupt agendas. It is true of course that our political mix should reflect that diversity with butchers, bakers and candlestick makers all represented in our parliament, along with businesspeople of course!

It is inherently unhealthy to rely on mass-produced party-political robots with no life experience to run our country. Can you imagine a parliament full of Tony Abbott or Bill Shorten lookalikes?

Internal party politics is sadly a microcosm of the bigger political picture. Infighting, jockeying for position, back-stabbing and saying one thing but doing another. Dirty deals are done dirt cheap at the expense of our democracy, arrogance is deemed a virtue and fratricidal tendencies are considered a prerequisite. Hardly the environment to prepare someone for service to their community and the nation. In fact, all it promotes is a level of paranoia that follows them into the corridors of power where it then festers.

Much of the evidence to answer the question in the negative is presented to us on a daily basis. Proven political tactics, manoeuvring, public relations spin and endless rhetoric are often powerful enough to win an argument or beat the public into submission so apathy reigns. Is this representing the people or pushing another agenda? Most would argue for the latter.

Politicians say they care, but most of the time they don’t. They don’t care about you, your family or your future. All they care about is being re-elected. Take the election cycle for example. In the first year after an election they blame their opponents for how bad things are and they collect as much money as they can.

In the second year they continue this for a while and collect more and more cash, close more and more programs down, so that finally in the third year they can release all that money into the community and say: ‘It was hard. We made the tough decisions and now we should be re-elected.’ Then they hope you will go to the polls and re-elect them. It is the business of re-election, not the business of governing.

It’s a cynical view,  but it’s been the pattern in Australian politics—from all sides of politics—for a long time. Political skill has become a more important attribute than the will to serve the people. Surely what matters most when it comes to representing the Australian people is truth. Simple, old-fashioned, spin-free truth. Our political system, and the actions of the current government, has many victims. Pensioners, students and everyday Aussie battlers are all victims because truth has become the greatest victim of all. When truth prevails over injustice, spin and narcissism, then we’ll have a country to be really proud of. But there is much work to do before we can truly make this claim.

The entrenchment of the two-party system has robbed this nation of contributions from the great majority of Australians. The public expect honesty and truth, and our media scrutinise every word as they should, but we also  pillory, ridicule and deride anyone for whom polished delivery of political rhetoric is a challenge, or those who present new thinking.

It’s hard for truth to prevail if all we are worried about is the cherry on top. Little wonder then that everyday Australians baulk at the notion of raising their hand for public service, leaving the door ajar for career politicians to slam behind them.

So there is a valid argument that we must hold others to account in order to reshape and refresh the environment politicians work in, so they can truly act as representatives of the people because that is what drives them, or we simply give them no other choice.

The public have become rightly cynical, but perhaps they must also express the same level of cynicism towards certain members of the media, and media owners, who relentlessly push their own self-serving agenda and engineer political outcomes that suit them and them alone. Favours granted during election campaigns are expectant of a return.

Politicians must put the rights of Australians and principle before political convenience. They must listen and act upon what they hear, and they must do so unhindered by the self-interested lobby groups who taint our political system and trade their votes for favours, or money. The only lobby group worthy of the ear of an elected representative is the electorate that put them there in the first place.

Each of us, every day, is the sum total of all the experiences we’ve ever had. You hope and expect this to form the basis of many values and beliefs held by our politicians. Equally, you hope and expect them to use these experiences as motivation to build improvements for both the current and future generation and those who will come after us. But how often do we see evidence of this? In my eyes, not nearly often enough.

To illustrate, take the recent issue of higher education reforms proposed by the government. When I had the opportunity to speak to the Bill in the House of Representatives, I remarked how I was full of admiration for the education minister and his confidence in the education he had enjoyed, which has put him on a pedestal for all Australians to look up to in our parliament. It gave him the opportunity to bring forth his ideas for us to consider and discuss.

I made mention too of my admiration for the treasurer, who went to university, toiled through his university career and was elected to parliament so the nation could enjoy the benefits of that education. Like the treasurer and the minister for education, I was the beneficiary of real reforms in the education sector made by Gough Whitlam when he was prime minister of this country. The treasurer did not pay for his education, nor did the minister for education. They may never have made it to parliament without a university education. And yet they were determined to impose new levels of debt and hardship on generations of young Australians with a Bill that was patently unfair.

The government used their lies about the true state of Australia’s economy as phoney rationale for making the lives of young Australians tougher. The government wanted to impose burden and hardship. So not only did our representatives fail to use their own experience for the betterment of others, they made truth the victim once again and perpetuated the accelerating downward spiral of distrust that exists between politicians and citizens.

Intellect is not distributed evenly across society. It is not a measure of how much money you may have or what your prospects may be, but of what you can contribute to the nation. No Australian, wherever they come from, should be handicapped from going to university, so I stood firmly against this Bill because it was what the citizens of this country, young and old, were telling me to do.

If we are to demand more of our politicians then we must also demand more of our media, who can expose the unhealthy and undemocratic influence of certain groups and individuals on our politicians. The media must form part of the cure, not exacerbate the disease.

We must strive to create an environment where compassion for others is the driving force for public service, so it is a vocation, a calling, rather than a career with a comfy wage, lots of time off and a superannuation scheme that is so often disproportionate to what they have contributed to the nation. The responsibility to change that thinking lies with all of us.

As the Member for Fairfax I donate all my salary to charity and I have no personal financial interest in whether I’m elected at the next federal poll or not. That, I hope, spares me from being pigeon-holed in the ‘career politician’ category. But what I do have is a strong resolve to serve the people who elected me and to highlight the truth for our nation. Serving the people of Australia in parliament is a great honour. It should not be seen as a career, thought of as a career or treated as a career. The potential for serious conflicts of interest has been realised too often.


This is an essay from the democracy issue of Meanjin, Vol 74, No 3, Spring 2015.

Image: Leo Bild/Flickr


Clive Palmer

Member for Fairfax, Australian House of Representatives

Published Date
September 1, 2015