The first speeches of most federal and state parliamentarians (MPs) are idealistic. Some MPs stick to these principles. Others do not. An aim commonly stated by MPs is to represent all the people in their electorates, whether they voted for the MP or not. Unfortunately, some MPs abandon this principle thinking there is political advantage in fomenting division. A swag of current Nationals display this unstatesmanlike behaviour.
When I was researching the behaviour of New South Wales MPs in the 1990s I was careful not to use the loose term ‘politicians’ to describe them. Plenty of people outside parliament engage in politics, competing for the power to decide about the distribution of resources available to the state and private organisations. It also seemed obvious that the terms had very different implications attaching to them. To label someone a ‘politician’ was, and remains an insult. The standing of this class in public esteem is very low. Most constituents were well able to distinguish between the lowly politicians en masse and their individual parliamentarian whom they might well respect as hard working and diligent representatives.
It seemed dangerous to use the pejorative ‘politician’ for another reason. When cynical media constantly criticise MPs for being unethical, behaving selfishly and lacking integrity, the images so created can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Why should MPs try to be statesmanlike when they will be routinely derided as ‘politicians’? But of course, MPs can behave as the worst stereotypes predict. All too often, they become the politicians despised by the public.
The images of MPs behaving badly are not difficult to find. They lie and use dirty tricks during election campaigns. They trade over policies. They disparage opponents. And those MPs who happen to be in government immediately have their integrity compromised. They deny the public’s right to have the information to judge their performance. They refuse to criticise or even seriously question senior colleagues because it might inhibit their climb up the greasy pole. Their behaviour in Question Time is generally appalling.
What happened to those idealistic new MPs who made such touching first speeches? Deputy Premier of New South Wales John Barilaro used a popular quotation from an American preacher noting that a politician thinks of the next election while a statesman thinks of the next generation. His bitter comments about anyone who dared to mention climate change while bushfires threatened the state suggest that he might have forgotten that longer view which characterises the statesman.
The controversial Barnaby Joyce noted that he was in the Senate to serve the people of Queensland. He did not qualify this or make any exceptions. Mr Joyce, erstwhile National Party Leader, always has a surprise comment, but the latest has caused senior colleagues to question his judgment, not for the first time. Speaking about two people who died in the bushfires, Mr Joyce speculated about whether the deceased might have voted for the Greens. He later argued that his statement has been taken out of context, but perhaps there is no appropriate context for such an assertion. He reckoned that he was trying to say that it was inappropriate to attack the Greens when people had died. He has not received much sympathy for this view. A feature of his first speech was that he had read it to his wife who seemed to be listening quietly, but he then realised she was asleep! Perhaps he is unaccustomed to people actually hearing what he says and few will give any credence to his ideas about the sun’s magnetic field.
Michael McCormack Deputy Prime Minister has been proudly a politician for some time. As the election loomed in May he announced that Labor’s climate change policy would mean the end of night football. After the election he took the result as an affirmation of the Coalition approach to coal mining and suggested that anyone who did not endorse the policy should ‘get off the grid’. After election victories in both Sydney and Canberra the National Party proves the old truth that victors learn nothing.
Regardless of the role of climate change in the severity of the bushfire season, people in danger should be given every assistance that the community can provide. But this does not mean that the issue should be ignored. The science about climate change is quite clear: the rational, objective evidence says that more action is required. Having lost the debate, the opponents of action have no choice but to reduce the argument to a shouting match. No wonder that the claims of National Party spokespersons are becoming increasingly hysterical. They want to stall the debate by diverting it into an ideological cul-de-sac.
Mr McCormack’s latest rave about inner city greenies is typical of the attempt to drive a wedge into the community. It positions poor country people as the victims of policies ignorant of the needs of rural dwellers. But many country people acknowledge the science on climate change and the actions needed to address the problem. To suggest otherwise is patronising and demeaning to country people and misrepresents them completely. And Mr McCormack’s first words in parliament? ‘I love a sunburnt country’.
In my experience individual National Party parliamentarians are hardworking representatives. They almost always provide excellent service to constituents without any hint of favouritism, as they should. Unfortunately, they sometimes try to defend policies which are antiquated. When their strategic approaches become strident and obstructive, they collectively seem like a bunch of politicians.
Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.