Our politicians are in some way representatives of the people, but they are no longer representative of the people. This, I believe is an emerging problem with democracy.
My father was a staunch unionist and a dyed in the wool Labor supporter.
When I was young he was very good friends with the local Labor MP, Arthur Jones. (When I was born I was named after one of Jones’ staff members who was liked by my parents, Ted Carlson. Carlson went on to run the Golden Casket which was the government owned lottery which helped to finance Queensland’s free hospitals. Unfortunately, although I was his namesake he never managed to direct any largesse in my direction!) Arthur Jones had been a “gun” shearer and I believe that he and dad met when my father was also working in the shearing sheds. Jones had also been an official of the AWU which helped his promotion in the Labor Party.
Dad was devastated by the split in the Labor Party in 1957. Arthur Jones was allied to the then premier, Vince Gair, and after the split helped Gair form the short-lived Queensland Labor Party. Prior to the next election I was sent off on my bicycle with hundreds of pamphlets to deposit in people’s letterboxes. From my memory they were not so much espousing the virtues of the QLP but decrying the traitors they had left behind. Whilst I had been in awe of my father, who was a good and passionate man, and was naturally convinced that the political ideals he espoused were worthy and beneficial, it was also becoming obvious to me that the Labor Movement could be riven with hatred and when they felt betrayed, forgiveness was unlikely to surface!
But Arthur Jones seemed to be a decent man. He and Dad would sit and talk about politics and union affairs. He was always deferential to my mother and was compassionate and humble. And he spent a lot of time in his electorate talking to working people and pensioners.
My wife’s family, on the other hand had no interest in politics at all. My father-in-law owned a milk run. He worked dreadful hours eking out a living, and oft times his wife and kids had to help out. I suppose today we would have said he ran a small business but he would have said he was just a “milko”. Whilst they had no political interests as such, whenever they needed advice they never hesitated to turn to their local politician. And their local MP was the legendary Tom Aikens.
Because they had no telephone, they would drop by Tom’s office. More than likely he wouldn’t be there. But within a day or so he would arrive on his bicycle and come in to enquire what the issue was. They were always grateful for his advice. They had no inkling about Aiken’s politics. They just trusted him to provide advice and assistance which he duly did. Aikens pedalled his bicycle around his electorate. His hands-on approach endeared him to his electorate, particularly the older voters.
So who was Tom Aikens? Aikens was born in Hughenden. He had a difficult childhood because of his family’s circumstances. After leaving school, he had a number of jobs before joining Queensland Railways at Cloncurry. He progressed through the ranks to become an engine driver. Although he had limited formal education he read widely of the classics and was said to possess a remarkable memory. My father, who also worked with Queensland Rail, related stories that the firemen (who were the ones who kept the fuel up to the boiler producing the steam to propel the train and occupied the engine cabin with Tom) shared with him. Apparently he used to while away his time in the engine by rehearsing speeches and quoting long passages from the classics. Tom was an eloquent speaker, who because of his formidable memory could make long speeches without notes.
Tom had also been a keen rugby league player, a gifted bass singer and a legendary drinker!
He became involved in the Australian Railways Union.
He began his political career in local government in Cloncurry. But he was transferred by QR to Townsville and quickly got involved in the ALP. He pursued a career in local government eventually becoming deputy mayor of Townsville. But in 1944 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly as the Member of Mundingburra and gave up drinking. Aikens remained in Parliament for another 33 years.
Aikens was sharply critical of universities. My favourite memory of him was coming out to James Cook University College (as it then was) when I was a student, for a lunchtime debate. It was a time when the Americans were still perfecting their ballistic missile technology. Recently they had tried to launch missiles only to have them either explode or sit unmoved on the launchway at Cape Canaveral. Tom, launched into his usual rant about universities, and then culminated his speech by declaring:
“I believe that University professors are like Cape Canaveral rockets. Firstly, they cost the public too much money; they do no earthly good; and what’s more they can’t be fired!”
I don’t know what the professors thought about that statement, but it certainly caused the students to chortle!
You may wonder what the point of these anecdotes is. I am just trying to show that compared with the politicians of the past, our current representatives are disengaged with large parts of the community.
In the past, few aspired to political careers until after they had real life experience. Those in the Labor party, for example, weren’t rushed into politics through the mechanisms of student politics, seeking union roles, assuming the position of political staffers and aligning themselves with party powerbrokers. They had a history of working cheek and jowl with ordinary members of the community.
The conservative side of politics does perhaps a little better but still manages to draw most of their members from the elite professions. It is little wonder then that establishment politicians are uninformed about what many “ordinary” people think.
To make matters worse, when trying to assess the mood of the electorate political parties are relying more on social media and focus groups. They might be surprised to know that many of the older, unemployed men that are contributing to the disenchantment with traditional politics, don’t use Facebook or Twitter. And when they are sourcing membership for their focus groups they don’t include such people or when they attempt to do so the disenchanted are reluctant to be involved.
Some of these factors have contributed to the way that the polls were so much in error when it came to both the American Presidential Election and the Brexit vote in the UK.
The media, are of course, little help in throwing light on the opinions of the disenfranchised. They largely seek the viewpoint of the progressives and often demean those that don’t share such views. The American Presidential election shows how blind-sided the media were. They can be criticised legitimately, I believe, in not objectively reporting on the election but actively supporting the election of Hillary Clinton. It was going to be such a triumph for the progressives – after electing their first black president, it was going to put the icing on the cake to then elect their first woman president.
