Inside Story

The everyday politics of perpetual electioneering

Must Australian politicians work “tirelessly” for their communities or face electoral oblivion? James Panichi looks for the middle ground

James Panichi 8 December 2011 5704 words

LET’S state the obvious: no Australian running for parliament would ever pledge to cut ties with his or her electorate after winning the seat. It’s Politics 101: if you spend time and money ingratiating yourself with your potential constituents, the last thing you’d want to do is alienate them after the poll. It would be political suicide.

Or would it? In Ireland, the leader of the centre-right Fine Gael party did just that. Enda Kenny vowed that, if elected, he would direct his ministers to do no constituency work for their first one hundred days in office. Promising to end the “circus” of ministers attending events in their constituencies, he made a deal: no unveiling of plaques, no kissing babies, no stump speeches, no constituent schmoozing. Nothing. Instead, a Kenny cabinet would “hit the ground running” and focus on the country’s battered and over-exposed economy. It would be one hundred days of unadulterated delivery.

“If this becomes a reality, ministers will concentrate completely, to the exclusion of all works, on the national responsibilities of their portfolios,” Kenny said in February, shortly before the election. “Their constituencies, I’m quite sure, will be happy to accommodate them.”

These fighting words may well have helped Kenny become the country’s new taoiseach (prime minister); yet within seventy days his pre-election commitment was in tatters. And the problem wasn’t the constituents — their ability to accommodate the prolonged absence of their representatives was never put to the test. The issue was the politicians: they couldn’t keep away from their electorates.

In May, the Irish Independent listed the functions Kenny had attended in his western electorate of Mayo since coming to power, and it added up to an impressive level of local involvement. The taoiseach had raised a flag at the Galway–Mayo Institute of Technology, sounded the starting horn at the West of Ireland Women’s Mini-Marathon, opened the Mayo ploughing championship, turned the first sod at May Abbey National School… And his Spartan, outcomes-focused cabinet members were doing the same around the country.

The take-home message is this: don’t stand between an Irish politician and a constituent. The country’s political reality has turned MPs into what columnist Fintan O’Toole described as “demented ward-heelers.” And Ireland’s multi-member electorates, in which politicians compete against both fellow party members and political opponents, are part of the problem.

“It is not war with the enemy but friendly fire that the Irish politician fears most,” O’Toole wrote earlier this year. “That fear sustains the crazy system of doling out ‘imaginary patronage.’ Everyone does it because, if they don’t, it’s sure as hell that some hungry colleague will be out on the street corners pushing the drug.”

In Australia that addiction is, if nothing else, out in the open. The substance has been legalised and the industry that is building up around its distribution has taken on an air of respectability. In fact, even without multi-member federal electorates the cult of being accountable to one’s community has become the one, constant thread in our political culture.

What Australian politician would claim to be anything less than a “tireless worker” for his or her electorate? What kind of martyr would enter into a parliamentary debate without claiming to be in regular contact with the “real Australia” of the constituency? (The vested interests and the elites, of course, live in ivory towers that have no postcode.)

Electorate offices are now outreach machines for politicians who have become travelling salesmen for themselves. On Saturday mornings you will find MPs sitting behind card tables at the local shopping centre, their rolled-up sleeves embracing the semiotics of suburban struggle. If you’ve had a tough night up with a crying baby, they feel your pain because they’ve been there themselves (“If I had a dollar for every nappy I’ve changed…”); if your local council is driving you nuts, well, those jokers have been giving your local member headaches for years.

Accessibility, responsiveness and empathy are what we’ve come to expect from our politicians; they, in turn, have set themselves up to feed those expectations. Their staff numbers are growing and they pay commercial rates for offices in shopping strips to be certain of attracting through-traffic. They crave involvement.

In fact, the electorate responsibilities of many federal MPs are driving them to breaking point — and it’s all self-inflicted. Particularly in marginal seats, our elected representatives are choosing to take on more work than ever before, and they are prepared to sacrifice their personal lives to deliver. Where does all that hard work go? What do the 150 members of Australia’s House of Representatives actually achieve for their electorates? And how worse off would we be if our local MP skipped the odd community meeting and caught a movie instead?

