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Pollies – well-meaning amateurs

By John Hargreaves - 27 February 2017 11

ACT Legislative Assembly

John Hewson writes some pretty good and incisive stuff on politics from time to time and his latest in the Crimes is one of those.

He points to the fact that most ministers in federal parliament are not qualified to hold their portfolios. Apart from George Brandis QC, who is the Attorney General, I can’t think of any minister who has experience, qualifications or training in his or her portfolio. Possibly Malcolm Turnbull as Chairman of the Political Board may qualify.

Mr Hewson points to something John Howard told him about regarding politics as a profession and politicians as professionals. Sadly, it is becoming more so and no more glaring an example can be found in our own Legislative Assembly.

Let’s have a look at the ministers and their shadows and see if there is any fit here. I’ll only look at the major portfolios because the minor ones are too numerous. OK, you have me… Gordon Ramsay is a qualified lawyer and did work in the corporate law sector prior to becoming a full-time clergyman.

Starting at the top, Andrew Barr has economics qualifications but didn’t use them until he became Treasurer. He worked in the political field or media monitoring. The Deputy Chief Minister, Yvette Berry was a union chief with United Voice. Her portfolios of Housing and Education really don’t relate to her pre-pollie experience. However, her work with women’s issues may be spot on.

Meegan Fitzharris worked as a public servant in the middle range and as a staffer for Mr Barr, hardly qualification for Health and municipal type services such as transport and rates, roads and rubbish. Mick Gentleman had no prior experience in environmental or planning matters but truth be said, he as a member of the protective services part of the AFP for a while and has some experience in the security game.

Back to Gordon Ramsay though, he is the Minister for seniors. Well, I’m the President of the Tuggeranong Seniors Club, the 55 Plus Club, and we have had no communication from his office at all. Obviously not taking this one that seriously! And what about the arts? I’ll bet he hasn’t been to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre yet. And it is owned by the ACT Government!

You have to say that Shane Rattenbury has some creds in climate change and sustainability but what about justice, corrections and mental health. His law qualifications were applied to work with Greenpeace so he has that one tick I guess. Rachel Stephen-Smith as minister for community services seems an ok fit because of her pre-pollie interest in this field but hey, what about disability, ATSI or multicultural affairs? What about industrial relations? These are tough portfolios and some experience or qualifications would be helpful.

Now for the Opposition. The leader, Mr Coe, was one of the youngest people elected to the Assembly and has no real experience in the workplace to spruik. But he’s the Treasurer and Economic Development minister in waiting. Doesn’t instill in me much confidence. His deputy, Nicole Lawder, worked in the community sector but how is this relevant to planning?

Steve Doszpot as shadow minister for urban services and seniors brings sports administration and media expertise to the table. Relevance? Former Speaker Vicki Dunne in her pre-pollie days was a professional political staffer. How this relates to the portfolio of health, I can’t work out.

Lt Col (Rtd) Jeremy Hanson as shadow attorney general is a good one because he is very structured in his approach to work and is methodical but not trained in the field. He was a logistics expert in the Army. His shadow portfolio of veterans’ affairs is appropriate but then again, it is a federal responsibility and not a local one. How Giulia Jones qualifies to carry the Police and Emergency Services and Corrections shadows mystifies me. No experience in these at all! A better fit would be Jeremy Hanson because at least he had the shadows before and would have learnt something about them.

Elizabeth Kikkert as shadow minister for families and for multicultural affairs is a good fit in that she has a large family of her own and has a Tongan ancestry. I have spoken to her on multicultural affairs and find that she is really committed to the job which is a good thing. Elizabeth Lee, a lawyer is shadow minister for disability and the environment. A missed opportunity as not only was she a lawyer, she was a lecturer in law as well. The Shadow A-G would have been a better fit.

James Milligan, or Spike as he is affectionately known, is a cricket tragic and so I suppose the sport shadow might be appropriate but he has indigenous affairs as well. Whilst the indigenous affairs portfolio is an important area neither of these are very taxing. Another talent wasted. Mark Parton is a media personality and owns a part share in two racehorses. I guess these qualify as him having previous experience relevant to the racing and gaming shadows. Really? But his major shadow of housing is an oddity.

