WHO’D BE A POLITICIAN?

It’s noon on George Street, Cygnet, on a sunny winter’s day. The street is parked out, so I sense I am not going to be alone in my communion with the visiting Labor politicians. As I approach the St James College campus, a little bloke in school uniform, maybe aged nine or ten, name tag on, approaches: “Are you going to the meeting, sir? Let me show you the way.” His assurance, his manners are inspirational to this old bloke. “Thank you, Thomas,” I think, “you give me a confidence I rarely sense about my human race.”

The St James’ Drill Hall is already packed. More than a hundred locals are munching their way through sandwiches and drinking urn tea and coffee. Among them somewhere, I know, are a few federal and state MPs including two state ministers and one deputy premier.

As I tell the woman at the door who I am, a couple of friends wave me to their table. ‘Bob’ is stuck on my lapel, I pick up a couple of sandwiches and head over to join them.

The pollies are here to listen to us the voters, the people who either put them in their parliaments or did our best to prevent them from being there (on this occasion, they are probably mostly the former).

First-term federal member for Franklin Julie Collins, who has organised this confab, welcomes us. She says she, fellow MPs and staff will be mingling, and she hopes we will all get off our chests the issues that either bug us or that we would like to talk about.

It’s an eye-opening couple of hours that follow. As we await MP Collins’ presence at our table (she seems to be spending an inordinate amount of time with the first group she has encountered), we agree she’ll never have time to hear from us all.

What is our table going to grumble about? Seems it’s the lack of conventional broadband; poor radio reception (not even ABC stereo FM gets to those of us on the wrong sides of the mountains); and the inability of the tiny band of local doctors to cater for all of us in the community (I have been told, as a newcomer to the area, that if I am still on the books of a GP who practises where I have moved from, I should not sever my ties because “none of the locals will take you on, they’re far too busy” — which means an 80km-plus round trip next time I’m feeling too sick to drive yet not sick enough to call an ambulance).

At last, our federal MP drops in on our table. It’s a pleasant exchange. She listens patiently and replies cautiously to our observations, saying just enough to show empathy, not enough to be indiscreet in her commitments (it would be ridiculous for her to be otherwise). Elsewhere, her staffer is diligently taking notes from a queue of constituents.

This, I get the feeling, is a good form of democracy at work; a brand of democracy that has been under severe stress this past decade. I no longer feel inhibited about getting things off my chest. I feel I could even use, when letting blast at the performance of a specific political leader, an expression such as “He ought to be shot for doing that!” without falling foul of the Howard sedition legislation designed to stifle the political expression of even artists (especially writers and cartoonists).

That still extant legislation, passed a year or so ago, was attacked at the time by our now-federal Arts Minister, who indicated it would be repealed when Labor got into government. Ah well, it’s only been six months . . . !

As the crowd starts to thin, the MPs continue to listen to the people who will be wielding the polling booth pencils that will decide the size of their parliamentary superannuation payouts.

I’m not generous in the respect I hold for politicians. For years I have argued that, generally (though there have been, and are, a few notable exceptions), people of high integrity tend not to volunteer for, or aspire to, political office.

As a dyed-in-the-wool Labor voter, I brought my children up with the advice that it was all right for them to have Liberal Party-voting friends but they should never trust them. (I will continue to give this advice to my grandchildren, but now, with a pseudo-Labor Party dominant federally and in all states, I might have to qualify it a little.)

But this meeting at the St James Drill Hall is opening my eyes, yet again, to the realisation that those who become politicians really need their heads read. If nothing else, psychiatric diagnosis of any politician must at least show up “masochistic tendencies” (though not necessarily in the Macquarie’s first definition of the word).

And I am realising, yet again, that, whatever we think of their performance, we must acknowledge our debt to these people who represent us in parliament. I don’t think I could cope with being here in this room today as a politician and having to listen to all the whinges and groans of dissatisfied voters, even when the complaints are being politely put. And I know politicians suffer situations such as this every working day of their lives.

And now (as I sip my Thomas-made and served strong black coffee), I am thinking of one of our more reluctant politicians, one Peg Putt; and, simultaneously, of those under-worked, over-rewarded, over-protected CEOs who count their annual rewards in scores of millions of dollars; and I am thinking of that even bigger clique of CEOs who count their rewards in annual millions for doing nothing much more than making decisions that, irrespective of how grossly incompetent they prove to be, will in no way affect their multi-million contractual payouts.

And now I find myself thinking, “Peg Putt, you are entitled to every one of those 600,000 superannuation dollars you will get for your service in the Tasmanian Parliament”.

And, to all those other MPs, state and federal, who are willing to work as hard as Peg Putt, and to speak as forthrightly and courageously as she has always seemed to do, you too are entitled to whatever your final super sums work out at.

Who’d be a politician? I wouldn’t, not even for millions. 

Bob Hawkins 

Bob Hawkins

I’m not generous in the respect I hold for politicians. For years I have argued that, generally (though there have been, and are, a few notable exceptions), people of high integrity tend not to volunteer for, or aspire to, political office.