Political rats: The buck stops here

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Why do former Labor Party politicians, but not old Liberals, turn on their Party once they leave politics. David Horton says it's all about deep pockets.

'The man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart, but if he is still a socialist at forty he has no head.'

~ Aristide Briand (1862-1932)

WELL, Aristide, prime minister of France 11 times, was certainly a socialist when young, but perhaps felt himself as an international statesmen becoming more right-wing as he became older.

It is an aphorism that is endlessly quoted, with knowing smirks, by the right — most famously by Churchill, trying to counteract the opposite observation by John Stuart Mill:

'Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.'

And trying to counteract modern studies showing that politically conservative people have, on average, a lower IQ than politically progressive people.

Not the point I want to discuss though, though related.

I can’t think of a single Republican or Conservative retired politician (correct me if I am wrong) who has in later life rejected his/or her former party and beliefs and become a media darling endlessly bagging both. In Australia, the only example of a Liberal (the misleading name of our very conservative party) doing such a thing is former PM Malcolm Fraser. And in Malcolm’s case, the major source of criticism (and good on him) relates to the savage asylum seeker policies of his former party (he publicly resigned), not so much a critique of conservative ideology in general.

Conversely, some former Labor Party (think American Democrats, British Labour) ministers in Australia seem to queue up to appear in the media, especially News Limited, outlets to pour political excrement on their former Party, its members and its beliefs. As the present deputy leader of the party, Tanya Plibersek, once said:

“I hope when I retire I never make a buck trashing the Labor Party."

Why is it so?

My political beliefs, left-wing from the time I knew what political beliefs were, have become more left-wing with age. I do criticise Labor and The Greens, but only when they appear to be moving right on some issue, or when they fail Politics 101 in campaigning, not because of their beliefs.

How can former Labor ministers do so then?

People join the conservative political parties because they fundamentally believe in the libertarian/neoconservative/pro-business/anti-poor/anti-environment/anti-union ideology. Oh sure, once upon a time there were members who were there because of some 19th century view of freedom of expression – a view of liberalism as rugged individualism – but such membership has long since been purged from the modern tea-party-controlled versions of those old 'centre-right' parties.

So when they retire, hard right ideology untempered by reality, they can if they want a lucrative career, march into the welcoming arms of Rupert Murdoch and other media barons, and be paid for doing what they would do for free — slagging off any political position left of Genghis Khan.

The Labor situation is quite different.

The Labor (or Labour, or Democratic) Party is a broad church — not like the conservative monocultures. There are members who are there, say, because of their union membership, but who are as opposed to same sex marriage or environmental protection as the most rabid Liberal. There are people totally opposed to censorship and others wanting to stop people reading erotic literature and so on.

Being a member of the Labor Party, unlike the Liberal Party, doesn’t imply a portmanteau of views; doesn’t imply a progressive viewpoint at all, in fact. There are, it seems, quite a number of Labor people who, but for accidents of family or history – sliding doors – could have comfortably been Liberal all along. The reverse, however, never very frequent, is now impossible.

In both parties too, there are people who see politics as a career, not a belief system and join whichever party they think looks the most promising for their advancement — which one is most likely to see the removal of the baton from the knapsack. Perhaps more in Labor, where intelligence and ability can still sometimes be qualification for promotion of likely lads and lasses.

So, potential supply, but what of the demand for former Labor people trashing the Labor Party? Why does Rupert want to pierce their necks with his canines and turn them into vampires?

Elementary my dear Watson.

Former Lib ministers are reliable, will always turn on the implanted chip with the latest talking points, slogans, abusive remarks, no question — just point them at the microphone and the latest target and away they go.

But with reliability comes predictability; comes, dare I say it, boredom.

You can present them as impartial objective commentators, members of think tanks, business groups, without referring to them as “former Liberal ministers” — but still, people know them; might just be tempted to dismiss some trash talk about the Labor Party as “well he would say that, wouldn’t he”.

On the other hand, someone who can be labelled, with flaming letters a mile high, as a “former Labor Minister” carries Mandela-like legitimacy — “Gosh, a former Labor minister criticising Labor, must be true, bet it hurts and saddens him to say it, things must be really bad”.

Furthermore, the principle that the convert is holier than the Pope holds as true for politics as religion. A former Labor man (I can’t think of a Labor woman that has followed this path) will, to show his bona fides to his new comrades, lash his old friends with even more fervour than a born to rule Liberal.

So, glittering prizes for those willing to turn their gaze from the light on the hill to the light on the 99th floor. Directorships, board memberships, consultancies, club memberships, to go with the regular media appearances. Nothing too good for the newest member of the club.

Look, I’m sure the pay is good, very good. Rupert has very deep pockets, plenty of bucks — but, oh dear, the company you’d have to keep.

I’d rather hang out with Ms Plibersek, I believe.

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