The less you see and hear of people like me, the better
There is an expression in American politics known as ‘inside the beltway’. It is a reference to the interstate highway that circles the capital city, Washington DC.
If there was an Australian equivalent, it would be ‘inside the circle’ - reference to the roads, the State Circle and the Capital Circle, which loop around Parliament House in Canberra.
When Americans speak of ‘beltway’ issues, they mean the topics which occupy the attention of the political class in Washington: the Members of Congress, the media, the administration officials, and the hordes of paid lobbyists. Outside Washington, it is often a term of derision.
“That is a beltway issue,” meaning something which the political class, led by the news media, are obsessed about, but does not resonate with the millions of Americans who simply wish to get on with their lives.
The beltway phenomenon has crept into Australian politics. With the advent of 24 hour television and expanding social media, many of the political class spend an increasing amount of time fixated on the same narrow set of issues.
More people turn out for an AFL wooden spoon game in the middle of winter than watch 24 hour news television. But almost every journalist, lobbyist and commentator in Canberra does. And many of them spend the day tweeting comments that are largely read by each other!
This culture had spurned the demand that politicians become both celebrities and commentators.
The cult of the celebrity politician was driven by Kevin Rudd, who used every media opportunity to persuade his colleagues that he should become Leader of the Opposition, and later, Prime Minister.
Since it worked for Rudd, others have been seduced into thinking the strategy should be adopted by all. The problem is that Mr Rudd’s colleagues later discovered that he was a domineering control-freak and removed him from office. Many still loathe him.
Rudd became a celebrity, but he couldn’t lead his own party.
The 24 hour news cycle means that there are hours of television to be filled every day. There are only so many stories that can be carried, so the issues are analysed and commented upon over and over.
And who better to freely fill in these countless hours than politicians eager to boost their personal profile. Yet the only time they are likely to be reported for their appearance on the 24 hour news media or their remarks on twitter is when they say something stupid.
Of course politicians need to communicate their ideas, including on 24 hour television, but we are not commentators.
John Howard was never particularly popular, but he was widely respected. He would often warn his colleagues about becoming commentators on current issues, saying, “That is not our job.”
As I travel around Australia, there is one resounding message. People are sick of the toxic personality politics that passes for policy discussions these days. They yearn for good, competent government that will quietly get on with the job and out of their everyday lives.
People tell me that they don’t turn on the news anymore, or switch off when political stories are broadcast. Newspaper circulations are falling.
The late President of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, once remarked that “It is not true that only the unfeeling cynic, the vain, the brash and the vulgar can succeed in politics.”
“Such people, it is true, are drawn to politics, but in the end decorum and good taste will always count for more,” he said.
I believe he was correct.
In the end, competence and common sense are more useful tools for our political leaders than seeking celebrity status and endless commentary. Sometimes less is more.
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