A lively look at the deep distrust between Australians and the people they elect to office, this book showcases the long history of such an uneasy relationship. From the 1850s to the 2013 election, Jackie Dickenson traces the ways in which such animosity has, and hasn’t, changed over the course of time. While acknowledging the maxim that cynicism about politics is always on the rise, she argues that having blind trust in the government is not a desirable alternative either. Asking tough questions, revisiting scandals, and exploring times of trauma and difficulty for Australia, this work ultimately concludes that the Australian voters may not have it as bad as it first seems.
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About the Author
Jackie Dickenson is the author of Renegades and Rats and the coauthor of The Dictionary of Australian Politics. She is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Melbourne.
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Australians and Their Politicans
By Jackie Dickenson
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2013 Jackie Dickenson
All rights reserved.
Politics becomes a profession
'The keystone of the democratic arch'
ANYONE WHO THINKS THE current behaviour of our politicians in parliament is childish and demeaning should take a look at press reports of events in the Tasmanian Legislative Assembly in the late 1850s and early 1860s. In September 1859, the Daily Mercury raged against the behaviour of 'cowardly' Members of Parliament who thought nothing of attacking others behind their backs. The paper's target was Thomas Chapman, the Member for Hobart, who had allegedly impugned the reputation of a recently retired Legislative Councillor, Judge Horne. Such behaviour, the Mercury thundered, 'brought an indelible disgrace' upon the constituencies of both the victim and the assailant.
The Speaker struggled to control the House. Just days after the Chapman incident he fined Charles Meredith, a Liberal and the Member for Glamorgan, £5 for calling the Member for Launceston, John Crookes, 'a wicked man'. The following day, the Mercury reported that Meredith had also introduced to Australian politics what was to become a useful cliché for the press and political rivals in a range of circumstances – whenever a politician was judged deserving of criticism or, especially in the case of Western Australia, whenever the fraught question of the payment of Members was discussed in parliament. Meredith had dubbed the three most powerful men in the colony 'Needy, Seedy and Greedy'. Borrowed from Dr Johnson, the phrase stuck close to the conservative triumvirate – the Colonial Treasurer Frederick Innes, the Premier and Attorney-General Francis Smith, and the Colonial Secretary William Henty – well into the next decade.
In January 1862, when the Tasmanian Ministry, led by Chapman, faced strong pressure from Innes, Henty and Smith, Crookes resurrected the epithet in the House. In response, the former Premier – the emotional and ill-disciplined Thomas Gregson – let fly at Crookes and ridiculed Chapman, stating, 'never shall I call him the Premier, unless in a piece of sarcasm'. Such displays were unlikely to earn the respect of even the most forgiving of voters.
When exactly did Australian voters begin to disrespect their politicians? Some people think it all started with the republican debate of 1999, when the monarchists warned Australians that they couldn't trust a politician to be the head of state. Some trace it back to the 1960s, when we (supposedly) stopped joining clubs and associations; these commentators argue that public trust in all institutions has declined in the past 50 years, and that our distrust of politicians is just one aspect of this. Others think we should look to the late 1890s when the 'elites' failed to engage the people in the processes of Federation, or, perhaps, even further back, to the introduction of representative democracy itself in the 1850s.
One popular explanation has voters' discontent originating in the events at Eureka in 1854. Despite the efforts of revisionist historians who argue that Eureka was little more than a tax revolt by small business, many continue to view it as the single most important event in terms of the future character of Australian democracy, including our attitudes towards our parliamentary representatives. Perhaps the simple truth is that politicians have never been highly esteemed in Australia, or elsewhere.
In 1774 – at a time when the right to vote was highly restricted and the wealthy were able to buy control of seats in the House of Commons – the British politician Edmund Burke famously outlined a fundamental problem in the relationship between parliamentarians and the voters they represented. Electors wanted to control their representatives, but once elected, the representative was duty bound not to sacrifice 'his unbiased opinion' or 'his enlightened conscience' to the voters' opinion. Burke conceptualised this duty as trusteeship, in contrast to delegation (in which the representative acts according to the voters' express orders). This conceptualisation became the preferred approach of those elected to parliamentary representation in Britain and, subsequently, in Australia, although as we will see, the emergence of a workers' party – the Australian Labor Party (ALP) – at the end of the 19th century brought this consensus into question and introduced a new model of representation.
