Allan Ramsay and Pavlovian politics.

I was never a great fan of the politicians of yesteryear, Gough Whitlam was a pompous old bastard, Fraser was an elitist prick, and I often clashed with Joh and the Nationals. In some cases after they retired I grew to like them, Chip, Gorton, and Hayden come to mind, even Hawke and Keating. I don’t tell anybody this, but I grew quite fond of Joh.

My opinion hasn’t changed on Gough and Mal. The reason I miss some of them is that back in those days we had politicians who were real people with real character, which brings us to the subject in mind. Last night one of our veteran parliamentary press gallery reporters was interviewed on 7:30 report, and was scathing about the type of politician we have today, some of which mirrored some of what is said in the US.

One of the reasons Palin inspired people was that she was seen widely as, “One of us.”

From the 7:30 Report:

KERRY O’BRIEN: Compare today’s backbencher, walking through the doors of Parliament House for the first time, with the MPs that you saw arriving to Parliament for the first time in those earlier years.

ALAN RAMSEY: They were much more representative of the Australian community in the earlier years, they really were. They didn’t come with their university degrees and they didn’t come out of ministerial offices. They really did come from the community at large – the great majority of them.

Not anymore. It’s a real – it’s a career path now. We don’t have two separate political parties; we just have two groups of people who represent political careers. The Labor Party, to all intents and purposes to what it was, up until relatively recently, is dead.

I mean, do you really think that the politicians of today, federal politicians of today, are a more interesting group, are a more representative group of the Australian community, when you see them, you know, carrying on in the Parliament or you hear a speech by them, or you hear them talking on radio.

They all have their messages. It’s all about – it’s all about, I don’t know, it’s this dreadful daily sludge that goes on, whether in Parliament or out of Parliament. They’re not real people anymore! They’re just not!

KERRY O’BRIEN: Do you find that they’re more controlled from the top?

ALAN RAMSEY: Yep. Absolutely. I mean, during campaigns, the el mobile, Blackberries, whatever they call them – I hate them, I hate them. You know, the daily message: this is the line, this is the line. Everyone repeats it.

You know, it’s Pavlovian, all the time, little puppies, running around, saying the same thing, barking the same bark. It really is, it’s just a – it’s – and in Parliament, it’s the same. Parliament has become – well it’s indescribable.

The full transcript is here:

Its probably worth asking, “Are we a democracy, or an autocracy by committee of clones.”

16 thoughts on “Allan Ramsay and Pavlovian politics.

  1. Get get vote you vote for. I wouldn’t put Turnbull in that camp as I think he pretty authentic in comparison.

  2. In the executive wing I thing it is good to have professionals. Overseeing the legaslative wing I think we should have representatives. Which is why I think the house of reps should be appointed via elections and senators should be appointed by lottery.

  3. Haven’t wholly wrapped my head round Aussie politics yet and still finding out more as time goes on. For a while I’ve considered the UK situation as being that there’s now just one centrist party with two major wings that argue a lot and a smaller third group with a foot in both camps, and I think this is supported by the fact that MPs can change parties without substantially changing their minds on any issue. Again, the political career path is at least partly responsible. Tell me, how close would you say Australia is to getting to a similar point?

  4. It is exactly that way in Australia. Apparently Malcolm Turnbull, who now leads the opposition Liberal Party (in Australia that means a conservative party), actually attempted to start a career in the Labor Party in the last few years. Brendan Nelson, a former (failed) leader of the Liberal Party was also active in the Labor Party as an adult before crossing over. It could be argued that both of them crossed over because the other party offered a better career path for them. Malcolm Turnbull is probably close to the epitome of an ambitious professional politician – well-to-do and somewhat famous family, solicitor by education, made his fortune as an investment banker and director of an internet startup, and now trying his hand at politics.

    I’ve been saying for a while now that the professional political class is detrimental to both individual freedom and democracy. There is often a belief, and a pretty regular call, to pay politicians more, comparing them to business people like company directors. Libertarians, in their desire for a small state, call for a reduction in politicians. Both these approaches are wrong because they will lead to a political class which is a greater threat to freedom and democracy than either unworthy politicians (because the good ones are chasing better money) or the libertarian concern of having too many politicians.