MEET Bruce Billson, a gregarious forty-something guy with a volcanic laugh and an engaging personality. His busy diary and ridiculously over-burdened desk exemplify the growing workload now faced by MPs in marginal seats.

Billson had a stint as veterans’ affairs minister in the dying months of the Howard government, but he would readily admit that his greatest political achievement has been to keep the marginal seat of Dunkley, southeast of Melbourne, in Liberal hands since 1996 (he now holds it with 2.04 per cent). His office in the bayside outer-suburb of Frankston accommodates five members of staff (the standard four, plus one for his policy work as shadow small business, competition policy and consumer affairs minister). And everyone’s busy.

“The design would be to say that you’ve got one staffer for the portfolio and the other staff to deal with the rest,” Billson says. “In reality, it doesn’t play out that way. In terms of constituent enquiries, there would be two-and-a-half of the team dedicating themselves almost entirely to that task. You then look at the community engagement relationship, the building-stakeholders-staying-in-touch activity — that’s probably nearly another three-quarters of a person’s role. And then the balance is the shift between what we call ‘Canberra work,’ which isn’t just in Canberra: that’s the parliamentary debate, the legislation… And what weaves through all of that is the portfolio work.”

In other words, the bulk of the office’s workload is centred on the electorate. When Billson’s press officer shows me a large folder of the correspondence that has gone out over the past week, he’s not doing so out of a sense of bravado. It’s more of a horrified acknowledgement that this is what they do just to stay afloat.

“There is an expectation that you’ll support, respond to and provide assistance to the electorate,” Billson says. “If you don’t do that well, you’re failing to meet a very fundamental expectation that people have of you. If you do that quite well, people think ‘well, so you should.’”

While many MPs are coy about the quid pro quo of electorate work, Billson is happy to acknowledge his state of “perpetual electioneering.” “I don’t think you can win a lot of votes by being very responsive to the local electorate,” he says jokingly. “But you can lose plenty if you’re not.” And don’t mention the emails: he gets over 800 of them in the course of a day. Billson lets me look over his shoulder as he goes through recent additions to his inbox, and while there are a couple of Google alerts, there are also forty genuine pieces of correspondence.

“This one’s about Medicare funding for PET scans; here we’ve got some people talking about some internal party issues,” he says. “There’s something about what’s going on in Sri Lanka and a problem with a memorial for a football team that drowned when its ferry came back to Mornington [in 1891]. There’s a local CEO talking to me about infrastructure pressures on growth areas. More on the boating disaster. Something about changes to Fair Work; an issue of religious funding; a view on Bob Katter; a local sustainability centre…”

Billson hasn’t had to do anything. His mere existence as an MP in a marginal seat over the past hour has generated at least three hours’ work for one of his staff. The internet has “transformed” electorate work, he says. “In some respects, in a positive way; in other respects — welcome to my nightmare.”

One of the problems is identifying genuine constituent emails from a tide of nationally orchestrated campaigns that hits the computers of all federal MPs. “There was one recently where a resident in Langwarrin [on the Mornington Peninsula] was most upset that my response to him wasn’t of the quality and thoughtfulness — and timeliness — that he would expect for ‘a swinging voter in a marginal seat.’ In other words, ‘you should be working your tail off for my vote, sunshine!’

“I thanked him for his feedback and his critique of the quality of my response, but I asked how I was supposed to have known that — and to protect the innocent I’ll change the email address — was a resident in Langwarrin with a particular concern. How would I pick that out of the fog of emails that come in? That’s one of the dilemmas — that you can underperform in some people’s eyes without ever knowing quite what the expectation was, or that they are a local constituent. But we try to optimise our response to those people in the electorate.”

When I ask Billson how many staff he would require to keep up with the incoming correspondence, he isn’t able to answer. “No matter how many we had, they would still be run off their feet.” In other words, higher levels of service would drive up the demand. Which could explain why many British MPs, who have comparatively fewer resources, manage to circumscribe their electorate contact hours (which they call “surgery”) to a few a week. Whether this lessens the democratic legitimacy of their relationship with constituents is another story.

