The unsung heroes who keep democracy alive

Tony Smith

Ken Turner and Michael Hogan (eds) The Worldly Art of Politics, Leichhardt NSW, The Federation Press, 2006 (269 pp). ISBN 1-86287-615-0 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Neither the practice nor study of state politics in Australia is considered glamorous. As the power of the federal government grows at the expense of state legislatures, local politicians eye their counterparts in Canberra enviously. Historians and political scientists also operate in the face of public apathy, low esteem, institutional inertia and even professional disdain.

Against these odds, and to the good fortune of anyone interested in the NSW Parliament, Professors Ken Turner and Michael Hogan of The University of Sydney have maintained over 40 years, their curiosity about the institution, its processes and characters. There is an apt symmetry about the way these quiet scholarly achievers have gathered the stories of some Members of Parliament (MPs) who might be described as unsung heroes. In The Worldly Art of Politics, Turner and Hogan have collected stories about some dozen or more MPs whose careers illustrate the book’s central thesis. In his Foreword, Rodney Cavalier, who chairs the Committee for the Sesquicentenary of Responsible Government which jointly publishes this work, says the book shows why ‘politics is the sublime art’ (p. vii). Perhaps not all readers will be persuaded that politics is beautiful, but Turner and Hogan argue that on balance, the people of New South Wales have been represented not by the greedy, mendacious individuals of popular imagery, but by hard-working, diligent and sincere men and women.

Messy, but worth defending

In their introductory remarks, Turner and Hogan acknowledge that ‘conventional wisdom suggests that Australians have an especially low regard for politicians and politicking’ (p. 3). They examine the evidence for such claims in surveys of opinion, and find that Australians are probably no more cynical about politicians than we are about many professionals. Nor have we necessarily become more cynical lately. Nor are we more cynical than the people of other western democracies. Finding the common perception inappropriate, they analyse the causes of this negative image.

Two prominent suspects are politicians themselves and the media that reports on political activity. Turner and Hogan do not excuse politicians entirely, noting their adoption of disdainful techniques of ‘spin’ (p. 15). However they are critical of media priorities and charge that for most reporters, the story is ‘not “warts and all” – just warts’ (p. 10). They provide a convincing analysis of the ‘linguistic biases’ contained in discussions of politics, though interestingly, they stop short of criticising the use of the term ‘politician’ when referring to MPs.

Australians are no more cynical about politicians than people of other western democracies.

A further two chapters complete the introductory section. The late Henry Mayer’s piece, ‘Why politicians must be odious’ was published in 1959, when members of a parliamentary committee expressed surprise that media reports were so negative, but it has a very modern tone (pp. 24–27). Mayer noted that because politicians engage in compromise, no single demand is likely to be satisfied. Furthermore, as politics involves dealing with conflict, it is bound to be regarded as a dirty business.

Professor Gerard Carney examines the factors that determine ‘The ethical standards of politicians’ and community respect for MP behaviour (pp. 28–40). He begins with the assumption that MPs are ‘fiduciaries of the public trust who must always act in the public interest’, but notes that political life is unique. The dominance of disciplined political parties means that notions of public trust are determined within party meetings, where leaders and ministers and their shadows exert ‘overwhelming power and influence’. Carney recommends an ‘ethical regime’ that educates members and the public about their responsibilities to resolve ethical issues, monitor compliance and punish violations. While registers of pecuniary interest are now common, Carney notes that fewer than half Australia’s chambers have codes of conduct, and even where they exist, enforcement is a problem. New South Wales has a strong regime with an appointed ethics adviser, but advice does not include investigation.

Frontbenchers have further loyalties and demands as a result of their administration of a government department and membership of a cabinet that requires solidarity through collective responsibility. Carney notes that governments have been reluctant to adopt ministerial codes of conduct, that they are not parliamentary documents, that they depend upon the premier for enforcement and that there is no independent review. Recent calls for ‘restrictions on post-ministerial employment’ have generally been ignored. Carney also notes that while most codes emphasise personal conduct, the ‘political integrity’ of members should also be addressed. As examples of breaches of political integrity he cites abuse of parliamentary privilege, lying, breaking promises, acceptance of donations in return for favours, and pork-barrelling.

