Why is it that the
ALP has formed government in every State since 2002, but has been out of power
at the Federal level since 1996? As Peter Costello quipped in 1999, “What do
you have to do to get on in the Labor Party these days? Get born in the back of
a Comcar, I suppose!” The ever-quotable former ALP Senator John Button said in 2002
that there are “so many ‘and Sons’ on the Labor front bench that it’s more like
a street full of English high class tailors than a Parliamentary party”. Is it
nepotism that keeps politicians languishing in State politics, denied access to
Federal politics by the scions of Labor’s Holy Families, or some other

Labor’s front
bench is made up of former high-level Unionists, political staffers,
teachers/lecturers and a few lawyers. And one rock singer; clearly a colourful
and talented person, a glaring exception that proves the rule. In fact, nearly
70 per cent of Labor’s Parliamentary members held politics-related jobs
immediately before entering Parliament, whereas less than 20 per cent of the
Coalition’s members did so. The political experience would undoubtedly help
them once employed on the hill, but they have to get the jobs in the first
place, which involves the pesky electoral system.

The Coalition
conversely has abundance in the former business owners, executives and managers
category. In fact, 33 per cent of the Coalition members held jobs in this
category immediately prior to entering Parliament compared to 11 per cent of
their Labor counterparts. These people have the ability to communicate to
Australia’s mortgage-paying middle
class, an act John Howard has turned into an art-form.

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But the Coalition
has the opposite problem to Labor. In the case of Victoria, where Labor
looks distinctly entrenched, the Liberal Party is a shambles. A recent Morgan Poll showed
that a stunning 38% of voters said they preferred Jeff Kennett as leader, who
has been out of politics since 1999, compared with only 13% who supported
current leader Robert Doyle.

Henry’s hypothesis
is that in Australia, with plenty of exciting
jobs in business, medicine, the law, academia, even the public service, there
are a strictly limited number of talented women and men who are prepared to go
into politics. It requires a team of talented candidates to win elections.
While the dominant hierarchy remains vital, Opposition looks unpromising and men
and women of talent tend to look for other opportunities. If the Coalition
looks dominant Federally, the best Labor people gravitate to the State
Parliaments, and vice versa. This tendency will be greatly exaggerated if, as
in Australia at present, Federal Labor
operates a closed shop of former union mates and members of the great Labor

Over time,
however, any dominant hierarchy tends to recruit more and more in its own image
and what eventually follows is the Law of Diminishing Disciples. Think Menzies,
Holt, Gorton and, finally, McMahon. When the dominant hierarchy begins to
crumble, Opposition looks increasingly promising and able people will switch
their focus until, finally there is a change of government. I see this process,
which I call “the great political seesaw” after the book by Geoffrey Blainey, as
occurring in opposite ways in both Federal and State Parliaments in

For a more
in-depth analysis, read on here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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