Let’s state the obvious: no Australian running for parliament would ever pledge to cut ties with his or her electorate after winning the seat. It’s Politics 101: if you spend time and money ingratiating yourself with your potential constituents, the last thing you’d want to do is alienate them after the poll. It would be political suicide.
Or would it? In Ireland, the leader of the centre-right Fine Gael party did just that. Enda Kenny vowed that, if elected, he would direct his ministers to do no constituency work for their first 100 days in office. Promising to end the “circus” of ministers attending events in their constituencies, he made a deal: no unveiling of plaques, no kissing babies, no stump speeches, no constituent schmoozing. Nothing. Instead, a Kenny cabinet would “hit the ground running” and focus on the country’s battered and over-exposed economy. It would be 100 days of unadulterated delivery.
“If this becomes a reality, ministers will concentrate completely, to the exclusion of all works, on the national responsibilities of their portfolios,” Kenny said in February, shortly before the election. “Their constituencies, I’m quite sure, will be happy to accommodate them.”
These fighting words may well have helped Kenny become the country’s new taoiseach (prime minister); yet within 70 days his pre-election commitment was in tatters. And the problem wasn’t the constituents — their ability to accommodate the prolonged absence of their representatives was never put to the test. The issue was the politicians: they couldn’t keep away from their electorates.
In May, the Irish Independent listed the functions Kenny had attended in his western electorate of Mayo since coming to power, and it added up to an impressive level of local involvement. The taoiseach had raised a flag at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, sounded the starting horn at the West of Ireland Women’s Mini-Marathon, opened the Mayo ploughing championship, turned the first sod at May Abbey National School … And his Spartan, outcomes-focused cabinet members were doing the same around the country.
The take-home message is this: don’t stand between an Irish politician and a constituent. The country’s political reality has turned MPs into what columnist Fintan O’Toole described as “demented ward-heelers”. And Ireland’s multi-member electorates, in which politicians compete against both fellow party members and political opponents, are part of the problem.
“It is not war with the enemy but friendly fire that the Irish politician fears most,” O’Toole wrote earlier this year. “That fear sustains the crazy system of doling out ‘imaginary patronage’. Everyone does it because, if they don’t, it’s sure as hell that some hungry colleague will be out on the street corners pushing the drug.”
In Australia that addiction is, if nothing else, out in the open. The substance has been legalised and the industry that is building up around its distribution has taken on an air of respectability. In fact, even without multi-member federal electorates the cult of being accountable to one’s community has become the one, constant thread in our political culture.
What Australian politician would claim to be anything less than a “tireless worker” for his or her electorate? What kind of martyr would enter into a parliamentary debate without claiming to be in regular contact with the “real Australia” of the constituency? (The vested interests and the elites, of course, live in ivory towers that have no postcode.)
Electorate offices are now outreach machines for politicians who have become travelling salesmen for themselves. On Saturday mornings you will find MPs sitting behind card tables at the local shopping centre, their rolled-up sleeves embracing the semiotics of suburban struggle. If you’ve had a tough night up with a crying baby, they feel your pain because they’ve been there themselves (“If I had a dollar for every nappy I’ve changed …”); if your local council is driving you nuts, well, those jokers have been giving your local member headaches for years.
Accessibility, responsiveness and empathy are what we’ve come to expect from our politicians; they, in turn, have set themselves up to feed those expectations. Their staff numbers are growing and they pay commercial rates for offices in shopping strips to be certain of attracting through-traffic. They crave involvement.
In fact, the electorate responsibilities of many federal MPs are driving them to breaking point — and it’s all self-inflicted. Particularly in marginal seats, our elected representatives are choosing to take on more work than ever before, and they are prepared to sacrifice their personal lives to deliver. Where does all that hard work go? What do the 150 members of Australia’s House of Representatives actually achieve for their electorates? And how worse off would we be if our local MP skipped the odd community meeting and caught a movie instead?