THE politics of the Greens may be too radical for some, but when it comes to constituency work the party’s only MP in the House of Representatives, Adam Bandt, is solidly mainstream. “I want everyone who approaches me and my office to walk away saying ‘Adam Bandt and his staff helped me fix my problem,’” he says. “The last thing that anyone deserves from their member of parliament is the feeling that they have just been flicked to someone else.”

Who could argue with that? MPs helping constituents has to be good for everyone, and indeed most politicians will be able to rattle off some great examples of pastoral care. For Adam Bandt it’s a story of helping to get a visa arranged for someone to make it to their wedding in Australia (Bandt’s electorate officer scored an invitation to the reception). Another federal MP tells me of tracking down a specialised gardener to help an eighty-two-year-old constituent who was having problems with her Australian natives.

But this goodwill on the part of the MP isn’t codified. There’s no job description. He or she may choose to spend all spare time available on constituency matters, or tell staff members to focus exclusively on big-picture policy. In fact, other than showing up for parliamentary sittings every so often, MPs can do as they please. Pay increases are not linked to electorate productivity benchmarks; you can tell your eighty-two-year-old constituent to find her own gardener and lose not a cent of your income.

The extent to which a politician does any constituency work is a rough-and-ready convention — arbitrary and discretionary. “The only real performance appraisal of an MP is the election — there is nothing else,” says Stephen Bartos, a former senior public servant who is now a director of Sapere Research Group. But he also admits that the real impact of “good” constituency work on the ballot box bottom line may be overstated.

“There are MPs whose constituency work will make a bit of a difference — one or two percentage points against a swing,” Bartos says. “It’s not a huge difference, though, so a general tide will sweep them away, no matter how hard they’ve worked.” This means that spending Saturdays meeting and greeting in the mall may have less of an impact on an MP’s future than, say, the decision of a party leader to break a campaign promise.

So, why bother? What drives marginal seat politicians to hand over increasingly large chunks of time to their electorates? And what kind of people do they become in the process?

IN THE mid 1990s I had two unhappy stints working for MPs. I eventually realised that it wasn’t them — it was me. Whatever qualities are required to be a politician’s staffer, I didn’t possess them.

I had come to the job after spending my adolescence in Italy, where national politics lacks what is known as presenza sul territorio. There were no geographically based constituencies in the 1980s, just an impersonal system of proportional representation across often large regions. As a rule, Italian politicians don’t have electorate offices (although they pocket an allowance earmarked for that purpose) and direct contact between electors and the elected is rare.

Australian politics, with its intricate topography of electoral divisions, was a breath of fresh air. I imagined a landscape of political microcosms, in which a relationship between the MP and his or her community could flourish; local issues could then resonate nationally. On paper, it was the best political system in the world; in practice, it soon became unbearably pedestrian.

One of my bosses was an irascible, hard-working MP in a marginal regional seat who was widely acknowledged as a “strong local member” (which I found out years later was a euphemism for someone not destined for greater things). On the second day of my employment, she stormed into my office. “Where are they?” she shrieked. “Where are my letters?” (I have learnt to drop the expletives when retelling this story, or it sounds too unbelievable.) “When I get to work, I want my letters!”

I was later informed that the MP, who started work at 5 am (often after a kip on the couch if she had come straight from a function the night before), liked to have constituent letters to sign and place into the out-tray. She wanted the electorate to know she was in touch. My job was to help generate that correspondence.

When she wasn’t berating employees, she was barnstorming her large electorate in a van: a flag-raising ceremony at a school, a lunch at the RSL, a meeting at the local chamber of commerce (“Where’s my speech about the Business Incubator?” she bellowed at me on day three, astounded that I had never before heard “business” and “incubator” in the same sentence).

When she was out for the day I jokingly asked the others (back then federal members only had a staff of three) if we could finally relax. They rolled their eyes and muttered something about “generating work.” Sure enough, when she exploded back into the office at 7 pm, she had a list of things for us to “follow up.” Letters to be written, enquiries to be made, further visits to be organised.

