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Panic is tightening its grip on our politicians



11 March 2013

We sometimes forget just how hard politics can be as a vocation, how it brutally exposes those in office to unforgiving scrutiny. We forget because of the remarkable resilience of modern politicians. Occasionally, though, we see those who decide it is better to give up than keep going.

So it was with Ted Baillieu's resignation. There was no doubt his government was in trouble, but the expectation might have been for Baillieu to soldier on. When the end did come, it came quickly, and by the premier's own hand - albeit triggered by the disgraced MP Geoff Shaw's defection to the crossbenches.

It was a strange departure. In his farewell speech, Baillieu merely said that resigning was in ''the best interests of the government''. This did little to dispel the impression of gross perversion on Spring Street: of a premier being effectively sacked by a backbencher who should have long ago been removed from Parliament. Then again, politics has never looked like a calling for Baillieu. He never gave the appearance that he lived for politics. I may be wrong, but I detected a motivation to enter public life that is these days rare. It wasn't ideology or partisan bloodlust, but a patrician sense of noblesse oblige that was perhaps the driving force.

In this, Baillieu was ill suited to the abrasiveness of contemporary politics. Its professionalisation means that parliamentarians - on left and right - are primarily drawn from the ranks of apparatchiks and lobbyists. As for advisers, they are often the product of insular party cultures that are divorced from reality. We have been seeing the results of such deficiencies. Political success is now measured almost exclusively against movements in polls and shifts in focus groups. Policy formulation comes second to media management.

When politics is reduced to this, it becomes little more than a burlesque of posturing via photo ops and sound bites. If the idea of political narrative was once understood to be an expression of belief and of a program, today it is viewed as simply performance. Where once politics was conducted with patience and perseverance, the default mode is now one of panic.

We saw such panic last week. After all, something about Baillieu's departure didn't quite compute. The problems facing him as premier still had some way to play out. But ostensibly there was enough internal disquiet to ensure Baillieu's position was terminal.
Panic is by no means confined to state politics, of course. Federal politics is routinely conducted as though it is a spectacle of perpetual crisis. This sense of crisis leads political players increasingly to suspend the normal rules of engagement.

Take the Prime Minister's tour of Labor's vulnerable heartland in western Sydney. For all the cynical gibes that the trip attracted, it could have been a welcome opportunity to generate debate about infrastructure and transport in our suburbs. Instead, the trip quickly became all about something else. With much enthusiasm, the PM spoke about ''putting Aussie jobs first'' and putting foreigners at the ''back of the job queue''.

This was unedifying stuff from Gillard. While we should be having a debate about temporary migration, it remains far from clear that there is widespread rorting of foreign work visas, as it has been suggested. Labor is shamefully flirting with xenophobia.

It is now open slather on foreigners and asylum seekers. Consider opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison's call for ''behavioural protocols'' to be issued to asylum seekers, and for Australians to be informed whenever asylum seekers are released into their local communities. You sense it's only a matter of time before there are demands that boatpeople be branded ''criminal'' on their foreheads.

The brazenness of the rhetoric is troubling. Tony Abbott has denounced the government for ''dog-whistling'' on temporary migrants. Never mind that he and his colleague Morrison demonise asylum seekers almost on a daily basis. With remarkable chutzpah, Abbott has defended temporary migrants on 457 visas as people who are ''joining the team and . . . making a contribution from day one'', while in the same breath berating the government for ''tolerating people coming to this country and going on welfare''.

How has our politics arrived at such hypocrisy and mendacity? I suspect the ruthless professionalisation of our politics - and its guiding ethic of winning at all costs - has a lot to do with it. But there is no reason it has to be this way. Our political class should beware the dangers of inflammatory rhetoric.

There is also a curious contradiction in all this. Professionals aren't meant to panic. Yet everything at the moment in our politics seems to scream just that. The convulsions on Spring Street demonstrate that if there are faceless men, they don't exist only in the Australian Labor Party. And if there has been a ''NSW disease'', it has spread well beyond its source.


Tim Soutphommasane is a political philosopher in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and has worked as a Labor speechwriter.


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