The last sitting day before the winter recess was a charged time in Parliament House. The day before, the House of Representatives had passed Rob Oakeshott’s attempt at a compromise bill on asylum seekers by a bare majority, and many MPs had revealed deep personal conflicts during their contributions to the debate. While I was in the building the arguments were being ritually repeated in the Senate, despite the lack of any prospect of success.
At one point during the day, as I was sitting in the small cafe frequented by those who work in the building, a group of five MPs — three independents, one Liberal, one Labor — came down for coffee and an attempt to resurrect a final compromise. Their bid failed, but seeing the five together — politely deferring over who would pay for coffee while juggling with mobile phones and iPads — was a reminder that not all decisions are made by the leadership and passed down the line to unthinking supporters.
Journalists and political scientists pay too little attention to the ways in which backbench MPs and senators can affect party policies and outcomes, and how they have the potential to do more.
In fact, one of the worst aspects of politics at the moment is that the relentless concentration on leaders means that we know remarkably little about backbenchers. A few MPs become recognisable figures, usually for some superficial characteristic: Wyatt Roy for his youth; John Alexander for his tennis career; Craig Thomson because of fraud allegations. But the great bulk of the 150 members of the House of Representatives, along with most of the 76 senators, are generally seen as ground troops to be deployed in the battles between their leaders, and when we see them speaking in our occasional glimpses of Parliament it’s generally to two or three other members in an otherwise empty chamber.
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I spent that last day of the autumn session talking to several lower-house Labor backbenchers and watching the activity in the chambers and in the corridors. I sought out a small group of members young enough, and in safe enough seats, to be future leaders of the party, whether or not it retains office next year. I sought out members who would counteract the simple picture that all Labor members are without life experience or careers outside the party and union movement.
For all the emphasis on party machines and the front bench, it is to the newer and younger members of Parliament that we should look for a sense of potential political futures. Ultimately, the direction of any political party depends on its parliamentarians, and we know far too little about their backgrounds, ideas, values and priorities. Yet it is here that party differences become clearest. A few politicians might seem as if they could be at home on either side of the floor, but this is usually because they are out of step with the prevailing mood in their party.
To look down on the House of Representatives from the galleries is to recognise that the two major parties represent different trends in Australian society. Of course there are Liberals with working-class backgrounds and empathy for the dispossessed; I think of Warren Entsch, the Liberal whip, who is a genuinely decent man with great empathy for indigenous and gay Australians but who doesn’t seek to apply that approach to broader social forces. Many Liberals are a bit like Ronald Reagan: decent human beings whose policies can accentuate the divisions and inequalities that they deplore when they encounter the individuals who experience them.
I am not saying that Labor MPs are somehow better human beings, or less driven by political calculus than their opponents, though few of them can match Sophie Mirabella or Eric Abetz for the sheer unattractiveness of their political personae. But even those who are driven by short-term ambition and parochial concerns share a belief that Labor exists to build a better society. That simple message too often gets lost in the daily spin and the scripted messages from the PM’s office.
Politics is tribal, and some of our current politicians, such as the Ferguson brothers, come from long-standing Labor families. Most politicians inherit their political allegiances, even if they become active in ways unavailable to their parents. Many now move in what seem like uninterrupted journeys from university Labor clubs to working for unions or parliamentarians to preselection, never joining a workforce that is not in some way linked to the party.
But this is already to oversimplify: someone like Laura Smyth, who holds the marginal outer-suburban seat of La Trobe in Melbourne, came up through the National Union of Students, but has also worked as a corporate lawyer and in a nursing home. (She will be known to TV news viewers as one of the two women who sit strategically behind the Prime Minister in the House.) Stephen Jones, from the south coast of New South Wales, worked as a youth advocate before being employed by the Community and Public Sector Union.
The three members I spent time with were all well under 50 and from different sections of the party and different backgrounds. (I believe two of the three were Rudd supporters in the last ballot, but our conversations carefully skirted current leadership controversies.) Melissa Parke, who replaced Carmen Lawrence in the seat of Fremantle, and Andrew Leigh, who replaced Bob McMullan in the ACT seat of Fraser, represent areas with a strong Green vote — almost 20% in both cases. Ed Husic, who represents the outer-suburban Sydney seat of Chifley, won an absolute majority on first preferences in 2010, with a Green vote of around 8%. On some issues Leigh and Parke are far closer to the Greens than one might expect.