In his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation” the great German scholar Max Weber explained that the kinds of people who tend to become politicians lie along a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum are those who “live off politics.” They are there to boost their own egos and serve their own interests and the narrow interests of those who subsidize them. They see politics as a profession – a means for accruing status, power and material rewards entirely for themselves and their cronies. At the other end of the spectrum are those who ”live for politics.” They are dedicated to serving the community – to defend justice, fairness, and the wellbeing of all. The people in this latter group see politics as a vocation – a sacred calling.
Barney Swartz, one of the wisest of The Age’s occasional columnists, has stated: “Confidence in [Australia’s] politicians has not been at a lower ebb in my lifetime […] Trust has never been at a lower ebb and often the damage to those who seek the trust of the public has been self-inflicted” (The Sunday Age, 1 July 2018). He provides an example from Victoria politics in the lead up to Easter this year: The Opposition Leader Matthew Guy despite “his self-proclaimed Christian faith […] arranged “pairs” on religious grounds for two MPs who did not want to turn up for Good Friday.” Guy subsequently pressed them to attend the parliament “for a contentious vote.” Obeying their political leader, rather than their consciences, they did his bidding. “Labour [sic], lacking two MPs, lost by one vote.”
To be subjected to the sheer ugliness of the proceedings of any Australian parliament today obliges one to turn away in disgust. The ranting, sloganizing, shouting, posturing, name-calling, faux passion, and rank hypocrisy that we have to endure in our parliaments every day they are sitting betray the trust citizens might once have felt for our institutions of representative government. There is no dignity in the proceedings, next to no integrity on display among the MPs, no reason to feel inspired by their claims to have the best interests of the nation at heart. It is painfully obvious that most of them are in it entirely for themselves. They have no qualms about living off politics.
This dispiriting picture is leading to widespread disillusionment among voters about politicians generally, about political parties, and – more worryingly – about the entire democratic process itself. The bulk of the politicians who govern us are sectionalists, focusing on their own small corner of influence and interest while not giving a damn about the whole of society. If it’s in their immediate interests, they are quite prepared to dismember the body politic, wilfully ignoring the fact that if one part of that body is ailing the health of the whole of society is under threat.
The history of modern democracy shows that it has not always been thus. Some of the great reforms in liberal political history have come about because of political activists who instinctively place ethical concerns above pragmatic choices. They are capable of selflessness, of seeing how the whole of society coheres when it is governed in the interests of all. Despite suffering all sorts of calumny from MPs, the media and in the public domain, they steadfastly hold to their principles.
An example in the nineteenth century was the great William Wilberforce who campaigned tirelessly – and eventually successfully – against slavery. Then there were the fantastically brave women in the UK early in the twentieth century – the suffragettes – who began the long (and still unfinished) business of attaining equal rights for women.
The leaders of the labour movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also dedicated women and men who campaigned against shocking working conditions, ruthless bosses, miserable wage levels, and draconian industrial legislation to bring about a semblance of fairness in the industrial systems of all the advanced capitalist economies. Along with reform-minded intellectuals and commentators in the media, they helped bring about the welfare state and, after World War II, contributed to global efforts for peace and global efforts to overcome poverty and injustices in the poorer countries.
There are many examples of political personalities in Australia who have entered parliament to work for politics, not to live off politics. An exceptional leader in this regard is the late Don Dunstan, former Labor Premier of South Australia, first from 1967-1968, then from 1970-1979. The product of an elite private school in Adelaide, a lawyer by profession, he could easily have opted for a successful legal career as a barrister and might well have ended up as a judge. But his vocation was politics.
The Dunstan governments in South Australia proved to be an era of remarkable reform in public policymaking. They influenced reforms in other states, in federal politics, and internationally. Dunstan pioneered the idea of Aboriginal land rights in Australia. He was an advocate for multiculturalism long before his Party came on board. He succeeded in campaigning against the white Australia policy. He was the first to appoint a women’s adviser in government, opening up the whole gamut of women’s rights. His outlawing of rape in marriage – the first legislation of its kind in the world – raised the ire of many in the trade union movement, but he proceeded despite their bitter attacks. He introduced some of the world’s first consumer protection legislation and promoted the arts as no other politician had before or has since.
When one considers Dunstan’s political career one is immediately struck by the awesome courage the man displayed in forging ahead with his reforms. The opposition mounted against him was gargantuan – especially from the right-wing Adelaide establishment. They gossiped that he was a “half-caste Melanesian bastard.” They whispered about his sexuality. The attacks were vicious, prolonged and invariably based on falsehoods. But he stayed true to his reformist principles, though in the end, the sheer nastiness of the attacks contributed to his physical and mental collapse in 1979.
Dunstan is an outstanding exemplary of the kind of leader for whom politics is a vocation. We can only hope that the current crop of mostly self-serving posturers in our parliaments may soon be replaced by younger, more idealist MPs who are not in it for themselves but who understand the utterly sacred nature of the political vocation. Dunstan, among others, stands out as a model to inspire them about what can be achieved by good women and men who have the courage and vision to go into politics.
We are fortunate that the ANU’s Professor Angela Wollacott is writing Dunstan’s biography. It is likely to become a major contribution to lifting Australian politics out of the morass in which it is presently floundering and sinking.
Allan Patience is a principal fellow in political science in the University of Melbourne.