Seventy per cent of Labor’s front bench are – allegedly – former union officials? That makes them out of touch? Unfit to govern? Well, Parliament as a whole cannot be said to mirror the Australian population. That’s what the Parliamentary Library found in a research note last year.

Canberra has a very shallow gene pool. The Parliamentary Library says:

Members of the 41st Parliament tend to be middle-aged, well-educated men, who are likely to have been employed in politics-related occupations, business or law before entering parliament in the last decade.

That “politics-related occupations” part is particularly worth noting. The Library says:

The high proportion from politics-related backgrounds suggests that those who argue that ‘the professional political class has taken over our national Parliament’ may be correct, especially given that the statistics presented in this Note count only those who worked in political fields immediately before their election and not those who have worked in politics at any point in their careers. An examination of the latter group may reveal that the difference between Labor and the Coalition is not as great as it first appears.

This trend and the issues it raises aren’t just a matter for Australia. British journalist Peter Oborne observes in his new book The Triumph of the Political Class :

[T]he Political Class has come to occupy the same public space as the Establishment was supposed to until the end of the 20th century. This new class now… sets social conventions and demarcates the boundaries against which both public and private behaviour are defined. Unlike the old Establishment, the Political class depends directly or indirectly on the state for its special privileges, career structure and increasingly for financial support…

The Political Class is distinguished from earlier governing elites by a lack of experience and connection with other ways of life. Its members make government their exclusive study. This means they tend not to have significant knowledge of industry, commerce or civil society… This converts them into a separate, privileged elite…

Oborne is referencing political staffer turned PR man turned Tory Party leader David Cameron as much as he is referencing any New Labour apparatchik. But back to Australia. The Parliamentary Library looks in the Parliamentary Handbook and says:

The Handbook data on the ‘previous occupation’ of members of the 41st Parliament describes the jobs that they held immediately before their election to the Commonwealth Parliament. It does not say how long members held these jobs before they entered parliament, nor does it include details of any earlier employment… As a result, there are limits to some of the conclusions that can be drawn.

Running off what it’s got, the Library’s research finds:

The current parliament includes 29 people who worked in the legal profession, 55 who were in business, 14 who were in the farming industry, 43 who worked in areas including the public service, academia and the health profession, and 85 who worked in politics-related jobs. The latter category includes those who worked for a party or union, or a political lobbying or consultancy firm, or in a political research or electorate office position. This group comprises 38 per cent, or more than a third, of the total parliament…

They offer this chart, then break the data down further:

Looking at the previous employment of members of the 41st Parliament by chamber shows that those who have been ‘party and union administrators and officials’ are much more prevalent in the Senate: 26 per cent of senators held such jobs immediately before entering parliament compared to only 8 per cent of lower house members… ‘Business executives, managers, etc’ and ‘members of State/Territory legislatures’ are more likely to hold seats in the lower house.

A breakdown by party reveals a considerable difference in the backgrounds of Coalition and Labor members (see Figure 9). 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 (67 per cent to 16 per cent).

The Library reports:

Not surprisingly, given the underlying philosophy of each party, the largest difference occurs in the ‘party and union administrators and officials’ category: 34 per cent of the Labor members held such jobs, compared to just 2 per cent of their Coalition colleagues. The figures are reversed, though with a smaller percentage point spread, in the ‘business executives/managers, etc’ category: 33 per cent of the Coalition members held jobs in this category compared to 11 per cent of their Labor counterparts.

Members of the professional political class hold high positions on both sides of the House. The Leader of the Government in the Senate, Nick Minchin, for example, worked in the Liberal Party federal secretariat before becoming former deputy federal director of the Liberal Party and former state director.

Run through the Cabinet. Alexander Downer, Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are all former staffers. Brendan Nelson is a former national union boss. Outer ministry member Andrew Robb is a former Liberal Party federal director and staffer. Chris Pyne is a former staffer. So is Fran Bailey. As are Parliamentary Secretaries Greg Hunt and Tony Smith.

Indeed, if you want to play with statistics, you can say that there are now 200% more former advisers to Peter Costello in his time as Treasurer in Parliament than there were at the start of the Howard years – Smith, Member for Casey since 2001 and Mitch Fifield, who filled a Senate casual vacancy in 2004.

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Peter Fray
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