No one is ever likely to accuse me of being a Jeff Kennett fan. I spent
most of the 90s working against his government, and my small part in
his downfall is perhaps my proudest achievement. Yet when he decided
not to make a comeback I felt considerable regret.
At first I thought this was just that Jeff’s return would, as many
commentators noted, make politics much more interesting. Not to mention
that I usually enjoy a by-election. But with more time to consider I
realised there is another reason – I think more politicians making
comebacks would be good for the country.
I’m certainly not talking about the pollies who spend a stint on the
backbench while they plot how to undermine their leader, I’m referring
to those who actually get out of politics, experience life outside
parliament house, and get in touch with what matters.
A big part of the problem with modern politics is that the politicians
live in wealthy neighbourhoods, fly business class when they’re not
travelling in government cars and spend their time in the house with
other pollies, staffers or professional lobbyists. Contact with a wider
group of citizens is often not much more than photo-ops.
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Whatever position you take on tax reform, one thing should be obvious –
marginal tax rates of 47% on the very rich are less of a problem than
effective marginal tax rates of 76% plus on those on a mix of casual
work and welfare. However, when almost everyone you hang around with
earns over $100,000 (or expects to soon) things look a little
different, and we saw the results in the budget.
Of course some of those who get out take jobs with Macquarie Bank or,
merchants of death like the tobacco companies. Nevertheless, many do
some charity or community work and actually start to meet the people
who were affected by their decisions. Sometimes greater insight
results. Consider one example
In the early 1990s Marie Tehan denounced a safer sex poster on the
grounds that it was better for young people to die of AIDS than to be
told that it was OK to be gay. Whether motivated by bigotry or populism
it was one of the most disgraceful acts in recent political history.
She did little as a minister to redeem herself. Yet shortly before her
death she was campaigning for humane treatment of asylum seekers. Such
grace seldom occurs in the belly of the beast.
Sweden once had a program (and for all I know still does) where
parliamentarians spent a week a year doing unskilled jobs. Some even
tried to live on their temporary position’s wages. I believe about a
quarter of MPs took part.
It is perhaps too much to hope for something similar in Australia, but
some stints outside parliament might be better than nothing. I doubt it
is coincidence that Russell Broadbent, the only MP in parliament to
have his career interrupted twice, was one of those who spoke up for a
little humanity as part of Petro Georgio’s backbench revolt.
One can’t be sure that Jeff’s work with Beyond Blue would have made him
a better politician, but his admission that he was wrong to introduce
so many poker machines indicates that it just might.