From the beginning of representative democracy in Australia, the clash between electors' desires and representatives' sense of responsibility to do what was right, whether or not it was what their constituents wanted, has led to conflict between politicians and voters. In New South Wales, Burke's support for representation rather than delegation became the mantra of colonial politics, and both liberals and conservatives advocated Members' independence, or 'measures above men' – policies rather than personalities, as we might put it today. The principle became deeply ingrained in the colony's political tradition. In practice, Members were still very concerned with keeping their constituents happy, in order to make sure they were re-elected. As more men were given the vote, however, a new type of politician emerged: one who believed it was his duty to put the interests of his constituents before those of the whole colony and was prepared to say so. This range of attitudes towards the role of a representative became a defining feature of Australian political life.
In the first years of self-government in New South Wales, which began in 1840, the independence (or otherwise) of representatives was irrelevant. The Governor selected five (and eventually 15) men to sit on the Legislative Council; their position in society supposedly indicated their trustworthiness to act in the colony's interests.
Being gentlemen, they were, according to the assumptions of the time, naturally inclined to be competent, reliable and honest.
The introduction of democratic elections undermined such certainties. As the franchise widened because of reforms in the British parliament, men who weren't born gentlemen became eligible for election. Members of Australia's first democratically elected institution, the Sydney City Council (October 1842), soon came to be viewed by conservatives as corrupt and self-interested; the standard of candidates was low. In the lead-up to the city elections in December 1849, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote: 'The electors ... have a difficult task to perform to-day: they have to choose a representative from among three candidates, [none] of whom can be said to be unobjectionable.' One candidate was rejected because he supported the transportation of convicts, another because he supported the Chartists' push for democracy and his private affairs were a mess. The least objectionable candidate was a Mr Bogue, who although 'exceedingly liberal' was 'not prepared to swallow' universal suffrage.
This transition to democracy and the anxieties it caused lie behind subsequent attitudes towards representation in Australia. The emphasis on independence grew stronger in response to the first attempts at organising representatives into factions, after the introduction of elected members to the Legislative Council in 1843, and against the background of moral panic over the gradual expansion of male suffrage.
The Sydney press complained about the loss of eminent men and gentlemanly manners as a result of this expansion. In Britain, reports of fisticuffs in the colonial parliament confirmed prejudices about the convict origins of the colonists and reassured the British of their own superiority, much as seeing South Korean or Taiwanese parliamentarians coming to blows on our TV news reassures us of the comparative civility of our own democracy. More importantly, the parliament's composition threatened established interests, and, in both Australia and Britain, these critical reports played to conservative anxieties about the evils of democracy, in a context in which democratic reforms were the only solution to civil unrest.
The widening of the franchise did nothing to diminish the significance of Burke's paradox. Democratic suspicions of the trustworthiness of representatives were embodied in the demand of the British Chartists for yearly parliaments, and later, as an Australian working-class party – the Labor Party – organised, its advocates devised the solidarity pledge. This signed undertaking that Labor candidates would vote in parliament as the party determined was a method of ensuring that representatives followed the declared platform, thereby fulfilling the wishes of the electors who had supported that platform at the ballot box. The comparative merits of 'delegation versus representation' would become a persistent theme in Australian political culture. For example, David Syme, the influential proprietor of Melbourne's Age newspaper, wrote a book advocating the delegate theory of representation.
Enacted in 1855 in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, in 1856 in South Australia, and in 1859 in Queensland, the Colonial Constitutions provided that governors would act on the advice of ministries formed from elected Members of Parliament. Two houses of parliament were established. The first, the Legislative Assembly, was elected by a wide male franchise. The second, a house of review called the Legislative Council, was appointed for life in New South Wales and Queensland, and elected – with a high property requirement for those voting and a higher one for those standing – in Victoria, Tasmania and, to a lesser extent, South Australia. Members of the Legislative Council could veto any measure.
Before the introduction of the payment of Members, representatives needed to be moderately well-off in order to be able to serve in parliament. Few politicians could commit in a full-time capacity, and meetings were held late into the night so that less affluent men could work in their professions during the day. The location of parliaments in colonial capitals favoured urban businessmen and lawyers, and was particularly disadvantageous for certain professions – farmers, squatters, landowners and country businessmen, for example – because of the distance of their workplaces from the city. The absence of payment of Members also made less well-off representatives vulnerable to the administrative favours and concessions offered by factions and well-paid Ministers, which could, if accepted, compromise their ability to act independently.
The payment of Members became a central demand of those agitating for the expansion of the franchise, including the Chartists. From its inception in the late 1830s, the Chartist movement in England argued that the interests of the common people would never be represented in parliament as long as only those of independent means could afford to attend. In addition, a lack of payment was thought to encourage the Member to discover the 'pickings in Parliament, which would enable him to work for nothing, and pay for his place' – that is, he would be open to bribes to support himself, and thus to work full-time on parliamentary business. These arguments also surfaced in Australia, where many Chartists had come – most notably in the events at Eureka in 1854. Although the conservative press disapproved of all men being allowed to vote, it came to accept the innovation as a fait accompli. But it couldn't accept that representatives should be paid, as liberals and radicals alike now demanded.