Practically all of her work was constituency-based — even when she was in Canberra. “Could the minister inform the House how policy X will benefit my constituents in town Y?” was her usual contribution to Question Time. She would then print out the minister’s predictable reply from Hansard and send it out to the good burghers of town Y. She didn’t have to spend much time on party matters: the seat was too marginal for anyone to want to challenge her for preselection. She had a job to do and she did it well by beating the odds and holding on to a seat that would have fallen with a less single-minded local member.

The other MP I worked for was far more interested in the internal machinations of his party than electorate work in its purest form. What that meant was constituent enquiries in his suburban, marginal electorate were essentially a chance to build his reputation as a fixer — a reputation that would then echo around party branches.

But he was also deeply suspicious of everyone and everything (he once had the office swept for listening devices: none were found) and he sensed that constituent sentiment could be used against him. He hated sending people away dissatisfied and was always happy to leave them feeling that he was on their side, no matter what.

One of my first enquiries was from an angry man with a strong accent. “Someone wants to know if you think Macedonia is Greek,” I said, with the caller on hold. The MP’s brow furrowed, as it did when he was asked to focus on the complex issue of his self-preservation. “Who’s asking?” he snapped.

My experience working for the MPs convinced me that marginal seat politics were creating a class of people who had to be obsessively parochial in order to survive. MPs were too terrified of electoral defeat to want to soar among the big ideas of national politics. Meanwhile, though, the picture of society emerging from their constituents’ complaints was too fractured — and too biased towards discontent — to really come together as a useful mosaic of Australian society.

“That may be the case, but they have to win their seat,” says Carlo Carli, who was a state Labor MP in Victoria between 1994 and 2001. “For a lot of MPs, they’re not going to have a seat if they don’t do the work… Remember, you can’t soar if you don’t have a seat.”

Sure — first, you have to last. But does that imply that only MPs in safe seats can afford to drag themselves away from their electorates long enough to be intellectually engaged in running the country? Would Paul Keating have taken on important economic reforms if he had spent his spare time lurking around the Bankstown RSL?

The 2009 British satirical comedy In the Loop features a fictional minister for international development by the name of Simon Foster. One day, he is in Washington, arguing the pros and cons of military intervention in the Middle East, and the next he is at “surgery” with disaffected constituents. One resident has written to demand that Foster do something about “cyclists looking smug,” while a woman is angry about the faulty septic tank which her property shares with the minister’s electorate office. A discussion about who is responsible for filling the tank ends with Foster saying, apologetically, “Of course you’re not an elephant, and you certainly should not be treated as if you are one.”

Did it ever get that bad in my experience? Maybe not. And in fairness I should say that while for me marginal-seat work became an impediment to thinking about policy in more abstract terms, my bosses viewed their grounding in reality as an asset. They argued — and they might be right — that close contact with the community made them better politicians. And better people.

IN 1967, Labor MP Gordon Bryant argued that electorate work was all about talking to people. “It’s not that the federal member has any magic or any authority,” Bryant wrote. “[B]ut what he does have is a line of communication readily at hand into the last pigeon-hole in the most remote department. He has a phone and he uses it.”

An ability to dial may not feature prominently in modern job applications, but the late MP’s idea of taking an interest in one’s electorate certainly resonates with today’s crop. Federal politicians find out what’s going on even when it has nothing to do with the Commonwealth government — they know it could all end up being their business anyway.

Writing in 1994, British academic (and Conservative peer) Andrew Norton identified at least seven constituency roles of the member of parliament. They are: safety valve; information provider; local dignitary; advocate; benefactor; powerful friend; and promoter of constituency interests. An Australian MP would have no problem recognising all of these categories, although the home-grown edition may read more like this: information provider; local dignitary; promoter of constituency interests; powerful friend; and safety valve.

The provision of information, which Bruce Billson jokingly refers to as a “triage or concierge” service, is straightforward. People don’t always know how government works and whom they need to turn to; in fact, research that Stephen Bartos conducted in 1993 found that 80 per cent of Australians didn’t understand the difference between federal, state and local government.

What usually happens is that people with a problem turn to the most prominent politician they know and ask for help. The office staff will then channel that enquiry to the appropriate bodies, while being careful not to give the impression of fobbing the constituent off (even when they have good reasons to do just that).

