How much more regeneration can the Labor
Party stand? Much experience has been lost to Labor since Paul Keating’s day.

Australia has a
population that is aging. Many people feel comfortable and relaxed with more
experienced representatives. The popularity of a certain Prime Minister
attests to that. After all, boredom’s better than a caucus run by teenagers.

The ALP
preselection stoushes have focussed our attention on who makes up our parties –
and who our MPs are.

On
Monday we pointed to the Parliamentary Library’s paper “The
41st Parliament: middle-aged, well-educated and (mostly) male” and the scary stats it contains: six per cent of all MPs are former research assistants,
electorate officers etc; 12 per cent are former political consultants, advisers
etc; 14 per cent are former party and union administrators and officials and
six per cent members of state or territory legislators. That adds up to 38 per cent of the
parliament – or a hell of a lot of hacks and stacks.

Yet it’s
not politically smart to pack your party with young wannabes with similar and
narrow life experiences – and a singular obsession for the prime minister’s
job. Labor has plenty in caucus now. Their youth and ambition hasn’t done much
for the party’s fortunes since 1996.

Naturally,
a career in politics is always going to be interesting to people with an
interest in politics. But they need to do something about the parties they seek
to represent. Look at what Melbourne Uni’s Sally Young had to say in her
article “Power without people” last year:

Political participation
seems to be either dead or dying in Australia. Instead of being driven by citizens, politics
has become the domain of party hacks and hired guns, driven by big money and
big business. It is an exclusive club, controlled by cadres and career
politicians, riddled with factions, dirty tricks and nasty power struggles…

The parties are
reluctant to reveal the state of their membership bases but we know that they
have decayed. The ALP had an active membership of around 370,000 members in the
1940s but by 1990, had just 55,000 fee-paying members. Only five years after it
was officially launched, in 1950, the Liberal Party had grown to a membership
of 198,000 but by 1990, this had dropped to 69,000.

All
parties should be able to draw some lessons from the last few weeks.

We need
to have a place in our democracy for local members who put their constituents
first – but who also bring broader life experience to the deliberation of
policy. In uncertain times, the Australian public want politicians with their
feet on the ground – not their heads in the clouds.

The two
biggest names to enter Parliament at the 2004 election were Peter Garrett and
Malcolm Turnbull – both figures in their early fifties with significant records
of achievement outside politics.

Yet the
sole requisite these days now for party candidature seems to be personal
ambition fuelled by membership of a narrow powerful elite.

What has
happened to Simon Crean has little to do with his age or ability or
anything – and more to do with ambitious people with too much power in
their party for their
party’s own good. People who want to walk before they can run.

Bill
Shorten said he wasn’t impatient with his day job. He shouldn’t be. He’s only
39 and has a mighty big one, seeing off John Howard’s workplace changes. Yet
he’s leaving the coalface to sit on the opposition backbench – and behaving
like a boss tossing a worker because the boss is bored.

You tend
to grow out of thinking that change for change sake is good and experience
counts for nothing. And, if
you’re committed enough, you tend to grow into political jobs as you mature.
Your time comes. Hacks and stacks aside.

Peter Fray

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