    A better approach would be to have lots of politicians, representing very small constituencies, and pay them very little. Even make it a ‘love job’. This would increase democracy and freedom and undermine the political class. And, as per Jim’s concern above, undoubtedly deliver politicians with greater diversity and character.

  5. I think the thing with career politicians is that they come without a firm set of core beliefs. Politicians of the past, right or wrong, entered politics becaused they believed in something and felt that their country should be run in accordance with those beliefs.

    Modern politicians are all about being in power, decision making is made on an ad hoc basis without an underpinning philisophy to guide the process. The absence of a clear philisophical distinction between parties (i.e. both major parties stand for “me in power”) means that they have to be on a permanent election footing, more concerned with disparaging their opponents than talking about themselves. They have to keep banging on about the opposition being an empty vessel lest we notice that they are.

  6. And perhaps extending upon DocBud’s comments above – once we have a professional political class – they become beholden to the political machines.

    If the main long term focus of the political class is the next election and the attainment or preservation of the political job, then principal flies out the window; the same as for any of us that ignore the “you can take this job and shove it” urge and suck up a poo-sandwich to keep the mortgage paid.

    So the constant battle to remain on message and in line with the polling and focus group results provided for by the Party’s resources. “We help you keep a seat warm – you toe the line”.

    Which nicely encourages seat warmers and kiss goodbye to people of principal ( I’ll fly a flag here – the dis-endorsement of Dennis Jensen in WA saddens me, because he took a stand based on his professional skills and experience. To be replaced by – a grey man ? ).

    The apparent evolution of machine politics and beholden seat warmers being perhaps the examples of the NSW and Qld state governments – the triumph of mediocrity and self-serving venality outside third-world banana republics if ever there was.

    For once – I find myself in agreement with Alan Ramsey, we must be in real trouble then.

  7. I think the dominance in power throughout western democracies of politicians who are not guided by principles but the desire to be in power has led to the growing disconnect between politicians and the people they govern. Australia is shielded from this to some extent by compulsory voting as the disconnect often manifests itself in very low voter turnouts. Politicians have very much become the masters rather than the servants. The choice is really between one lot of statist masters and another lot of statist masters. Heads they win, tails we lose.

    Because modern politicians do not have a firm set of principles on which to base their actions and decisions, we also see this need to respond to every event, even when the matter is trivial or best dealt with at a local level.

  8. DocBud, isn’t low turnout simply replaced in Australia by donkey voting? Or by people who either spoil the ballot paper or just don’t even mark it? I’m sure compelling people to vote does make a certain number think that they may as well do it properly and give some consideration to their preferences, though since parties seem to tell advise 😉 their supporters on the preferences I’m not convinced that Australia has stepped all that far away from the first past the post system still used where I was born. But what I’m getting at is that it’s still quite possible to do the bare minimum needed to avoid being fined, which is pretty much turn up to vote. It’s hard to see how they can ensure that everyone (a) actually did vote and (b) was sensible about it without losing the secret ballot.

    On a side issue as a migrant to Australia I find it a little weird that the official guide book for wannabe citizens mentions that citizenship confers the right to vote, but the reality is it isn’t a right but a duty imposed on citizens by their government. Doesn’t bother me much, but it just seems odd that something written by plain speaking Aussies shies away from calling it what it is. I guess not all Aussies are plain speaking types after all?

  9. *DocBud, isn’t low turnout simply replaced in Australia by donkey voting?*

    Before I joined the LDP, I earned some cash as a student working as a Electoral Office temp in State election. (States have not had welfare & social security obligations since WWII when they basically gave up income tax powers).

    A “lower socio-economic” voter asked me if they should vote for the ALP or the Coalition (Liberal and National) local candidate. I had to explain to them that the Coalition was the same as John Howard (at the time the current Federal PM). They remarked they’d vote for John Brogden (Liberal) (indirectly of course) because Johnnie had upped his Centrelink (welfare payments).

    The whole system is fucked.

  10. You may be right, Angry Exile, but the number of informal votes does not equate to the non-voters in, say, the UK and USA.

