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Political Education - The Light on the Hill

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Previous Entry Political Education Oct. 17th, 2005 @ 02:03 pm Next Entry
THE one and only - and I mean only - good thing to come of Mark Latham's diaries and associated events has bitten the partisan dust in Canberra.

It is my melancholy duty to say that its demise even confirms some of Latham's darker observations about politics. The idea I'm talking about is a proposal by Kim Beazley for a joint initiative with the Prime Minister to revive young people's faith in the political process following the battering Latham gave it in his book.

Shortly after its publication, you'll remember, the former Labor leader addressed university students, warning them not to go into politics because of its rancid nature: a state neatly confirmed by the contents of the diary and Latham's mind.

Elaborating on his remarks, Latham told journalist Michael Gordon: "Well, I think a young person, idealistic, [if] they find love in their life with their partner and they have children, they shouldn't go into politics. The media intrusion and the cesspit party political culture just makes it impossible."

Latham went on to say that Australia ran the risk of ending up with just two types of politicians: "One is the flint-hearted machine man, the Richo [former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson], whatever-it-takes model, sometimes described as white-bread politicians, but really robotic machine types.

"And the second type will be more of your [Bill] Heffernans, who are obsessed with the sex lives of High Court judges, people with problems in their mind."

Leaving to one side for the moment that Latham's own book is not only overtly sex obsessed, but also scatological, let's go on to examine his remarks to the students.

"The system is fundamentally sick and broken," he said, urging young people to get involved in community life instead, by "joining local social movements, helping charities, sporting and community organisations".

"Who's to say baking a cake for the church fete won't have just as big an impact on society as redesigning the country's industrial relations system? Who's to say joining Neighbourhood Watch and dobbing in the people down the street isn't just as effective in securing the nation as border protection legislation?"

Completely mad, of course. But the combined assault on the body politic of the septic diaries and Latham's subsequent remarks was enough to worry Beazley, thrust as they were into an environment where politicians are already held in almost total contempt by most Australians.

Beazley wrote to John Howard in the following terms on October 4. "Dear Prime Minister, Over the past few weeks unfortunate and unhelpful comments have been made advising young Australians not to pursue a career in politics.

"To tell young Australians not to get involved in politics is defeatist, wrong, disrespectful and un-Australian. Telling them to turn their backs on politics is to tell them to turn their backs on life.

"While we obviously disagree on many matters, I'm convinced we both share the view that to invigorate our democracy we need young people with fresh ideas, new perspectives, enthusiasm and drive.

"After the recent barrage of 'bad press' which has damaged the reputation of politicians of all persuasions at both state and federal level, it would be useful to lead by example.

"I propose we join together to send a strong, united message urging young Australians 'to have a go in politics'. I suggest that, in the national interest, we make a joint statement and hold a press conference together when parliament resumes encouraging young people to get involved in public life. To convince them that Australia is a great country because it's been built on a strong, vibrant democracy.

"I look forward to your response to my suggestion."

Beazley is still waiting for that response. Yesterday I got one for him: "I think we can both speak for ourselves," was Howard's reply through a spokesman. "My position on these matters is well known."

So, that's that. More's the pity, because at some stages in the cycle, the political class does have to stand up for itself, if only because no one else will. It's not about being self-serving, but of serving the system. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy isn't perfect, but it's the best thing we have at the moment.

Latham's attempt to tear down the political process because, in his paranoid state, he believes it destroyed him, deserves to be challenged. While voters cringe from the conflict inherent in the Westminster system, it works well. Would you want complete bipartisanship on an issue such as the proposed new terror laws, or refugee detention, for example? Cornelia Rau would still be behind bars.

As Paul Keating liked to point out, public life is a noble pursuit. Parliament, he used to say, is the clearing house of national pressures and if it didn't exist we'd be shooting each other in the streets.

Corrupt politicians at a federal level are rare; the last one we had was Mal Colston. Most work hard and have the national interest at heart.

But it's not only Latham who has kicked at the foundations of parliamentary democracy. Howard, too, has contributed. Before the last election, the Prime Minister followed Latham down the populist path of winding back parliamentary superannuation. That scheme was designed to compensate for the risks inherent in political life, where candidates sacrifice career and family life, often for lower pay, and always facing defeat. The average parliamentary life is only about seven years.

All that Latham and Howard have done is make certain that parliament will increasingly become populated by Malcolm Turnbulls; people of independent means who can afford to stand for office. On the Labor side, the political gene pool will shrink even further. Latham has ensured the hacks and time servers he rails against in his book are more likely to dominate the party he once led.

For Howard's part, a joint press conference with Beazley might have gone some small way to reversing that damage.

But if politicians can't agree on how to go about defending the democratic process, others can. A group of powerful individuals from both sides of the Constitutional Convention that preceded the Republican referendum have begun exploring the idea of an Australian Democracy Centre, to be located in Old Parliament House.

One idea is that it would be associated with the Constitutional Education Fund, which is charged with teaching children about our political history and system. Its patron is Governor-General Michael Jeffery. The core of the institution would be a constitutional museum with a permanent exhibition.

Let's hope it eventuates. We have a good story and we shouldn't leave it to twisted people such as Mark Latham to tell.

Did anyone hear about this? More participation in our political system can only be a good thing, and Bomber Kim, in my opinion, was onto a good thing. A pity another good idea went down the drain, sacrificed to partisan agendas.
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