Despite such hostility, payment of Members was introduced on a trial basis in 1870 in Victoria. The Payment of Members Bill (December 1870) awarded politicians £300 per annum. Payment of Members – against strong opposition – spread: to Queensland (1886), South Australia (1887), New South Wales (1889), Tasmania (1890), Western Australia (1900) and, at Federation, to the Commonwealth of Australia (1901). Payment of Members was introduced in the United Kingdom only in August 1911.
The conservative press continued to oppose the innovation into the 1890s and beyond. A letter to the West Australian summed up the issues:
The working classes highly regard payment of members as the keystone of the democratic arch ... otherwise the workers would have to depend on the caprice of men of property, representing monied interests. What would be the use of giving the working classes manhood suffrage if men whose instincts and practical sympathies are in touch with the interests of the workers won't represent their votes in parliament?
Those who lobbied against payment of Members did so 'because of the strength it would lend to democracy against class interests', the letter concluded. During the severe economic depression of the 1890s, Major-General Tulloch '(late of the Victorian Defence Force)' gave credence to this conclusion, linking socialism – which was 'causing all the problems in Victoria', he claimed – to the payment of Members and the actions of professional politicians. The payment of Members encouraged an elitist contempt for politics in the well-to-do. Politics should have been a calling for gentlemen but it had instead become a business for 'hirelings'.
The link made between socialism and the payment of Members was ironic given that not all socialists supported the parliamentary road to reform. However, after the defeats of the strikes and lockouts of the early 1890s, many socialists did turn to parliament as the best way to improve workers' lives. They believed that once they attained political power they would be able to redistribute the country's wealth by nationalising the means of production, distribution and exchange. They were soon disillusioned. The socialist Rosa Somerfield addressed 'the Labor MP' in 1898 through the pages of The Worker. Some of Somerfield's accusations resonate with critiques of today's representatives: the politician practised 'frothy eloquence' and 'offered inane platitudes'. He made the worker know what a 'wise creature' he was for trusting him but shook hands with him only if he couldn't 'possibly avoid it' then wiped his hands 'with a scented hankie after the contact'. He showed the worker that he was above him in the social scale by dressing more comfortably, living in a superior house, 'guzzling' more liquor, and throwing more money about. And he did the latter 'in such a manner that it always brings back something for himself'.
Somerfield saw parliament as a 'mighty bribe'. It had 'fooled workers into thinking they had a say in running the country'. Within a decade, most socialists viewed parliament in this way. However, the labourists – those who weren't demanding a radical redistribution of society's wealth but simply wanted workers to gradually achieve a fairer share of the capitalist pie – had triumphed in the Labor Party. This suspicion of political labour by those on the left of the labour movement would become a long-running refrain.
The relationship between the moderate labour movement and its political wing was equally fraught. Stable political parties, as opposed to short-lived factional alliances, came late to Australia compared with Britain. Formed in 1900 to contest the first federal elections, the lineage of Australia's first modern party, the ALP, went back to the Chartist movement and its call for the representation of workers by workers. To ensure true democracy, the new party rejected Burke's trusteeship model of representation and attempted to bind its politicians as delegates by introducing novel forms of management: the Caucus and the solidarity pledge. These measures caused tensions from the start. Protestant Labor supporters were faced with a serious moral and political dilemma because the pledge represented a threat to their freedom of conscience. Some Labor politicians refused to be managed in this way. In 1916, the resignation from the party of the Prime Minister Billy Hughes (with others) over his pro-conscription stance demonstrated the problems for the independent-minded that were inherent in this new form of political organisation.
As politics became professionalised over the coming decades, the gap between the worker and the politician widened, fuelling resentment as politicians came to dominate the party despite being very much the minority. In power, Labor politicians felt obliged to govern for all Australians, putting national interests ahead of the interests of the workers and causing tensions that would remain through to the 1970s.
Excerpted from Trust Me by Jackie Dickenson. Copyright © 2013 Jackie Dickenson. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 Politics becomes a profession,
2 A sacred trust,
3 Broken promises,
4 The great salary grab,
5 The good local Member (then),
6 A political birthright,
7 Pensions and pay rises,
8 Fear of the monster,
9 People power,
11 Women will make it better,
12 Managing trust,
13 Blaming the media,
14 The good local Member (now),
15 Trust now,