Monday, October 23, 2006

Why are we so hard on our politicians - and ourselves?

In a discussion on another blog about just what we were entitled to know about our public figures I commented:

I am also personally worried at just what we are doing to our political figures like John Brogden. Speaking as someone who once wanted to be in parliament, would I run for pre-selection today? I don't think I would. I have just too many personal skeletons that might be pulled out of the closet and used to beat me round the head

Natasha Stott Despoja's decision to withdraw from politics, while made for understandable personal reasons, is another straw in what seems to me to be now rather a strong gale. We really cannot afford to lose people like her, like John Brogden, like John Anderson, like Tim Fischer. I have not analysed the pattern across the country, but I have the strong impression that the loss of political figures for health reasons such as depression or for life style or family reasons has been on a marked upward trend.

Australian politics has always had its harsh elements flowing in part from its adversarial nature. In 1959 my grandmother died in a car accident. My grandfather remarried a little later, a women whom had worked for him many years before. This was then a common pattern among men of his age who had been married for many years, in his case 47 years.

At the next election, his last, I was handing out how to vote cards. A Labor Party worker who did not know who I was said "How can you hand out how to vote cards for a man who killed his wife to marry his secretary."

So the harsh element has always been there. But my impression is that it has got far worse and that, at the same time, the pressures associated with the job have risen, the rewards fallen.

A politician's life has never been easy.

I know the country best. Electorates are large, so electoral work involves continuous travel. There are constant meetings and functions, steady attention to matters raised by electors. Parliamentary sessions mean more time away from home, often working irregular hours. Parliamentarians spend much time alone in cars, on planes, in hotel rooms. Perhaps not surprisingly, alcoholism has always been an occupational hazard.

The country politician's ordinary working life has got easier and harder with time. On the plus side, members of parliament have more staff, better office facilities, access to better communications.

On the minus side, electorates have got larger and larger because of population shifts, increasing the amount of time spent travelling. The range of issues that parliamentarians must consider have become wider and more complex. And, perhaps most importantly, all our politicians now live on a gold fish bowl. We can look at this along several dimensions.

Dimension one is the sheer hunger of the media for content. There are more journalists, more outlets operating for longer time periods, great competition for ratings/readership. So there is a constant search for a new angle.

There is also a herd effect as journalists wheel and turn in a mob focusing on current hot issues, with reporting feeding on reporting feeding on talk back radio feeding more reporting. Over a two or three day period a hot story such as John Brogden (a man who I liked and respected) and his progressive exit from politics can generate dozens of press stories, hundreds of hours of radio and TV coverage across multiple outlets. The impact can be personally crushing.

Dimension two is the progressive break down in the divide between public and private life. There used to be a clear separation here. Lots of things were known about individuals, their lives, about relationships between individuals. They were talked about in private, never in public. While this still exists to some degree, the area reserved for private has got smaller and smaller and in some cases has simply vanished.

This links to dimension three, a change in the nature of reporting linked in some ways to changing community attitudes and interests. We just appear to be so much more critical, more censorious.

Like most Australians, I was captured by the fairy tale story of the Tasmanian princess. But I could not help wondering just how long it would be before the first negative story appeared in a women's magazine. It took just three months.

The nature of the changes in community attitudes, the way this feeds into reporting in terms of both story selection and story focus, the way this feeds back into community attitudes is far too long and complicated story for this post. For the moment, I would simply note that its effect on our politicians in combination with other changes is both individually damaging and (in my view) destructive to our entire system of Government.

We have always been cynical about politicians as a group. The Australian tall poppy syndrome is well known. Yet, at least in my view as an historian and as someone who has known many politicians from different parties over many years, we have in fact been reasonably well served by our politicians.

People go into politics for many reasons. Our politicians are human like the rest of us. Yet when you look at the work that politicians do in their electorates, at the contributions that so many individual parliamentarians have made to public life, at the causes (sometimes unpopular) they have championed, we come up with a pretty good report card.

We want people to be interested and involved in the democratic system. This is becoming an increasingly big ask when those people know that they now risk personal destruction at worst, at best must suffer increasing personal scrutiny that may extend to their own families.

So let's cut our politicians (and ourselves) a bit more personal slack.


Anonymous said...

Jim, it's the politicians themselves who dig up the dirt against each other for cheap point scoring, not the public.

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, this is a fair point. I think that there has been a coarsening of debate among parliamentarians themselves to the point that the general public is sick of it. I know that I am. But I also think that it's more than that.

I find this a difficult area to think through because of the number of interacting variables. But take women's magazines as an example.

Go into any supermarket, stand back, and look at the pattern of the stories. This is what proprietors think will sell, what the public want to buy.

The same thing, I think, comes through (at least in Sydney)in the pattern of newspaper headlines and the supporting reporting especially in the Telegraph. There is again a personal harshness.

The Brogden case was a sad but interesting example of how the bits all fit together. I cannot remember all the details, but look at the overall pattern as I remember it.

The whole thing began with a leak from activists in his own party - your point. It then carried through into a very unfair story in the Telegraph setting of a media feeding frenzy from press through TV to talk back radio. Even the sympathetic coverage - and there was a lot of that as well - actually added to all the pressure. The net effect of all this was damaging both to the individual, his family and, more broadly, political life itself.

I was only dealing with one slice of all this, the effect on political life. My personal view is that unless we can call a halt to all this in some way we are going to end up with a badly damaged democratic system.