Ben
Chifley would still be driving trains if he went for pre-selection
today, former NSW education minister turned Labor gadfly Rodney
Cavalier told the Fabian Society

last night:

Could a railwayman from Bathurst win pre-selection today? No.

Could
a man or woman who works during the day or night in a job that involves
getting dirty and perspiring and without access to a telephone during
working hours win a pre-selection today? No.

Could a
professional devoted to his practice and his clients – that is, willing
to work long hours, including night and weekends in preparation and
research – could such a person win a pre-selection today? No…

So
who does win pre-selections? Professionals and political hacks, says
Cavalier. “Add up the private staff for state and federal members,
upper and lower, ministers and frontbenchers, you will have a vast
number of paid jobs at the disposal of the political class, jobs which
serve to reinforce its grip on the party at all levels and throughout
Sydney and its satellite,” he says. “The political class is a coterie.
The coterie has its differences within – any such divisions are not
about ideas or ideology. The factions have become executive placement
agencies, disputes between them become serious only when they cannot
agree on a placement. They are effectively united for themselves
against the world.”

Labor’s national secretary Tim Gartrell refuted

Cavalier’s hypothesis at the meeting “We all know Ben Chifley had a
thirst for learning and knowledge that saw him educate himself,” he
said, and went on:

Although it’s still hard (and getting harder) for working
class kids to get an education I believe a young Ben Chifley would
probably have toughed it out, won a place at university (even as a
mature aged student) and excelled.

Indeed, Ben Chifley once said that he would have given a million pounds to have the education that Dr Evatt had.

Like
many kids from working class backgrounds with a deep interest in and
passion for social change and politics he then probably would have
looked around for a political role.

So where would a young Ben Chifley look to advance his political
ambitions? In all likelihood in a union office or an MPs or party
office…

Cavalier seems to have become a handy rent-a-quote for “fings ain’t wot
they used to be” political journalism – viz Alan Ramsey ad nauseum. The
truth of the matter is that both are right – and that journalists
should stop being lazy and look a little wider.

A specialist class of politicians is emerging in this country – in all
the parties. It would be a deceptive and grossly simplistic assessment
to attribute Labor’s losses at the last four federal elections to the
growth of the numbers of apparatchiks.

Look
at two Coalition young turks – MHR Tony Smith and Senator Mitch
Fifield. Both came out of the Treasurer’s office within three years of
each other. Take the two Queensland Democrats Senators, Andrew Murray
and John Cherry. Both went straight from advisers positions into
Parliament. The Greens are supposedly shattering political paradigms –
yet their Senator Kerry Nettle has been a political professional for
her entire career. Incoming Tasmanian Green Christine Milne was on Bob
Brown’s staff and is a former state MP. Even Family First is at it.
Their Senator elect Steve Fielding has been involved in local
government. And so on.

This is a trend. It’s also a problem –
but it’s not just one party’s problems. It’s everybody’s. Arguing over
Ben Chifley might be a nice parlour game for Fabians – they’re the
original limousine liberals, after all – but it does nothing to tackle
the democratic deficit that has created such a divide between
governments and the governed in Australia.

Peter Fray

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