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Monday, 4 June 2001
Page: 27177

Mr CHARLES (5:32 PM) —I rise in this grievance debate to say that I deplore the national negativity towards politicians and politics that is discouraging our youth from studying and participating in political activity—action which has crept into our national psyche. It is clear that `kick the polly' has become a national sport. Some 32 years ago when I came to Australia permanently, I think—and I have no data to absolutely prove it—the political paradigm went something like this: 40 per cent of the population supported the Liberal Party, the Country Party or a combination thereof, 40 per cent of the people supported the Australian Labor Party and about 20 per cent of the people made up their minds during an election campaign or before an election campaign and decided the outcome of elections. People were wedded to a party and to a political philosophy. I admit that that was a world which was a bit slower than our world today.

One of the things that really excited me about moving to Australia and becoming, of choice, an Australian was the fact that the family was the centre of the world, the centre of our Australian universe. It was everything. The family worked together or participated in work activities together, participated in sport together and went to school and participated in the school environment together. All the entertainment and playtime was organised around the family and groups of families. As I said, it was a quieter, nicer time. But we have gone through, as have the rest of the world, some very substantial changes. In a sense, those times seemed more to be times of certainty than times of question and change. We seemed to have a better idea of what life was going to be like tomorrow and the day after than we do today. So that political paradigm, unfortunately, has disappeared into the sunset, like some American western movie star at the end of a film.

Today—and again I have no absolute data to prove my contentions but it seems like it to me, anecdotally at least in my electorate and electorates surrounding me—you could say that probably 30 per cent of the population is wedded to the Liberal Party or the National Party and 30 per cent of the population is wedded to the Australian Labor Party. That leaves 40 per cent who are not wedded to anyone and therefore able to make up their minds prior to or during an election campaign about exactly what it is they support—what they want to see come out of this place where we are representatives of the people. Those who were welded on are flaking off—and rapidly.

Tribalism is dying, and I suspect that as time goes on it will further erode. The political and ideological divide between, on the one hand, Liberal conservatives and, on the other hand, Labor progressives, the right of centre versus the left of centre, has been and continues to be narrowed. If you just look generally—and I am not talking about the day to day argy bargy of this policy, that policy or another policy but generally speaking—there are very few irrational economists in this House of Representatives. In industrial relations, even, the Australian Labor Party is dominated to an extent by the trade unions and the trade union movement. It is not so dominating of the Liberal Party. Nonetheless, none of us wants to go back to the centrally controlled system where someone decides what everyone in the country is paid every few months. Remember the old national wage cases. Can you imagine how many national wage cases we would have today? I cannot. We talk about catch-up wages for those who are low paid who do not have as much opportunity to go out and negotiate with their employers as do others, and that is highly appropriate, but I cannot imagine us talking about another national wage case. So the divide is narrowing.

At the same time we seem to have reached a point where the public is disengaging with us, and we wind up not as victims but as a class of people who no longer seem to be as respected as we were 100 years ago, when our Constitution came into effect. I remind you that people went to the polls and voted for that Constitution, and they were pretty excited about Federation. It dominated that time in our past. In 1901 it dominated the public and private debate.

Politicians are no longer as valued as they were in those times. That is not all our fault but partially our fault. There have been, as we all know, issues of politicians with snouts in the trough, and none of us here supports that. In fact, I would say that every single person who comes into this place does so not for personal gain but to try to do some good—some good for the community that they represent and for the nation of which they are so very much a part. But along the way a few have made mistakes. We are having a debate at the moment about the superannuation that parliamentarians have. That debate should and will continue, and I hope that we can reach a resolution that will make people think more, rather than less, of their political representatives.

One of the challenges for us is to try to reinvent a sense of community. If we could reinvent a sense of community, perhaps we would find that people had more faith in the political class, in their representatives in both the House and the Senate. One of the things that make it very difficult for communities is regional shopping centres. I have spoken before on this and said that there is no greater deterrent to sense of community and community activity than the impersonalisation of regional shopping centres—convenient they might be, but community oriented they are not.

The community—at least my community—is saying: `Perhaps we have had too much change. We would like to slow down a bit. We are frightened of constant change. We want a rest.' The problem is, with the world moving as fast as it is and communications expanding at the rate that they are, if we slow down and we stop changing as the rest of the world changes, we are going to get run over in the rush. We will lose our standard of living, we will lose our place in the world, we will lose the advantages that we have as one of the world's great democracies. The rich-poor divide is hurting the community's perception of politicians. In a sense too we are producing a `gimme' society.

It behoves all of us in this place and the journalists who report on what we do to become more positive in our attitudes, more positive in our outlooks and for the journalists to just once, for a change, report some of the positives and the cooperation that occurs in this national parliament, so that we can encourage our young people to go and study history, to become part of it themselves, to actively participate in the political debate and in the political process, because they are our future and without them we will be nothing. (Time expired)