The Charge of the Beige Brigade!


It’s critical that this panel session at the Australian Fabians National Conference be about two-way communication. I don’t represent you, and I’m here to start a debate, not end one. My generation is rarely interested in being lectured at, we want dialogue, so avoiding hypocrisy is important to making this work.

And I also want to set you a challenge: to think of one thing you aren’t doing now that you are going to do or change in the next 12 months to get young people involved in politics.

Tingle Down Your Spine
During the period of hysteria surrounding the launch of The Latham Diaries, Mark Latham gave us ‘Ten Reasons Why Young Idealistic People Should Forget About Organised Politics.’ I was tempted to turn my speech into an alternative list of ten reasons why young people should be interested in politics, but watching John Faulkner’s documentary on the Whitlam dismissal last night at dinner, I realised you need only one reason.

Politics can send a tingle down your spine, no matter how jaded you are. Almost everyone would have got one during that documentary last night. Why? Because politics touches every part of our lives. As a UK Electoral Commission campaign puts it: ‘If you don’t do politics, what do you do?’

Loreto College students debate a Bill in South Australia.

But politics does not stand still even when political parties do. The anniversary of Whitlam’s dismissal reminds us how, in just 30 years, politics has morphed from the art of the possible into the black art of micro-management.

Hillsong Church, with its stadiums, fundamentalism and convenient merchandise might be a popular alternative to politics, but it sells an impossible dream. (It’s not all that different to what Communism once did. But that’s not our business.) Instead, we must aspire to a society that appreciates the legitimacy and relevance of a world beyond shopping and sun-baking. A world that delivers political choice as successfully as it does social and economic choice.

A world without political choice indicates a failure of imagination and a subtle laziness. Politics may no longer be about black versus white or gladiatorial contests, but that is not an excuse to remove radicalism, diversity and innovation from our political sphere.

‘Radical’ does not mean left-wing. Diversity isn’t simply favours for minorities. Innovation is not about gadgets. These are broader and universal concepts that offer us the best chance to create the dynamism that is necessary for successful liberal democracy.

What happens when we ignore that chance? A world of beige is what.

A World of Beige
And that’s where Mark Latham’s recent plea to young people to stay out of organised politics comes in. Surrounded by beige in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Latham found out how easy it was to turn out black and blue.

Of course, Latham would have given very different advice to young people if he’d become Prime Minister. But he was right in the sense that beige just doesn’t cut it in 21st century politics.

Not beige people; not beige systems.

Maintaining a political system designed in the 19th century is asking for trouble. On the people front, former NSW Education Minister and now Vice President of the NSW Fabians Rodney Cavalier pointed out in April (‘Could Chifley Win Labor Preselection Today?‘) that, in one generation, the career path that had popular, charismatic ALP members coming out of the union movement has been entirely defused and debauched. In Cavalier’s words: ‘Within one generation Bob Hawke has become Steve Hutchins.’

That’s Senator Steve Hutchins for the 95 percent of you who’ve never heard of him.

Can you see why I think we need new people in the joint?

The Beige Brigade
Below is a list of what I’ve called the Beige Brigade a dozen colourless MPs that the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party could easily do without along with 12 people who could replace them:

Kelly Hoare MP Eddie McGuire (Arts!)
Laurie Ferguson MP Evan Thornley (Entrepreneur)
Senator Michael Forshaw Somali Cerise (Gay/lesbian community)
Michael Hatton MP Geoff Dixon (Qantas CEO)
Bob Sercombe MP Deirdre Mason (Businesswoman)
Harry Jenkins MP

Catharine Lumby (Commentator and Sydney University Academic)

Julia Irwin MP Andrew Charlton (Business consultant and LSE academic)
Bernie Ripoll MP Larissa Behrendt (Academic, Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning)
Rod Sawford MP James Bradfield-Moody (Engineer, entrepreneur, broadcaster)
Senator Steve Hutchins Liz Ellis (Australian netball captain)
Senator Carol Brown Glyn Davis (Vice Chancellor, Melbourne University)
Senator Helen Polley Feyi Akindoyeni (Entrepreneur)

There are plenty more MPs who could be added, the list is not comprehensive. More importantly, I gave myself 12 minutes to think of the replacements. I defy anyone to say my list of replacements is worse than the list of current MPs. Assuming it’s not, then that should be our standard.

If you think I’m dreaming, my response is: if we don’t know what we want or deserve, we’re never going to get it.

