18 Sep 2008

Are You Experienced?

By Scott Bridges
Malcolm Turnbull once paid rent; Nathan Rees once took out the garbage: politicians are falling over themselves to prove their struggle street credentials. But is personal experience the only way to understand what others are going through?
Before he accidentally fell on his sword while lamely waving it around, now-deposed opposition leader, Dr Brendan "I'm a doctor" Nelson, challenged practically everyone on the government front bench to declare their capacity to live on $273 a week - the amount that live-alone oldies get on the aged pension.

Now, nobody with the slightest scrap of compassion in their emotional armoury is happy with senior Australians living on a measly $273 per week; after paying for rent, utilities and poker machines there's not a whole lot of coin left over for dog food. And then what does the dog eat? In a perfect world, with an unlimited capacity for expenditure, we'd be handing pensioners a thousand tax-free bucks a week, and would be matching their outlay at the Tabaret dollar-for-dollar. However, the recent Liberal Party call for an extremely modest increase of $30 per week in the single pension would cost Australian taxpayers $1.3 billion per year - that's a considerable chunk of budget.

Surely the decision making process involved in handing out that kind of cash requires more than just blind compassion?

It's a terribly conceited concept that to understand one must experience. Millionaire businessman Malcolm Turnbull is widely considered to be a very clever man and a capable and influential politician, yet after being elected opposition leader he waited less than an hour, and went to great pains, to strenuously assure the nation that, despite his "millionaire" tag and reputation as a silver spoon elite, he was ordinary just like you. Everyman Malcolm has even lived in a rented flat! (As an aside, Kevin Rudd is worth more than Malcy yet he's not routinely smeared with the "millionaire" tag by journalists.)

It's this same attitude that makes non-tertiary educated people with a chip on their shoulder proclaim that they've been to the University of Life, and that a PhD from that learned institution is infinitely more valuable than your "worthless piece of paper". It's commonly understood (just in case you don't share in this particular common understanding) that ordinary, everyday experience trumps fancy-schmancy book learning any day.

If the University of Life argument is used over a beer or around the barbecue then it's no big deal, but when senior politicians who should be able to make complex decisions in a mature fashion accuse, say, sprog-free opponents of being unable to understand - and therefore legislate in relation to - parenthood, credibility is stretched.

There is some value in pursuing experience to influence thinking and decision making. One of Kevin Rudd's first acts as Prime Minister was to order every Labor MP to visit a homeless shelter and prepare a short report for show-and-tell when school resumed. There's little doubt that going and taking a first-hand look at the challenges faced by marginalised Australians is a good thing for politicians to do - but it's also important to remember that a short photo opportunity at a soup kitchen wearing a chino shirt and khaki pants does not an expert MP make. Nor does pretending to enjoy a plebeian polystyrene cup of Lipton Black with one's constituents replace a close, ongoing relationship with them.

In August, Brendan Nelson went on his Big Trucking Adventure, sitting in the passenger seat of a truck that drove overnight from Melbourne to Dubbo. Somehow this shallowest of experiences meant that he suddenly understood the trucking industry and could legislate better than other politicians who hadn't spent a night cooking the logbooks. "The people who make the laws that affect the trucking industry don't actually have to live them," Nelson boldly claimed, leaving himself open to the accusation that he could not properly write drugs policy without injecting them, or regulate the sex trade without first turning tricks on the street.

Remember the pathetic outrage about the fact that Kevin Rudd - shock, horror! - employed staff to help him and his family around the Lodge? For some bizarre reason this was damning evidence that K-Rudd was "out of touch" with the average Australian and, therefore, couldn't properly represent them. What utter rubbish. If Kevin Rudd had time to buy his own milk, cook his own dinner, iron his son's school uniform and fill the Tarago with petrol I'd begin to question how dedicated he was to the job.

And remember the pathetic outrage about the fact that G8 leaders - shock, horror! - were going to eat gourmet food at their Gleneagles conference, on the agenda of which was a discussion about the plight of the world's hungry? Why shouldn't the eight most powerful men and women in the world eat lobster while considering the lives of those who eat dirt? Sure, it comes across as a bit heartless and crass, but does it seriously affect the decisions they make? I mean, would George Bush and Vlad Putin eating mouldy rice cooked in mud while chin-wagging in a Scottish castle honestly result in decisions that better improved the food available to Africans? It'd probably just piss them off and make them sick. That's if they even showed up in the first place.

Our politicians' real life experiences are important, and they provide for a certain level of empathy that aids decision making, but the idea that it is only experience that qualifies somebody to legislate accordingly is deliberately anti-intellectual, has no place in serious political debate, and ultimately cheapens our democracy.

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Posted Thursday, September 18, 2008 - 14:58

This is all spot on, Scott, but there are some pollies who take the "experience" thing even further, and almost get into method-acting territory.

Peter Beattie comes to mind. All the years he was premier he impersonated a knockabout burbs dad with kids, and talked a lot about his "best mate", Rusty the dog. He would do "health walks" around Wilston with Heather and Rusty, wearing a stupid dad-hat and a Broncos jersey. Queenslanders were fooled into thinking he could feel our suburban pain.

The minute he resigned, Rusty was "sent to a farm", and Beatters took up the international academic appointment and LA apartment that was always his manifest destiny.

Posted Thursday, September 18, 2008 - 16:29

Great article. Personally, I'm a bit worried when experience as a garbo counts for something when it comes to dictating policies that will affect more than 8 million people...

Posted Thursday, September 18, 2008 - 17:10

Don't worry Chade, it's all spin for the great unwashed. If it's any help, Rees apparently has an Honours degree in English Literature from Sydney University. Not sure about bearing on public policy, but it might help him cobble a sentence together, and at least suggests to those of us who put store by such trivia that he has a few neurons ticking over.

Posted Thursday, September 18, 2008 - 20:18

Well, I know it's spin for the less politically-obsessed; I'm more concerned with the fact that the spin's stood up by the media to mean something - and accepted by said great unwashed.

And; having just seen Grods today 10 seconds ago, I now realise where I've seen the name and style before... ;)

Dr Dog
Posted Friday, September 19, 2008 - 09:10

Chade I think you are being too harsh here. There is a reason behind people's interest in politicians previous experience and I for one am quite taken with the idea of a garbo/writer getting a run. We certainly have enough lawyers in both parliaments.

I know we have been moving away from a generally well educated working class in this country, what with HECS and the financial erosion of state schools, but things used to be different.

I remember hanging out in pubs with guys from the local council depot and having loud arguments about philosophy, art and social criticism. These guys were among the most balanced, humble and yet proud men I have ever had the pleasure to be around. They provided me with a model for being intellectually active while remaining true to my roots.

A bit more of that in our halls of power would be a good thing, methinks.

Posted Thursday, October 2, 2008 - 23:41

In the 90s I met Mark Latham, by accident, when he had arrived home, a flat he was sharing with his sister in Earlwood. He'd obviously come home after a late night's work, and just wanted to crash. Little did I now he was to become the leader of the Labor Party, with a good chance of winning the election. At the time he was working on the Liverpool council.

If anyone was a battler, it was Latham, who really did know what it was like commuting and living in flats. When did Turnbull last live in a flat?