Andrew Wall has the shadows of local business and industrial relations. A conflict of interest could exist here. I would have thought the current furore of penalty rate reductions has pitted small business against the workforce and one has to take a stand, like that of Kate Carnell, so I reckon he’ll back the penalty reductions and side with business. He did have some experience in small business before becoming an MLA but then Brendan Smyth worked in his father’s newspaper shop and in the National Gallery shop, thus qualifying him to make policy relating to small business. But where Mr Wall’s experience in education policy comes from, I’m not aware.

Carolyn Le Couteur, as the sole Green cross bencher, has a wide ranging brief and we’ll see her speaking on anything and everything, under wet cement if necessary. But she does have environmental creds and was a real force behind ethical investment of funds. She was, and may still be, for all I know, a director and major shareholder in Australian Ethical Investments which specializes in investing funds in enterprises which do not damage people’s health or the environment.

Hewson suggests that perhaps we could look at the US system where portfolios are recruited outside the political system. Well, we have the Westminster system and I can’t see that happening.

Although, it must be said that we have a system here that enables us to recruit expertise and qualification to the Direct-General jobs. This is where most of the policy thinking comes from and the pollies just give a general direction and off they go.

For the record, I had a number of shadow and real portfolios when I was in that august place and my qualifications were not relevant to any of them. My 30 years in public service, most in health administration did not lead me to the Health portfolio. I was a well-meaning amateur.

So, I guess, we just have to know that we are governed by a bunch of well-meaning amateurs who do their best. And if it not good enough for us, we whinge, criticize and toss them out. Good system eh?

What’s Your opinion?


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11 Responses to
Pollies – well-meaning amateurs
Barron 12:49 pm 03 Mar 17

Its an facet of democracy that you might get “ordinary” people in places of political power. After all it is the meaning of the word.
It is also why we have public servants that make up Departments. They should be there to see the policies of the politicians are realised and that politicians are well supported, without bias.
I am in no way an apologist for politicians and the decisions they make, far from it. Many people work in jobs for which they have no bits of paper or formal qualifications. this is not a definition of “well meaning amateurs”. Judge people on the outcomes of their work not what bits of paper they have.
I have qualifications in engineering, but worked successfully in education for over 35 years. I guess some of us learn more quickly and are more adaptable than others.
Just in case people may think I have connections to politicians I do not nor have I ever belonged to a political party and vote for issues not parties or politicians.

No_Nose 11:32 pm 28 Feb 17

Politicians tend to forget that they are simply employees and like all employees they have one job and that is to do what their boss tells them to do. In their case the boss is their electorate and their job is to do what their electorate tells them to do. They are not employed to represent the interests of their party or their own agendas.

If they don’t like doing what their boss tell them to then they have the same right as every other employee in the country…quit.

watto23 5:46 pm 28 Feb 17

There is a definite issue with politics and maybe even the way democracy works, but every system and idea I’ve come across has flaws. If a minister actually listens to experts then they can do the job, but when its blatantly not possible to listen to experts and hold the same left/right wing ideology, so the experts get ignored then I think the minister is going to struggle. Politicians really need to do a better job of picking which policies to oppose/propose. I still struggle to understand how the NBN has become such a big mess purely for the benefit of whomever was pulling the liberal party policy strings on that issue. Its was by far the most popular labor policy and probably one that deserved bi-partisan support. Labor weren’t exactly rolling it out well and that where the liberals should have made their stand. Now we are being screwed over again and just getting infrastructure built in this country becomes far too difficult and we all suffer.

I personally think making political donations a transparent process is the best thing we can do to our current system. If someone can’t make a political donation without transparency of where the money has actually come from then they are not donating for the right reasons. They should also be open to public and media scrutiny.

John Hargreaves 5:11 pm 28 Feb 17

To Masquara, you’re possibly right but I know when I had those portfolios I had the experience of being a public housing tenant prior to going into politics and I came from another country and spent 6 years in a migrant camp. Perhaps these experiences helped but I do know that empathy is often missing fomr the qualifications of ministers and bureaucrats.

Masquara 4:08 pm 28 Feb 17

John Hargreaves, I guess anyone could do “multicultural affairs” or “housing” as minister without any qualifications on those particular topics?

