Every morning a politician jumps out of bed, scheming, dreaming, thinking, what harm can I do today? Whom can I betray, traduce, diminish, promote? How to hide that lobbyist’s bribe? What principle or promise can I break, whose arse might I lick today? Perhaps I’ll knight a duke, maybe I’ll munch an onion.
Alternatively, every morning a politician wakes up, gets up, does the morning’s physiology, washes, dresses, buckles on the day’s armour, takes on fuel, paints her face to face the world – to face herself – lights his cigar, drops the kids off at school, her mind abstracted with the birthday CD she’ll buy her husband, with the vote in the House, with the speech he’s preparing for the School Fundraiser.
We get the politicians we deserve.
At those times when our leaders disappoint us, people make this assertion.
They do so with a grim satisfaction, almost with relish. It bespeaks a rush to judge, a refusal to wonder why. Over many years I’ve known politicians enough to judge them – that is, I’ve known them superficially and like electors everywhere, I’ve made my superficial judgements. I’ve found politicians to be pretty unextraordinary. Generally bright enough, usually public-spirited, not scared of hard work, usually more ambitious than enough. My mind wrestles with the contradictions we see between a politician’s avowed belief and actions. In particular, we’ve seen ostensibly active Christian people actively demonising asylum seekers. Where, I’ve been wondering, is the love?
The first person of power I knew was Oscar Washington, Mayor of Leeton in my early childhood. He lived a bit down Jarrah Street from my best friend Johnny Wanklyn. Oscar had a large belly and he smoked a large cigar. Oscar would smoke his cigar as he walked from his front door to the car. We’d smell the aroma lingering in Jarrah Street. I liked the music of his names, I liked the cigar smell so I liked our Mayor.
A good stretch of time passed before my next brush with one of the great, those who are at once our masters and our servants. This one was a Cabinet Minister, mother of young children. She first came to see me suffering a florid attack of hay fever. I treated her, saved her life, and she stuck. In the course of subsequent visits the politician and I have spoken of many things. She introduced me to the music and verse of Nick Cave. Newspaper editorials blamed her for failures in her department. I read and I wondered and I judged her to be conscientious and diligent.
Great Ones from all sectors passed through our waiting room. We’d bump into the Premier, into potentates of the Australian football League and its champion players. One of the leaders of the Opposition visited. I liked her. She drank too much, she carried a bit of weight, she worked too hard. Earlier, while in power, she’d been a member of Cabinet with a sensitive portfolio. Exercising ministerial discretion she made numerous decisions that favoured cronies. I judged those decisions corrupt.
When an economist friend married off his daughter he seated me at the reception next to a parliamentarian who held an Economics portfolio. Through the evening I watched and I listened. I watched him empty wine bottles and I heard how Economics was his ideology, his theology and his sociology. He welded his faith to his practice of politics. I was enlightened and impressed by the seamless content of mind and work. No splits.
One night I delivered a keynote address at an Awards ceremony for volunteers who worked in human rights. I spoke in passionate protest against my country’s treatment of asylum seekers. The standing ovation that followed amazed me. First on their feet in the audience were two Federal parliamentarians, one a backbencher, the other a very senior frontbencher. The two approached me, independently, requesting a copy of my text for their websites. The junior parliamentarian confided: You’ve said what we all want to say, but we can’t. There it was, the split, the active paring away of principle from action. I didn’t know the politician personally, but I knew his of family’s refugee origins.
I recalled one desolate day on Christmas Island where I worked in the Detention Centre. When off duty I’d run the tracks on the island’s hills and forests and beaches. At one lonely cove I sighted a small street sign that read, Tampa Bay. My legs stopped. I was back in the day of ‘Tampa Election’ when the arch-politician of the era saved his government by turning away those refugees. We will decide who comes to our country he said, a credo parroted by the Opposition leader. That was the day I first felt shame in my country. Many elections later that credo governs our policies still.
That same leader astonished me some years later when he promulgated a law of this land that ruled Australian Law, Australian human rights, would not apply in certain Australian places. The detention camps were to be Australian islands free of Australian rights.
How? Why? What force separates a human’s deeds from his core beliefs? In the case of a politician I think it’s fear. While a few succumb to the offerings – fame, celebrity, power, little bribes, big bribes – most stumble upon the fear of sacking by their bosses. An election can happen at any time. The electors are fickle, voters don’t want more Muslim terrorists, do they? And all those people, they’re all queue jumpers, illegals, aren’t they?
It’s not easy to function in your job while in fear of losing it. Those people we vote in to serve and to rule us, those ordinary, fearful individuals with their cigars and their families and their ambitions and ideals and drives, organise themselves into gangs. The gangs are called political parties. Parties appoint managers. Managers put their ears to the ground and listen for tremors from the electorate. They conduct focus groups. They survey voters to discover what they’ll punish. They learn we’ll punish congestion on our roads, we’ll punish job losses in mining.
Managers veto any policy softening on refugees and on climate change. The politician, having joined her gang, having outsourced morality and left her conscience at home, never learns that we voters regret these harsh policies. The politician, elected to lead us, follows instead, abiding byourlower instincts. That much is our own fault; we choose our politicians, we reward them for timidity, we don’t ask them to dream, to wonder how good this country can be. We too live lives of moral laxity. We split belief from policy. And as election follows election, the refugee languishes in our prisons.