If either of the major parties could win over these disenfranchised (abominably called by Hillary Clinton “the deplorables”) in Australia, they would be destined to govern with a sizable majority.
But this is difficult because, as I said at the outset, Australian politicians are no longer representative of the population at large. It would help if we still had some train drivers, shearers, truck drivers, or tradespeople in our parliament. It would help if we had more people from small business, teachers, nurses, meatworkers, or whatever. If this was the case our political parties would be better informed by the concerns of their constituents and less likely to be blindsided.
In a recent article, journalist Peter Greste who was imprisoned for over a year in Egypt for running afoul of that country’s oppressive rules about freedom of speech wrote:
People increasingly read and hear ideas that confirm their own narrow prejudices. And surely that is antithetical to the most basic ideas of democracy, where public debate leads us to a broad consensus; or at least to a situation where although we might not agree with a particular policy, we at least have the chance to understand and come to terms with the other side.
So our political elites seem to exist inside what political journalists these days like to call “echo chambers”, being continually reinforced by similar thinkers and disregarding ideas dissimilar to their own. But the biggest mistake they seem to make is that they can prevail politically by shouting down or denigrating their political opponents without the need to convince the electorate of the worthiness of their policies and ideas.
There is much more I could say about this failure in our system of representative democracy, but I would like to move on now and talk a little more about the recent American Presidential election where similar issues have played out.
The first thing I would draw my reader’s attention to is the fact that Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote in the USA by a million or more votes. Trump made some decisive gains in some key demographics which allowed the Republicans the opportunity to gain the majority of electoral college votes. The last time a presidential candidate won office without an absolute majority was when George W Bush defeated Al Gore in 2,000. (Does this mean Hillary will now have an emerging career advocating climate change?) So it is misleading, as some commentators have, to call “the deplorables” a silent majority.
Similarly in Australia one would believe that the disenfranchised comprise a substantial number but are perhaps no more than 20% of voters at the most. But when the primary vote for Labor is little more than 30%, and the primary vote for the coalition is around 40%, they become a key constituency.
Some have asked me what sort of a leader I believe Trump will make. I can’t believe that Trump can be a good leader. His lies, his offensiveness and his rampant ego all point to likely flaws in his leadership. His more conciliatory tone since the election is helpful to his image but I doubt that he can permanently submerge his character defects.
But of course America has not exactly had a plethora of talent in presidential contenders in recent times.
Hillary Clinton is hardly a paragon of virtue. She and her husband traded off their political backgrounds to enrich themselves in sometimes dubious circumstances through the Clinton Foundation. What’s more she has been embroiled in a security scandal involving her use of e-mails from an unsecured server. Bill Clinton is hardly a paragon of virtue either, with a reputation as a serial philanderer.
Barack Obama has been a lacklustre president. He seems to be a well-meaning idealist, good at oratory and poor at delivery. It is difficult to highlight any major achievements of his presidency.
And whilst Trump has promoted some problematic policies, you would expect that his more outrageous proposals would be tempered by the Senate and the House of Representatives. Probably the success of his tenure as President is likely to be determined by the quality of his administration. Indications to date would suggest that he will be surrounded by quite a few who have more moderate views than he does.
Now my suspicion is that because the media are overwhelmingly in the camp of the liberals, and they have demonised Trump (beyond even what his appalling behaviour might warrant) I suspect that his presidency is likely to be more benign then we imagine.
The first indicator in support of this thesis is the behaviour of the stockmarket. Prior to the election most analysts agreed that if Trump won, the stockmarket would fall. In fact by the end of the week after the election the stockmarket had risen by almost 4% which suggests that business believes that Trump will facilitate economic growth.
Secondly Trump already seems to be ameliorating some of his most extreme positions. He has moderated his position on Muslim immigration, fortifying the border with Mexico and has indicated he will keep elements of Obamacare.
Trump seems to be prepared (with some exceptions) to include in his administration many with more moderate views than his and some with the political skills he lacks.
No doubt his Presidency will upset those who most strenuously pursue climate change mitigation. But it should not surprise such people that in the light of limited economic growth, high unemployment and declining standards of living for many middle and lower class Americans, he is unlikely to commit scarce budgetary resources to areas that don’t bring economic benefits to “the deplorables” whose vote he courted.
So my conclusion is that Trump’s election, while it carries some risks, is unlikely to be the end of the world, and certainly not as awful as portrayed by an unsympathetic media. It is difficult to promote such a flawed character, but it must be remembered that America is resilient and fortunately the President alone does not set government policy.
Who knows, if he can stimulate some economic growth, diminish the stranglehold over government of the political elite and a self-serving bureaucracy, he might even do some good!
The good news from the American election is that when ordinary people stand up to be counted, they eventually must be heard. Much to the chagrin of the political, cultural and economic elites, as much as they might want to think otherwise they can’t monopolise democracy. Now while we expect our leaders to in fact lead, to provide a compelling vision for our nation and not to just regurgitate populist slogans and ideals, they also must know that they need to bring the populace along with them. Understanding what people at large think is of immense value. It is for this reason that I think our democracy would function better if our politicians were not only representatives of our people, but were in fact more representative of us as well.
(Since writing this essay, I have just had a look at the weekend’s papers. I would like to share with you a wonderful quote from an article by Brendan O’Neill who wrote:
The truly disturbing thing about 2016 is not the rage of the masses against the establishment but the rage of the elites against democracy.
This is something to seriously think about They believe democracy is failing because we are ignoring the advice of our “betters”! What sort of democracy is that?)