Saturday, November 16, 2013

CarrRudded: The sound of our 44th parliament

Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but few can test by feeling. Everyone sees what you seem to be, few know what you really are; and those few do not dare take a stand against the general opinion. 
Niccolò MachiavelliThe Prince

KRudd resigns : bloggers blog

And so, on the evening of Wednesday 13 November 2013, Mr Rudd resigned...and we have now all blogged about it. Well, blog we must, and here is my contribution to the record. 

Not so quiet now, the local paper seeks out
 the member for Griffith
Southeast Advertiser October 2013
Those of you who have read my previous posts about Kevin Rudd will know that I take something of a 'view from Griffith' approach. That is, I am a constituent of this electorate. Not only that, I hope to bring to my view a slightly different take on my local member, as one who shares a similar educational and background (Asian Studies), a short stint in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as one whose profession it is to observe politics at its very heart and one who has, over some two decades or so encountered elements of the Rudd career trajectory via his report into studying Asian languages from the early 1990s, to encounters in federal parliament when I worked for a Queensland senator, to active constituent in electorate events. It is an interesting mix.

Mr Rudd, as we know, was re-elected as the member for Griffith in September. He regained his seat on the back of second preferences and had a 5% swing against him. Interesting that his swing went against him, while Labor candidates in neighbouring electorates had swings towards them...we good burghers of Griffith had mixed feelings methinks. In looking over the individual booth results (ah, yes, I do that sort of thing...occupational hazard of psephologists everywhere), I noted with interest that my local booth was one of the few in the electorate to show an increase in first preferences since the previous election...but I digress. 

At Troy Bramston's book launch,
in the electorate, 16 March 2013, the
prime ministerial ambition burned then.
There was a sense on the day of the election that, frankly, we were likely to head to a by-election within months, perhaps weeks, despite assurances otherwise. That may have gone some way to explaining that interesting swing against. In the event of the ALP losing government, it was highly unlikely Mr Rudd would stick around to go back from whence he came--an opposition back bencher. 

Those of us not playing in the ALP pick-a-leader playground for the month after the election were getting a little frustrated that the 'Rudd reform' of the party was dragging out over a month while a new government with wobbly training wheels was afforded an almost scrutiny-free month to settle in. All eyes were on the Shorten-Albanese sideshow. Meanwhile, our local member went on a two-week holiday overseas with family to rest and recover. Well, fair enough I suppose. Dr Glasson went back to his surgery. 

After a long, long wait, the 44th Parliament opened at the beginning of this week with all the pomp and ceremony that accompanies that. It is an exciting and deserved time for new members and territory senators (other new senators will join next July...). It is when the first (or maiden) speeches begin...each new member rising for the first time in this place to put on the record, in Hansard, their aspirations, their dreams, their political philosophy, their reason for being there in this place...first speeches are truly a joy to read. They are each and every member and senator at their most heartfelt (well, mostly). 

I was driving home after a long day at work (nine hours of exam workshops), listening to some of the first speeches replayed on the radio; the reactions of family, friends and communities to their new members, particularly the more prominent ones, the ones with high public profiles and even higher expectations. 

And so, it was not surprising on this important evening to hear the breaking news that Kevin Rudd, the member for Griffith, the immediate past prime minister, sometime foreign minister, opposition leader etc, was entering the chamber to announce his resignation from parliament. There were the usual paeans to family and colleagues on both sides of the House; the emotion-filled first draft at establishing one's legacy in what had really been a rather tumultuous few years; the speech of one who polarised his party, the Cabinet, his constituents. Members from both sides rose to offer valediction...he had been prime minister, twice, after all. 

By the time I reached the outskirts of Brisbane, the radio was abuzz and 612ABC's Rebecca Levingston and producer Lachie Mackintosh were in full-on live coverage mode. By 8.05, it was my turn to contribute and so from the car park of the home of the whopper (I had to pull off the main road) I had a chat with Rebecca about the by-election, what is to come and what of the member for Griffith's legacy. 

Former Senator Bob Carr had announced just a few weeks ago that he intended to retire from the Senate, his decision to remain as an 'elder statesman' was merely 'irrational exuberance'. While it came as little surprise, the resignation was met with the usual cynicism that is the public's response to our parliamentarians. The resignation of a senator doesn't require a by-election in the same way the resignation of a member of the House of Representatives requires (notwithstanding what is about to unfold over in Western Australia). 

The public, by and large, do not like unnecessary by-elections (well, I don't mind the opportunity to go all psephologist again of course). The resignations of Messrs Rudd and Carr though, call into question the vocation of politics. What these resignations suggest to the public is that some politicians, given the privilege to represent constituents in the highest of democratic institutions, mistake the purpose of politics to be beyond self-interest and self-aggrandisement. And it is here, dear reader, that I think we arrive at the nub of our broken contract (yes, this post was always going to return to my Kantian rhythms...). Not all the action happens on the front bench, in question time, on the evening news...places where those who seek very public acclamation play out their game plan. Unfortunately, the very public expectations nowadays now put the emphasis on the 'game', on the superficial over substance. 

What is wrong with being a 'backbencher'? Nothing actually, indeed the backbench is a vastly underrated space from where a parliamentarian can make a huge difference to the lives of individuals, their constituents, case-by-case. Some do that very well. Some indeed, satisfy themselves career-wise with the focus on the micro, rather than macro. There are committees as well, where a backbencher can channel their efforts to craft and influence the legislative process, quite out of the spotlight. Indeed, perhaps our politics has reached its nadir because high-profile and experienced politicians find the work of a backbencher mere drudgery. Indeed, it was my former Minister who is attributed with coining the expression 'relevance deprivation syndrome', and in doing so, he gave the 'pass-out' for others who have followed in his footsteps, the justification for the departure they feel they deserve. 

I'm not suggesting that all elected members should remain in parliament forever. But the position of parliamentarian shouldn't be seen as a stepping stone to a second or third career. Our polity can only benefit from the experience that experienced politicians can offer, whether from the government or opposition backbenches, our parliament can thrive on a judicious mix of youthful idealism and hardened experience. 

It is something I hope they think about. 

In closing, as I write, we good Griffith burghers are none the wiser over likely candidates, probable dates (sometime in the new year) and our new member. The insurmountable dialectical polarity of Kevin will be likely be his lasting legacy in the end. Triggering a by-election in these circumstances will ensure that. Seeing out the current term at least, as mundane as it might have been, might have gone some way, just a little, towards repairing that ailing social contract of ours.