Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 30 March 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.
I will be in Armidale this Friday to give seminar a paper at the University on social change in the broader new state New England over the period 1950-2000.
The changes that swept the North over the second half of the twentieth century were quite dramatic.
The period breaks into halves. The first was a period of great change, but also a basic historical continuity. Change over the second half was so great that it effectively swept much of the past aside, introducing a major discontinuity into New England’s history. The paper explores the major changes.
Last Saturday was, of course, the election.
I really don’t want to talk about that beyond noting that, like so many others, I felt that the Labor Government had to go and indeed should have gone the election before. Instead, I want to broach an unpopular topic and say why I am pro-politician!
More precisely, I am pro local members independent of party or, for that matter, non-party!
On Saturday, youngest worked as an election official for the NSW Electoral Commission, while my wife worked on a booth. I did as I had done for the last few elections and ferried people around. I did so regardless of their political persuasion.
I don’t know how old I was when I first worked on a booth handing out how to votes at Town hall. Certainly I was still at primary school.
Today, I still regard election day as the peak of our democratic experience, for that is when we all get to judge. Yes, we sometimes make mistakes, but then we do have another chance later. And that’s more than people in Syria or Libya have!
I grew up in a political household. It could hardly be otherwise since my grandfather was member for New England.
I met lots of politicians and listened to the conversations. A bit later, I tried for preselection myself. Later still, I had contact as a senior public servant with ministers and senior back benchers in the Fraser and Hawke Governments. Even today when my focus is on my writing and I am a bit out of direct contact, I still meet ministers or local members at social functions or events.
Over time, I have met some pretty crappy people. Ego driven, win obsessed, blind to arguments on the other side. But I have met some very good people as well.
If Kristina Keneally met me in the street tomorrow she would pass me by. If I said that we had met, she would look vague unless I gave her a very specific context. Then she would not remember me, but would at least be able to place me.
For reasons I won’t bore you with, I ended up going to a bare foot bowls session organised by the Rosebery Branch of the ALP. Rosebery is in Kristina’s electorate.
As an outsider, I clutched my beer and just watched. I couldn’t properly judge her ability, but was very impressed by her warmth.
We country people - for reasons I have outlined before I won’t use the term regional because it has come to mean provincial, second rate - have high expectations of our local members. Among other things, we actually expect them to know what we are talking about!
Generally, they do.
Sydney people don’t have this expectation. In this big and complicated city, you just don’t meet your local member except by accident.
I admit to a bias. I think that country members are just better regardless of party! They get less involved with party games, are more accessible.
But regardless of that, the great majority of local members and especially back benchers actually care.
We are very hard on our politicians, unreasonably so to my mind. We place excessive expectations on them, we burn them out and then we spit them out.
Today, every politician lives in an unreal environment, a gold fish bowl pressure cooker where every move is subject to the white glare of media scrutiny.
It wasn’t always so. Once we cut our local members some slack.
Sir Henry Parkes, the man who founded the NSW public school system, kept on going broke and having to raise personal money by public appeal. Today, can you imagine what would happen if a public appeal was launched to a pay a politician’s debts?
If Sir Henry Parkes was a today politician, he would have been expelled from public life. The fact that we would not then have a public school system is neither here or there. Who needs schools?