Career vs. Careerist: Who Do We Want in Our Nation's Parliament?


Originally Published in Farrago Edition Four (2022).

Insults come in all shapes and sizes. Some are crass and vulgar; others are witty and subtle. Some smack you across the face, and others land gently. In any
one parliamentary sitting day in Canberra, you might hear a variety of types delivered in a single sentence. Politics, an innately rhetorical profession, invites the crafting and use of verbal putdowns. Most are dispensed, received, reacted to, and forgotten within minutes. Others, when repeated often enough, are a little more sinister. I am going to focus on one insult in particular that I think, when repeated, can do serious damage to our democracy: this is calling someone a "career politician". By discharging this epithet from their rhetorical armoury, a politician is able, in one fell swoop, to discredit their opponent's competence for governing.

When you call someone a "career politician", the intention is simple. By affixing this mantle to a person, you are suggesting that they are so consumed in the cut and thrust of political life that they lack a conception of what "real" Australians think. You want to say that they are out of touch and that they have been so focused on the bureaucratic pen-pushing of representing their electorate in Canberra that they have lost sight of what the everyday Aussie wants.

There is the first problem with the term: in assuming that the "real Aussie" exists, it falsely assumes that somewhere among the 25 million people who live in Australia, there exists a group of people who are, undeniably and unimpeachably, true, blue, Aussies. The "career politician" clearly exists in the same fraught ecosystem as the "quiet Australian", people outside the "Canberra bubble" who do not care for politics and instead want to get on with their lives without having to worry about the quibbles of politicians. This term therefore tries and succeeds in shining a light on the divide between the political class and their constituents, which is often seen in electorates that feel disconnected from the people who make their laws. This divide exists and is indeed harmful, and although this ought to be rectified, calling someone a "career politician" often does nothing substantive to address this issue. Instead, it is an insult that continually seeks to exploit that divide for partisan gain.

One of the major problems with the partisan use of a term like "career politician" is that it conflates two very different sorts of people: the careerist politician and the person who chooses politics as a career. Careerist politicians joined politics not because they see the profession as a vocation or as the highest form of public service but because they see it as a means by which to accumulate power or influence. Careerist politicians immerse themselves in the "Canberra bubble" because it is the environment in which they can further their material interests.

On the other hand, "career politicians", or people who select politics as a career, often have a sense of vocation and go into politics because of a genuine desire to improve their society. When politicians conduct this terminological sleight of hand by casually suggesting that anyone who spends a lifetime in politics does so because of greed or some obscene obsession with the strategical side of parliamentary life, everyone loses. I will look at an instance where the media has probably unknowingly espoused the "career politician" fallacy. The example comes from Insiders, a weekly program on the ABC where a group of journalists discuss the week's news. The topic being discussed by the panel is the public's perception of the opposition leader at the time, Anthony Albanese, and his capacity to withstand the stress of a six-week election campaign. While contributing to the discussion, one of the journalists,'s Samantha Maiden, subtlety conducts the "career politician" switch-trick on her viewers:

"[Anthony Albanese] has not held an economic portfolio, right? And he hasn't had that discipline. It is very strange to me that he got that infrastructure portfolio in the Rudd years, and he just stayed there. And after there was the [ALP] leadership change after the 2013 election and he ran against Bill Shorten.... my understanding is that Bill Shorten basically gave him his pick of portfolios. And he chose to just sit [in infrastructure]. It shows a lack of ambition."

See what she did there? Her commentary can be summarised as something like this: Albanese has not held a finance, treasury, or defence portfolio despite being in parliament for 26 years. He became Infrastructure Minister in 2007 during the Rudd government; however, when given his pick of shadow portfolios after the 2013 election defeat, instead of selecting a more "prestigious" one, he stuck with Infrastructure. For Samantha Maiden, it is incomprehensible that someone should want to join the House of Representatives without a desire to accumulate power or reputation. By making the term "career politician" a dirty phrase besmirched by images of self-absorbed and out-of-touch bureaucrats, we risk devaluing those in our parliament who devote themselves to a portfolio or issue because they believe in its importance. Maybe Albanese stuck with Infrastructure, not because of a lack of ambition, but because he thought it was a portfolio in which he could make a material difference in the lives of thousands of Australians.

There was a critical moment on the ABC program Q&A episode earlier in the year where this idea was brought out into the open. As part of their question, an audience member suggested that Australia should adopt term limits for politicians. They thought this might curb the factional, and ultimately internecine, conflicts both major parties are riven by. This is a suggestion that ought to be considered carefully. In many ways, the factional disputes that afflict both major parties epitomise a political system dominated by careerist politicians. The factional system leaves a party a conglomerate of cliques and clubs and rewards the career-driven and ruthless individual rather than the vocational parliamentarian. A powerful response to the suggestion of term limits does, however, bring us back to the "career politician", the person who selects politics as their calling in life. Term limits risk depriving the Australian electorate of operators who have spent years getting to know their constituents or portfolio and have something valuable to offer our parliament.

I suppose there are a few questions we want to ask ourselves before we dispatch insults like the term "career politician". Do we want to encourage the ruthless pursuit of power and reputation in our nation's parliament? Do we want the treasury benches filled with people more concerned with their own career prospects than with governing the country? Also, what sort of "real jobs" do pundits think excuse politicians from the ignominious mantle of the "career politician"? Are politicians expected to be schoolteachers or members of the ADF? Or should they be obscenely well-paid investment bankers or board members, like many of the venerable MPs currently sitting in the upper and lower house? So, next time someone accuses another person of being a career politician, let us examine the insult carefully. Is the recipient a ruthless and power-driven individual, the careerist politician? Or are they the devoted and competent MP who has something important to offer the nation.

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