The Politics    Thursday, June 11, 2015

Family matters

By Sean Kelly

What politicians talking about their families tells us about voters

Some scattershot thoughts today, rather than a clear opinion.

The place of politicians’ families in political debate is a fraught issue.

At times, the children and spouses of politicians are pulled onto the national stage by their political enemies – perhaps to make a point about entitlement, or hypocrisy, or simply as a distraction from another debate.

When that happens, the reaction from the politician’s defenders is swift: “Families are off limits,” they say. “Don’t stoop so low. We’re better than that.”

Then, when the time comes for the original politician to have a photo shoot with their family, or when they refer to their partner or kids in an interview, their opponents rear up again, yelling, “But you said they were off limits!”

And, in a very narrow technical way, they have a point.

But a quick reversion to common sense tells us otherwise. Politicians’ families should be out of bounds. They weren’t elected. It is ugly to drag them in. And at the same time, of course they should be included in photo shoots and referenced in interviews. The politician is human. There are other people in their life. That’s an important part of the complete picture of the person for whom we are being asked to vote.

On strict grounds, if you’re a high-school debater, the two don’t fit together. But in reality they do.

But there’s still something that makes me uneasy about politicians referring to their families a lot, and I’ve been trying to work out what it is, as I consider the fact that both Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott have referred to their children this week in attempts to demonstrate empathy with those trying to get into the housing market. I think I’ve figured it out, but I’m not sure. Here goes.

The first thing is a policy reason, and I think it’s utterly reasonable. When a politician refers to their partner or kids in a policy debate – as Hockey and Abbott did – they are suggesting to us that their understanding of national issues is based on their own anecdotal experiences rather than facts and figures. (This week’s events suggest to me that this might actually be the case.)

That’s a worry because it’s a bad way to govern. It’s like creating policy against wind farms because you, personally, think they’re ugly.

The second thing, though, makes me uneasy because of what it says about our entire political system.

Referring to their families as examples suggests that politicians feel the need to show they understand issues facing Australians not with displays of empathy, nor with a clear description of those challenges, some type of indication that they’ve listened and studied up and know what they’re talking about.

It suggests they feel they can only show they understand those issues by demonstrating that they have faced those issues in their own lives.

I’m still thinking about what this means, but, again, two things occur to me. The first is that we should expect more of our politicians: more imagination, more skill. Surely it’s not too much to hope that a politician, especially a prime minister, can imagine their way into somebody else’s life?

The second is that this type of attitude acts as a de facto limit on the type of people we can expect to lead this country. Not too rich, not too poor, with a family and a life of sufficient conventionality to appease sufficient numbers of voters.

It made me think about a question that Julia Gillard, then a new PM fighting to win an election, was asked in 2010, on Q&A. I would hope that one day such a question might seem antiquated. This week’s performances by our prime minister and treasurer made me think that day might still be a while away.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Prime minister, some of the Australians think you have no family so you will not really understand their concerns. My question is, how will you persuade these people to believe that their worries are not necessary? Thank you.

GILLARD: Okay. Thank you, and thank you for asking the question, because I think it’s a question on a lot of people’s minds, but sometimes people think they shouldn’t ask questions about, you know, personal circumstances. But I think it’s good to talk about it, and I suppose what I would say, first and foremost, is there’s never going to be one Australian who can encapsulate in their own life experience the story of every other Australian. You’ve always got to be prepared to listen and learn from other people’s experiences. I’m never going to know what it's like to be an indigenous Australian. I’m never going to know what it’s like to be someone who has a disability and has had to negotiate the world with that disability. John Howard didn’t know what it was like to be a mother, and so the list goes on … 


Today’s links

  • Tony Abbott told Alan Jones today that wind farms were ugly. I genuinely don’t understand this. I can understand somebody not wanting a wind farm next to their property. But on purely aesthetic grounds I find them eerie and beautiful. (Mind you, I also think that mines can be beautiful.) More worrying than the PM’s lack of sense of wonder is his suggestion in the same interview that the Renewable Energy Target should never have existed.
  • Bill Shorten has slammed a Fairfax report as an “unfair smear”. The report contained allegations he oversaw a deal between the union he ran and a company to increase union membership at the expense of workers.
  • Why is progressive Australia still railing against Americanised spelling?
  • Australia’s jobless rate has fallen to its lowest rate in a year – but it’s still at six per cent.
  • The PM has issued a warning on the long-term ambitions of ISIL.
  • A short video I recorded on the difference between gaffes and mistakes.
  • Some interesting and damning paragraphs at the end of Niki Savva’s piece today on Joe Hockey’s gaffes: “One of the more relaxed government strategists said the other day when quizzed about the forward agenda, that something would turn up. He was relaxed because his latest research reported a turnaround in the government’s fortunes, confirmed the doubts about Shorten, confirmed in his mind that if an election was held next weekend, the government would be re-elected. He was especially pleased because it confirmed his view that a lot of the discussion which obsessed insiders barely registered with the punters. Hockey took care of that.”
  • The 19 Sydney suburbs about to cross the $1 million median house price mark. And the foolproof way to buy a house at 23. Could property prices be about to fall (number #3723)?
  • A British Nobel laureate has resigned for suggesting scientists should work in gender-segregated labs.
  • A new MH370 theory

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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