Innovation 10:26 pm 27 Feb 17

Politicians should have the ability to harness expertise from all quarters both for decision making and implementation. They should have skills to promote initiatives to colleagues, administrators and the community. If they are humble enough to admit their ignorance, have a reasonable degree of intelligence and are prepared to listen, the need for expertise in specific fields should be minimal in respect of any portfolio.

Sadly, I feel that all levels of Australian politics have been compromised by allowing donations in any form (which buys advice from biased groups only), the typical obligation for politicians to vote along party lines and perhaps some Constitutional limitations.

HenryBG 4:33 pm 27 Feb 17

John Hargreaves said :

My experience is that if a minister really wants to know some new ideas and how his own ideas will or won’t work, it is best to ask the officers in his/her dept between the ASO4 and EL2 levels.

There’s probably been some grade creep since you learned that lesson.
In fact, if we’re talking the ACT Government, the permanent employees are all on stress leave so you’ll need to talk with the contractors that have been brought in to get the work done that the permanent staff are too dysfunctional to do themselves.

John Hargreaves 12:59 pm 27 Feb 17

My experience is that if a minister really wants to know some new ideas and how his own ideas will or won’t work, it is best to ask the officers in his/her dept between the ASO4 and EL2 levels.

HenryBG 10:42 am 27 Feb 17

The properly qualified people are those people who staff the bureaucracies that are responsible for the relevant functions.
The politicians are there to inject their ideology into policy decisions, grab their slice of any corruption that’s on offer, and seek attention. That’s it – they aren’t there to actually run things, the properly qualified experts do that.

John Hargreaves 10:28 am 27 Feb 17

wildturkeycanoe, you have so many accurate points here, I’m having trouble commenting on them. But, I can say that most, not all, pollies start out being backbenchers who genuinely want to represent the views, as they see them, of their electorates. These are often overruled by the party policies (of what ever party we talk of) and thus being a backbencher can be frustrating. When on a Committee, the opportunity to contribute tot he discussion is real but often ignored by the government of the day which is not obliged to take a tinker’s damn bit of notice of it.

One of the real problems is that ministers are not chosen (in the case of the Libs and Nats) or elected (in the case of the ALP) because they have an agenda for a particular portfolio or are able to articulate the party’s position on that portfolio. They have to learn it on the run.

And another point is that rarely do ministers have control of their departments, let alone the mandarins. More often than not they sprout the views of the mandarins and claim credit if it is good and duck for cover if it is bad. The tail doth wag the dog! This is how a departmental mandarin can dispose of a minister if the fit is not a good one.

Just a coupla thoughts to add to your own.

wildturkeycanoe 7:41 am 27 Feb 17

So this is why the country is in such a poor state at the moment, nobody in government is qualified to do the job they have? We shouldn’t forget some real stand out examples such as a rock’n’roll lead singer attaining the environment portfolio and a fish and chip shop owner becoming the leader of a party, even losing the position in less than glorious circumstances and re-appearing years later without even a hint of the skeletons in the closet haunting her. Yet even for the most basic of casual retail work on offer to the public these days, there are prerequisites such as previous experience and relevant certifications that must be presented on application to even get an interview. Something is seriously rotten in this country.
Your revelation certainly sheds some light on the back-door shenanigans that goes on in politics. How can the leaders that supposedly represent the population be so far removed from the common man, as is the case of our current prime minister? How can a millionaire businessman with a fully solar powered mansion, be able to connect with the Aussie battler when it comes time to make decisions on electrical load-shedding for example? My personal opinion of politicians puts them below car salespeople and real estate agents in terms of trustworthiness. They simply cannot understand the hardships and the issues that everyday Australians face. They are more aligned with the CEOs and business world, being influenced by their “mates” who are of more importance than a family who is relying on welfare to survive.
Most unfortunately for all, there is no process in our electoral or legal systems to change this situation. We can only vote for the political parties that are available. Smaller parties cannot compete, because of the massive amounts of money being distributed to those already in power who gain an unfair advantage. It is a numbers game and I’m almost sure that even if a minor party won all of the first preference votes at the last election, we’d still have either Labor or Liberal pulling the strings due purely to their dominance on the political arena.
I can not think of a single thing a politician has done in the last decade that has made any part of my life better, but plenty that have made it worse.

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