This distinction between personal and political integrity shows why media stereotypes are so unfair. When Turner and Hogan argue that the poor behaviour of a few MPs must be expected in a representative system that makes parliament reflect society, they refer mainly to personal integrity. No observer would expect the media to ignore embezzlement, rorting of allowances or dishonesty. However, many of the breaches of political integrity identified by journalists tend to be perpetrated by MPs holding ministerial responsibility. The backbencher is seldom in a position to present the alternative, positive face of parliamentary life. It is doubly unfortunate then that some MPs can themselves react to the poor popular image by abandoning as futile any attempt to behave honourably.

Representing an electorate

One broad categorisation of the roles performed by MPs has them acting as representatives of an electorate, as legislators and as politicos. The two substantive sections of the book examine members as they have undertaken their roles as representatives and in guarding the public interest in diverse ways, which roughly correspond with legislative and partisan activities.

Some MPs react to their poor image by abandoning any attempt to behave honourably.

In the section on ‘Representing a constituency’, contributors describe the careers of several Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). It seems curious that no Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) was included here. One difference between MLAs and MLCs is that the former have an electorate office and are reasonably well known in a local area. Expectations on them are greater and much of their work is brought to them. MLCs often find that they have to create a constituency for themselves and some have developed expertise in areas such as ethnic affairs, the environment or prisons. Perhaps regional differences remain strong enough to form the basis for representation, but the practice of parachuting star candidates into safe seats undermines the likelihood that MLAs are of and from a specific area.

The chapters by David Clune on Michael Maher, and by Frank Bongiorno comparing two independents from New England, distil the essence of the good local member. Two indispensable elements are the ability to work long hours and willingness to defy competing demands from other sources, including one’s party. Clune describes ‘a typical day for Maher’ (p. 46), whose constituents would ring him at home and approach him at Sunday Mass. Perhaps a page from Maher’s diary would be a good addition here. Bongiorno notes that Thelma, wife of Bill McCarthy, the ‘independent’ Labor MP from Armidale, sometimes attended functions on Bill’s behalf (p. 59). This illustrates the now outdated notion that when an MP was a married man, the electorate got ‘two for the price of one’ as the wife would become a de facto member. As Turner and Hogan note ‘constituency work … for many politicians … takes up time and energy that would otherwise go to family concerns or a private life’ (p. 42).

Maher worked so hard for his electorate of Drummoyne that he became notorious with Labor ministers. The transport minister dubbed him ‘the member for bus stops’ (p. 45) and the health minister supposedly thanked God nightly that Maher had no hospital in his electorate. McCarthy’s earnest pursuit of the interests of his constituents did not necessarily endear him to his colleagues either. It is interesting that this healthy streak of independence is such an important element in the success of local members. Turner and Hogan regard party allegiance amongst citizens as ‘one significant moderating influence on this tendency to political cynicism’ (p. 14).

Contributions to public interest

The chapters in the next section demonstrate the specialised roles that MPs can play, and it is difficult to rank them in importance. However, Turner’s examination of the way that Democrat MLC Elisabeth Kirkby invented ways to ensure that she was useful to the people stands out. This is partly attributable to Turner’s approach. He provides statistics for example, to show increases in the workload of the upper house, and to show the effects on the government’s legislative program when crossbenchers including Kirkby gained the balance of power.

The electorate got 'two for the price of one' as the wife became a de facto member.

Kirkby was already 60 years of age when first elected in 1981, but her energy was inspirational. Her role expanded as the Council became full time and political realities created a strongly bicameral system. Before her retirement in 1998, Kirkby asked some 1,300 questions and made some 1,000 speeches of substance in the chamber. She also served on a number of committees and chaired the committee on health care and hospitals. As a conscientious member, she calculated that in one ten day period she had to deal with 100 pieces of legislation. She also stood firm against media campaigns on law on order. Kirkby was a familiar face on Australian television as Lucy Sutcliffe in the series ‘Number 96’, but Turner sees her playing a more serious role in politics, perhaps as a ‘parliamentary Portia’ (p. 152).