The King of Beige
Of all the beige men in all the beige parliaments of Australia, Kim Beazley is the King of Beige. Having predicted that Kim Beazley would become Prime Minister when I was eight years old, 17 years later I am still unsure what he brings by way of radicalism, diversity or innovation.

Beazley clearly has a contribution to make to public life but this is not an age suited to the same old beige men. Say what you will about John Howard, but he is not the son of a former Federal Minister and he has presented his Government successfully as radical and innovative.

Add one-size-fits-all political rhetoric and it’s easy to see how Australians are insulted by organised politics. And the young, are especially insulted.

Can you handle the truth? If you think you can, then Wayne Swan’s speech at this Conference yesterday is the perfect example of what I’m talking about. I have rarely witnessed someone talk for so long and say so little of substance.

The following is a note that a young person passed to me during Wayne’s speech. It captures the truth that you just can’t fake it with young people today. You will fail. Our standards are too high.

Wayne Swan’s policy plan
1. I have a policy.
2. It must be a good policy.
3. In the past we had bad policy: that didn’t work.
4. We shouldn’t have John Howard’s policy.
5. We should definitely have a policy.
6. Thank you.

You may think that’s harsh, but it’s the real world and that’s the attitude that real young people take in these situations.

The Speaker of the Port Pirie West Parliament.

And if you want to know where politics ranks in a young person’s priorities. Listen up. A consistent body of evidence shows that young people are actually more interested in social and political issues than they are in Paris Hilton. But it’s a surface interest, it’s not a core
part of their identity.

The best research on these matters is conducted by Lifelounge, a youth media and marketing services company based in St Kilda, and run by Dion Appel, who writes for The Age’s Business section. Lifelounge’s 2005 Urban Market Report found that, of the12 characteristics that 16-29-year-olds in Australia define themselves by, politics comes last.

The list in descending order of importance is:
1. the music I listen to
2. the clothes I wear
3. the films I enjoy
4. the sports I like
5. what I read
6. the TV programs I watch
7. my academic achievements
8. my job
9. my travel
10. the clubs and bars I go to
11. my technology and gadgets
12. my political views

It’s too complicated to analyse, here, why this is so, but I’d like to suggest that the low standards of parliamentary life have a lot to do with it. Dorothy Dixers and permanently toeing the party/factional line? These antics fail to meet the standards of behaviour and accountability that today’s well-educated population sets for itself and expects from those in public life.

But is it really a straight choice between organised politics and worthy social, economic or environmental causes? Let’s remember our voluntary and community sector is weak and narrow by international standards.

But even so, it can address many issues that organised politics can’t. Unlike the public sector, the voluntary sector has a better understanding of some of the most disadvantaged groups of our community and is able to win their trust in a way a remote bureaucracy will struggle to do. The two sectors naturally overlap.

Yet, unless you plan to disband all Australian parliaments and isolate the population of the most urbanised country on earth in individual villages, there is a role for organised politics in improving people’s lives. And for those who want to take up such roles they need a strong new message.

Life experience outside politics should be a precondition for being a parliamentary candidate. The misguided and the megalomaniacal should be sent back to square one. Pounding a political path that includes several or all of the following Young Labor, adviser, MP is not good enough anymore. We can’t have anymore of the Beige Brigade.

The ALP needs clear talent thresholds. It must actively recruit diverse talent, subject candidates to independent assessment and enfranchise a much broader base in the selection process.

Getting Young People Engaged The Long Game
Involving young people in organised politics is a long game. You cannot undo in five years what took 20-30 years to create.

The preconditions for re-engagement are as clear as they are contentious: robust and diverse citizenship education from kindergarten to Year 12, interchange between the public and other sectors, and a culture of enforcing acceptable standards across politics whether through transparency measures or the British approach of codes of conduct.

But alongside this, the greatest transformation at our disposal is generational change itself. Young people have higher standards and higher standards are what our political culture needs.

Mark Latham is right that the ALP and our political institutions need to change. He is also right that parliaments don’t dominate society as much as they did in previous eras. This naturally enhances the appeal of alternative careers and models for social change.

However, fundamentally, Mark Latham’s words are wrong.

Whether as parliamentarian, community activist or reluctant voter, our democracy needs you. It is impossible to escape from the original question: if you don’t do politics, what do you do?

This is an edited version of a speech delivered at an informal lunchtime panel discussion about ‘Youth Politics’ at the Australian Fabians National Conference in Melbourne on 11-12 November. For Emma Dawson’s report on the Conference click here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.