    One of things you’ll note about compulsory voting is that it encourages pork barrelling, i.e. the purchase of the votes (with taxpayers’ money) of those who probably wouldn’t vote if they didn’t have to, but since they do they might as well vote for those who are going to give them something. The completely hopeless James Bidgood in my constituency of Dawson (Mackay) is quite candid about the fact that he got in because Kevin Rudd promised us a sports stadium, which given that at most we get one exhibition game a year will turn out to be a white elephant.

    The last lot of local elections were a real farce. We got no electoral material so we did not have a clue who stood for what, and yet you were supposed to indicate preferences on a list of about 30 candidates. That is one of the things I object to the most, the fact that you must indicate preferences. I think one should have the right to vote for one candidate without preferences, if your candidate gets eliminated then so does your vote. I’m a cynic and think that voting is the process of selecting the lesser of evils but I think some candidates are significantly more evil than others and prefer not to have to suggest on the ballot paper that they might be acceptable to me when they most certainly are not.

  11. Yeah, I’m prepared to believe both that pork barrelling will be more common (not that it doesn’t exist where voting is not mandatory of course) and informal voting is proportionately lower than Brits and Yanks who simply stay at home. The problems don’t end there of course. In the UK are that something like 30-40% normally won’t vote, which could be as high as 16 million people, but I’d guess a similar number will cheerfully vote for a six week dead dog if someone has stapled the right colour rosette to it first. Another whole system that’s fucked 😉

    I agree with you about the preferences. Perhaps because it’s new to me it seemed like a good idea at first. Since then I’ve thought about it… what if I loathe one or more of them and would rather not even give them a very low preference? If I think a candidate is completely unsuitable and would not want them under any circumstances how do I express that view when voting? No way as far as I can tell. What if I favour only one candidate and would prefer my vote to go to no-one else than give a second preference? Again, though I’ve yet to vote in an Australian election there seems to be no way. You have to vote for everybody no matter how feckless, venal or despicable they might seem.

    I’ll throw another problem into the mix. Safe seats – the rotten boroughs of modern times. When enough voters can be relied upon to return the same party even if their candidate is a six week dead dog the seat becomes the party’s to give rather than the electorate’s. Some people claim as many as 2/3 of British MPs have safe seats, and coupled with the rise of a political class I feel that’s turning into a democratic disaster. I thought the preferential voting system might reduce that here in Oz, but I seem to have landed in solid ALP territory myself and asking around there seem to be similar areas for the Libs and Nats. I wonder, how many politicians here worry more about the party whips than the people they supposedly represent? Or less of a problem due to the greater frequency of elections?

  12. I agree with you about the preferences. Perhaps because it’s new to me it seemed like a good idea at first. Since then I’ve thought about it… what if I loathe one or more of them and would rather not even give them a very low preference? If I think a candidate is completely unsuitable and would not want them under any circumstances how do I express that view when voting?

    You put them dead last. It’s not rocket science.
    Having your vote eliminated does not help at all if your goal is to keep someone out of the race. Putting them last is far more effective.

  13. Angry – maybe the only solution is to have Hare-Clark multi member proportional representation.

    This has the potential to stop the machines having single member safe seats and allows popular individuals to out compete fringe candidates of minor parties.

  14. Yobbo, I should have made the point more clear. By ‘a candidate’ I don’t necessarily mean a single candidate. Could be several equally unpalatable alternatives.

    Having your vote eliminated does not help at all if your goal is to keep someone out of the race.

    Don’t see much practical difference between ensuring a candidate doesn’t get your vote by voting only for those you actually support (as in QLD state elections I’ve been told) and sticking them so far down the list they haven’t a prayer. I realise that in practice it probably doesn’t go beyond the top two or three preferences, so if there were two or three people that are all equally dire it probably doesn’t make too much difference which order they’re in as long as it’s the last 3, though the potential is there for a vote to go to someone that the person who cast it really dislikes. If I’d been eligible to vote in 07 I’d have been stuck – absolutely nobody that I’d have genuinely supported and one vaguely tolerable. Choosing between the remainder would have been like asking which leg I’d prefer to have broken last.

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