As the US presidential election battle heats up and Barack Obama and Mitt Romney trot out their photogenic families for the cameras, it’s worth taking a look at the ultimate political dynasty — and yes, they’re still fielding candidates.
Standing for Congress in the long-term Democratic seat of the Massachusetts’s fourth congressional district is Joe Kennedy III. As in, the grandson of Robert F. Kennedy. Joe is the latest political offering from the famous brood. You know, the Irish-American dynasty of Joseph and Rose that stretches way back to the boot-legging liquor days of America.
The question is, come election day, how many people will feel confident in voting for and trusting Joe Kennedy III on his name alone? Sure there will be general assumptions based upon the party he is standing for, but does being a Kennedy still have a certain ring to it? A nostalgia remains perhaps for the good old America that the black and white images of John and Robert represent.
Classically, Joe ticks all the boxes for a political candidate. He attended Princeton, served in the Peace Corps, works in the District Attorney’s office, and is engaged to a bilingual Harvard graduate. “It certainly brings a sense of continuity that will help the newcomer, especially with older voters,” says ANU Emeritus Professor John Warhurst. Plus, since voting isn’t compulsory and advertising is expensive, it also helps to have established family money behind you. Having an established family name might have helped George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton secure their senior positions.
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So does Australia have a political family name that can be counted on to bring in the votes? “We have never had anything quite like the Kennedys,” says ANU fellow Norman Abjorensen, “but there have been political families prominent on all sides of politics, like the Playfords [Thomas II and Sir Thomas IV], Downers [Sir John, Sir Alec and Alexander], Creans [Frank, Simon and David] and the Anthonys [Larry, Larry Jnr and Doug]”.
Add to that the Bacons in Tasmania — the popularity of premier Jim was widely supposed to have helped fellow ALP candidate Ken Bacon secure his seat, although Ken was no relation. Jim’s son Scott Bacon is now a minister. Then there’s the Keneally power duo — ex-NSW premier Kristina plus husband Ben, who is running for the mayor of Botany.
And of course, don’t forget the Jenkins. Former speaker and Labor stalwart Harry Jenkins originally won the seat of Scullin in 1986, after the retirement of his father, Dr Harry Jenkins Senior. Collectively they have amassed 40 years of federal representation for their Victorian seat. However, come election time next year, the long-time Labor seat will suddenly be open for a candidate of a potentially unknown clan.
Although there has never been reason to suggest that the descendent of a former politician is any less worthy or able than anyone else, 40 years of familial representation in one seat has to help one’s election prospects.
“We have always had political families to some extent — but that goes for lifestyle choice as much as anything, be it sport, certain professions,” says Abjorensen. Not surprising really, when you consider that politics is entering the family business for some.
For others, the name effect can work both ways. “We are seeing something of the ‘celebritisation’ of politics with parties inclined to endorse candidates whose name is well known, for whatever reason. But there are always exceptions, such as Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s son who tried in Queensland, but failed,” continues Abjorensen.
A recent Crikey list of family political feuds show how a famous surname might not help if you’re fighting on different teams. And such is the case for member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, Van Thanh Rudd. Though the theory is all publicity is good publicity, having a fairly conservative uncle in the PMO whilst trying to be a radical might not make party meetings the easiest of things.
To further complicate the family reunion, Kevin’s brother Greg now plans to stand as an independent for a Queensland Senate seat. Somewhat ironically, Greg criticised the celebritisation of Australian politics, declaring: “Our political system has never been pristine, but today more than ever we get sidetracked with politics as entertainment … and a cult of celebrity. This detracts from the creation of good policy”. Yet can we expect that he might get a few more votes because of his famous surname?
Growing up discussing politics around the dinner table might help in the creation of good policy. Will the young Marcus Rudd — forever remembered as the blank-faced teenager standing awkwardly by his father’s goodbye speech — one day lead the nation back to glory? Or might the three Abbott daughters, toted from one media opportunity to the next, decide to dedicate their lives to continuing the work of their father?
Given federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek takes her youngest child Louis with her to Canberra during sitting weeks and is often seen strolling the corridors of Parliament with him in tow, perhaps we’ll see one of the Plibersek Coutts-Trotter children in political office one day.
We’ll only have to wait a few months to know if the Kennedy name still has what it takes. But as to the rise of Australia’s next political dynasty — it’s anyone’s guess who that might be.