Under the rubric of “local dignitary” comes the community outreach — chairing meetings, speaking at a TAFE graduation, cutting a ribbon, judging the cake competition at the local CWA. Again, it’s all self-explanatory. “Promoter of constituency interests” can have some federal implications. A constituent comes in to offer an opinion about policy or to complain about the way he or she has been treated by a federal agency. The MP may choose to take up the issue in parliament, or informally with ministers. It’s what representative democracy is all about.

But when politicians become a constituent’s “powerful friend” — a role that MPs usually take on with relish — things can become ethically tricky. Because when constituents ask MPs to intervene on their behalf, to intercede in a dispute, what are they actually asking for? And how appropriate is that relationship anyway?

Gordon Bryant, who was Bob Hawke’s predecessor in the Division of Wills, told the story of a constituent whose sister had emigrated from Europe to Venezuela but was now being denied the chance to migrate to Australia. Bryant was able to ascertain that the decision to deny her a visa was wrong and “on Christmas Eve, [she] embarked for Australia.”

Heart-warming stories of this kind may have struck a chord back then, and Bryant was suggesting that MPs were playing a valuable role in the oversight of the federal bureaucracy. And indeed, MPs view the “oversight” or “safety valve” aspect of the job as an important part of what they do.

The question for modern readers is whether in an age of accountability, transparency and customer service, the hit-and-miss noblesse oblige of powerful politicians stepping in is still appropriate. Perhaps what constituents should be getting from their MP is the phone number of the ombudsman, or a good lawyer, rather than a promise to intervene.

In Bryant’s Venezuelan scenario, for example, who told the woman that she wasn’t eligible to come to Australia? What repercussions are there for bureaucrats providing misleading information? Why were the phone calls of the Member for Wills answered by a departmental secretary (as Bryant eventually reveals) whereas the constituent’s enquiries were ignored? And if Bryant had decided, on a whim, not to take an interest in his constituent’s case, would the sister still be stuck in Caracas?

The same ethical question could be raised every time an MP gets a constituent a win — even for the noblest of causes. A Liberal senator for Queensland, Sue Boyce, recently told ABC Radio National that she had to lobby the immigration minister to intervene to ensure that a mildly disabled child with strong family ties to the Gold Coast was allowed into Australia. Migration rules would otherwise have prevented that child from getting a visa.

Boyce readily admits that the system in which a family’s welfare hinges on the personal intervention of a politician is unsustainable and says the system needs to be changed. “It shouldn’t be the minister who has to make the decision,” she said. “The stories that come to the ministers are often quite heart-wrenching and I think they would all like an opportunity to see this cleared up so that it’s not entirely their responsibility.” As things stand however, it’s only the lobbying of individual MPs that can make a difference. What happens to the families whose case isn’t taken up by a politician?

In short, if MPs are being granted a real or implied power to help administer the functions of the Australian public sector then shouldn’t we be able to quantify that power? If politicians see it as their role to act as intermediaries between citizen and state, how can this work be assessed and reviewed? And how do we ensure this work is being carried out ethically?

Stephen Bartos believes that aggrieved citizens who choose to go to their local MP rather than the ombudsman are doing so because the politicians are more visible, and may well offer a better service. “What MPs have, which other agencies don’t, is that much higher visibility of going around to a community event and being recognised at a bus-stop.” Typically, says Bartos, politicians tell the constituent “that they are interested in their problem and that they’ll solve it in their office. And that’s something a lot harder for, say, the ombudsman’s office, or a consumer complaints office, to deal with.”

LABOR MP Andrew Leigh has 125,000 voters in his ACT seat of Fraser, making it the second-largest in the country. So in spite of his comfortable 15 per cent margin, he’s no stranger to the demands of constituency work, with a few hundred emails coming into his Canberra office every day. “One of the things I find hardest about the job is drawing a line around that,” he says. “Of not being constantly in a situation of turning away from my two-year-old who wants to be read a story in order to respond to yet another constituent email from the kitchen counter.”

But in terms of requests for MPs to intervene, Leigh argues it’s not usually about pulling strings, but rather about helping the constituent through the complexities of the case. “I would be deeply concerned if the [government] department was making an ad hoc decision based on the fact that an MP had written to them,” he says. “But that’s not the sense I get. The sense I get is that the department sees this as a chance to explain what’s going on, why something appears like an anomaly when it isn’t.”