Selecting the dream team

In November 2006, a newly appointed life member of the NSW Cricket Association created controversy by selecting Grahame ‘Tonker’ Thomas ahead of Doug ‘Bickie’ Walters in his post war dream side (Wilkins 2006). Some readers might not be happy with the selection of MPs by Turner and Hogan to demonstrate the honest practice of politics. However, if the batting order creates interest enough to have people talking about their positive experience of parliamentarians, the book will have served its purpose. Indeed, such debates would reinforce the perception that although people might be cynical about politicians as a class, they are generally happy with the service provided by their individual representatives. It is certainly important to have backbenchers recognised, because unlike premiers, they are seldom the subject of memoirs or biographies.

The selection of subjects might be criticised on a number of grounds. There are just two female MPs although today thirteen of 42 MLCs and 23 of 93 MLAs are female. Women are also well represented in the press gallery. However, just one contributor to this volume is female, and she is an MP. Women are generally not prominent among scholars of the parliament, and perhaps their absence is significant. The membership of parliament was exclusively male for half of the sesquicentenary and perhaps the culture remains predominantly masculine.

This might seem like a narrow consideration, but it could be central to the Turner and Hogan contention. The book presents outstanding MPs and there could indeed be many more. However, the first question to arise is whether these MPs succeeded in spite of the parliamentary culture, or because the atmosphere around the parliament encourages conscientious contributions. Does something about the culture mean that only very exceptional individuals can achieve their ambitions, and if so, what characteristics make it likely that an MP will survive and thrive?

People may be cynical, but they are generally happy with their individual representatives.

An important question for an inclusive democracy is whether good role models such as those described in these pages are available for all of the state’s citizens. While not everyone will want to emulate Michael Maher or Elisabeth Kirkby, there is now available a list of qualities for consideration. Following the lead given by Turner and Hogan, scholars and biographers should feel encouraged that the careers of many of the state’s MPs can be explored to good effect. Perhaps even more importantly, the book should broaden the pool of talent available to the community by reassuring young citizens that service in parliament is consistent with a desire to maintain personal integrity. Photographs of the subjects would have added to the appreciation. The illustrations by Lindsay Foyle are very professionally done but as the editors explain, these sometimes depict the negative public perceptions the text seeks to dismiss.


It is possible that some readers will feel disappointed that the individual contributions did not address the issue that Turner and Hogan raised in the introductory section. It is true that the case studies of MPs all present a challenge to negative media stereotyping of MPs. However, it is not clear whether these individuals have themselves encountered destructive criticism and journalistic sneers, or whether they have succeeded precisely because media gave them positive coverage. In other words, the sections of the argument could be linked more strongly, rather than simply juxtaposed for the sake of contrast. As the descriptions of the various careers stand, they could be dismissed as too one-sided and even as inaccurate as media depictions. While it is edifying to read accounts that are free of cynicism and negativity, Cavalier’s chapter on Jack Ferguson for example, could be dismissed as so hagiographic as to invite suspicions of lack of critical rigour.

Most of the book’s arguments are sound, but some are more controversial than others. It is true that ‘democratic politics is about institutionalised conflict management’ (p. 21). Some observers however, think this a justification for verbal violence inside parliamentary chambers. The idea that we should not expect parliament to be any better than the general society is rather pessimistic. A preferable view is that parliament will provide leadership so that society can be improved. This is almost certainly the view held by most of the subjects of this volume.

Turner and Hogan make some strong recommendations. Politicians ‘could do a lot to improve their reputation as a group through more effective self regulation’ including broader and better enforceable codes of conduct (p. 266). They argue that politicians should be subject to heavy criticism but that it needs to be serious and based on facts rather than knee jerk reactions and stereotypes. Generally, they reject the traditional criticisms such as the ‘sinecure charge’ (p. 9) and argue that it is time to ‘give credit where it is due’ (p. 268). Most readers are likely to find themselves very willingly making a similarly generous response to The Worldly Art of Politics.


Wilkins P. 2006, ‘No room for Walters in Bourne’s dream side’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November [Online], Available: [2006, Nov 29].

Tony Smith is a regular contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs. He has taught Australian Politics at the Australian Catholic University, Charles Sturt University, the University of Technology Sydney and The University of Sydney.

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