Regardless of party affiliation, today’s politicians fall into two camps — the irreverent and politically incorrect cadre and their grim and dour, never-give-offence counterparts. Given a choice, there is a strong argument that democracy is better served by the efforts of the former
Every once in a while it’s worth looking at our politicians through a non-party political lense. So, just for a moment, let’s cast aside the usual discussions that look at our political class through the prism of an MP’s view of big government versus small, the need or otherwise to reform labour relations, how (if at all) to stop the boats, the need for a carbon tax, whether cutting spending is a top priority, Israel, welfare entitlements, including for the middle classes and for big business, and all the other usual suspects.
Instead, how about we go back and play the old game of putting aside party politics in order to categorise politicians as either Cavaliers or Roundheads? The former are the foppish, big-living, irreverent, non-sanctimonious, prone-to-huge-ego crowd who have few politically correct tendencies. They are the ancestors of the losing Royalist cause.
Then there are the Cromwellian Roundheads. Comparatively humourless, more than somewhat puritanical, dour, much more focused on winning and, in that sense, a more professional crowd. Oh, and because of those very traits and the unwillingness to take risks they are much more willing to indulge the politically correct fancies of the day.
Now if I had to pick the most Cavalier of modern-day politicians Winston Churchill would be at the top of my list (who, by the way, was and is my pick as greatest person of the twentieth century). Churchill had a liking for rogues; he was big on drinking and bitingly funny at others’ expense. In no sense did he have a politically correct bone in his body.
Or, moving forward 40 or 50 years, other clear Cavalier politicians in the English-speaking democratic world would include Pierre Trudeau in Canada, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan in the US, and Paul Keating and Bob Hawke here in Australia. Oh, and I think most everyone would put United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage into this camp as well. Even Julia Gillard might get a look in.
What about Roundheads? Well, Jimmy Carter looks to me to be one, and present British Prime Minister David Cameron. And our own Kevin Rudd, though in his case it’s a sort of virulent mutation of the species. Nor is it just political losers in this camp. Margaret Thatcher strikes me as having been a Roundhead. Likewise I’d personally include the present Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Even Barack Obama strikes me as a Roundhead.
Notice that this way of classifying politicians crosses party lines. Well, it crosses party lines save for the Greens, who as a class are so sanctimonious, humourless and PC that there’s little doubt they’re all Roundheads at heart.
It will not surprise you that I’m very much a Cavalier supporter at heart. Whatever your left-versus-right political sentiments, I think we need amongst our political class some free-speaking people who don’t feel compelled to genuflect before the PC pieties of the day and who can poke fun at others, sometimes cruelly, and have interests outside of politics. Some big-living MPs are to be welcomed, at least in my view.
Yet it seems to grow harder by the day for successful politicians to be Cavaliers. Far too many of our MPs are clones of one another; they’re smart people who right out of university start working for politicians, with maybe a year or two in some related field like public relations or working for a union. Having served their time as risk-averse advisors, they then get parachuted into a political career.
Both sides of politics do this. Indeed, both sides do it far too much and too often. Hence you get your risk-averse, carbon-copy MP who has few core convictions for which he or she is prepared to go to the wall. ‘Take no chances and genuflect before anything provided it gives no offense to any potential voter’, is their only creed.
This is the recipe for creating not a Cavalier but only a Roundhead, though perhaps not a successful one in the mould of a Thatcher. It is a very bad thing that the range of life experiences of our political class is shrinking.
Likewise, it is a bad thing that so many of them are such humourless gits. So what if Jackie Lambie wants a rich and well-hung man! I dare say she’s not alone. And all the faux and confected outrage should make you want to puke. Let’s be honest, any person who has never told a joke or uttered something that would come a cropper when held up to minute scrutiny by the Greens Party executive or your average ABC radio and television host is a person who has been angling for a political career all his life. It’s someone I don’t really want in politics.
So call me a Lambie defender if you must. I’d rather her any day than the usual mass-produced political advisor turned take-no-chances backbencher Roundhead.
All of which leaves us with the final task of categorising the top rung of Australian politics today. Give it a go. Into which camp would you put Bill Shorten and Tony Abbott? Is Mr. Abbott a Cavalier who, since winning the last election, has been masquerading as a Roundhead? Is Bill Shorten a professional Roundhead who becomes a Cavalier in his spare time? Meanwhile what of Mssrs Turnbull, Hockey and Albanese?
Call them as you see them. That’s more than most of today’s political class do.
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline, out now from Connor Court Press