But Leigh agrees that the MP’s role as a “powerful friend” can become “awkward” unless properly managed. “There are a couple of things I won’t do,” he says. “I won’t write an immigration support letter for a person that I don’t know. I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to intervene in a complicated decision that the department is making — based on much more information than I have — in order to support a constituent who has phoned me up, over a constituent that doesn’t think to phone me up.”

Fintan O’Toole’s complaint about “demented ward-heelers” in Ireland refers to politicians’ obsession with “doling out ‘imaginary patronage.’” But in Australia, that patronage isn’t always imaginary — letters from MPs supporting a constituent’s cause do carry weight, particularly where ministers have discretionary room to move (immigration is the best example of that).

In Italy, a politician’s offer of patronage would be seen as an attempt to create a relationship of political “clientelism,” a practice that traces its origins back to ancient Rome. Anthropologist Amalia Signorelli describes clientelismo as “a system of interpersonal relations in which private ties of a kinship, ritual kinship, or friendship type are used inside public structures, with the intent of making public resources serve a private end.” Clientelismo has become an expression of corruption because politicians actually have access to public property (in the form of jobs) which they are at liberty to hand out to repay political patronage.

So, let’s assume an Australian MP’s letter of support is worth something, then that something is being given to a constituent, free of charge, purely at the whim of a politician. Yet the value of that gift does not belong to the MP — he or she is merely administering it on behalf of the Australian state. Electorate staffing jobs can also be used to pay off political debts, but on the whole our clientelism is more subtle. That’s largely because MPs recognise the ethical dimension of what they’re doing and are usually careful not to cross the line. Usually.

When, on 31 August 2000, the Labor Member for Wills, Kelvin Thomson, wrote a “To Whom It May Concern” letter in support of drug dealer Tony Mokbel, he claims not to have known about his constituent’s colourful history. But the letter itself, which refers to Mokbel’s “successful establishment as a local businessman,” highlights the mechanics of political patronage. The logic for writing these letters is that an MP’s intervention (in this case, supporting Mokbel’s application for a liquor licence) will tap into a broader network of support — for example, those to be employed at Mokbel’s future business, or his family and friends.

In 2005, Liberal backbenchers campaigned for former immigration minister Amanda Vanstone to grant a visa to a man suspected of links to Calabrian organised crime — just five years after the department had ordered his deportation. The logic of such decisions is simple: do ut des — I give, so that you may give (through political support and/or party donations).

Politicians who intervene directly in what should be independent public service decisions do it in the hope of establishing networks that they will use come election time. The question that no politician is keen to answer is whether such intervention, with the inconsistencies it entails, is an appropriate form of governance.

How much would the granting of a visa have been worth, in dollar terms, to someone who may have faced prosecution in Italy if deported? And who did that amount belong to? Australia, or the Liberal Party? Who owns the value of MPs’ ability to bring about ministerial intervention?

THERE’S little appetite for reforming MPs’ role as political patrons — particularly when politicians list examples of their direct intervention as being among the highlights of their career. There is also a strong belief that their role in offering constituents some oversight of the public service outweighs any consideration about process.

Adam Bandt, whose office in the seat of Melbourne has 250 electorate matters currently on its books, says constituent involvement is too important for it to be curtailed by regulation. “I think that we’re in a unique position… of having a bird’s-eye view of how the system works at the different levels and being in a position of being able to have access, from ministers down to departments. I think it’s a good system.”

Back in Frankston, even Bruce Billson is prepared to say that being on the receiving end of 800 emails a day isn’t as bad as the alternative — no contact at all. “The democratic process is untidy, we all know that,” he says. “But there’s been no better way of trying to govern through processes that are as responsive to those being governed as they can be.

“Getting an outcome for a person who is feeling that there’s no one on their side is incredibly satisfying,” he says. “So, if I can help resolve problems, or relieve a burden or a concern that’s troubling someone’s life, or bring about some change that makes a local person’s prospects for the future better, I reckon that’s pretty worthwhile.” •