The Canberra Booze Cruise

Let’s take a little poll. One of those surveys our government is so fond of. How many of you think you could turn up drunk to work, pass out, fail to do your designated job, and escape any consequences whatever? How many of think you would still be employed at the end of that day? How many of you who are unemployed think you could get a job if your prospective employer knew you’d done this at your last workplace?

I don’t want to pre-empt the survey’s results, but I’m betting not many of you are answering in the affirmative. Unless, of course, most of the people reading this are members of parliament. Because as we’ve learnt from Tony Abbott, getting blackout drunk at work and failing to carry out the fundamental requirements of your job is all part of the MP lifestyle. Why not, as Tony says, sit down for a “few bottles of wine” with some fellow MPs during a parliamentary session? It’s not as if there was anything more important going on. It was just a vote on government spending during the global financial crisis: you probably remember how unimportant the Liberal Party said it was at the time.

This is a government, it’s worth reminding ourselves again and again and again, whose love of using the concept of mutual obligation as a stick to beat the disadvantaged verges on the pathological. This is the government that wants to drug test welfare recipients because anyone under the influence of mind-altering substances doesn’t deserve an income. This is the government that insists Aboriginal people can’t be trusted with real money because they’ll just buy grog with it. This is the government that is proudly spruiking its new scheme to hive off the unemployed as “interns” to provide corporations with cheap labour. This is the government that won’t impose on its own members an obligation to stay sober at work for the hundreds of thousands of dollars they’re getting paid.

Nothing will happen to Abbott, of course. In a reasonable world, he would resign in disgrace and never darken the doors of parliament house again, his name become synonymous with failure and antonymous with integrity. But if we ever lived in a reasonable world, it’s long gone now. Oh yes, there is tut-tutting. Malcolm Turnbull says it’s “unacceptable”, but in the world of politics “unacceptable” is a word meaning “something we are going to accept”. That’s Canberra for you: the town where words don’t just mean something different to what we thought they mean; they mean the exact opposite. Turnbull won’t actually do anything to his predecessor, because of the precedent it might set: in the words of the Honourable Jim Hacker, “if you do the right thing this time, you might have to do the right thing again”. Our political culture is such that Abbott could be so confident that there would be no consequences for his total dereliction of duty that he could openly admit it, with a hearty chuckle, on national television. It’s a joke to him. It’s a joke to all of them.

It’s no good pretending Abbott is an outlier here. The vast majority of our MPs care just as little about their duty as the ex-PM. They’re in the game to get as much as they can out of it, and the business of government is an unfortunate obstacle they have to negotiate to achieve their aims. That’s why they drink on the job. That’s why they miss divisions to catch the early plane home for the weekend. That’s why they excoriate opponents who were unaware of their citizenship status, but are thoroughly scandalised by the suggestion that their own violation of the constitution might mean they should pull their soggy muzzles from the trough for a few seconds. That’s why they scoop up as much travel allowance cash as they can manage, knowing that the absolute worst-case scenario will be that they have to one day pay it back. That’s why they claim allowances from living away from home while staying in their own houses. That’s why they take donations from anyone who’ll stump them up, and when they’re caught out pay the penance of a regretful expression and a minor demotion that might last a few months, if the transgression was really bad.

And here’s the rub: our system is set up for this. The political landscape was designed with uncaring, selfish, grasping, mendacious inhabitants in mind. That’s the reason we vote. That’s the reason we have a free press and free speech and all that good healthy democratic stuff: because we know that people who want power probably aren’t going to give a shit about you or me, so we need a way to force them to at least act like they do, so we can get some good things done. It’s why democracy is as Churchill said, the worst possible system apart from all the others — every system ends up with bastards at the top, but at least we get to squeeze them till they agree to play nice.

Except these days we don’t. Our political culture is stinking from the rot at its heart, because we forgot that we’re supposed to keep squeezing. We started to believe that we need to try to elect “good people” instead of trying to elect people who do good things, no matter what they might be like as people. And how do we pick “good people”? Why, we look for who’s nice, who’s fun to be around, who seems like a good bloke, who we’d be happy to have a beer with. We turn up our noses at the dull politicians, the awkward ones, the ones who are unwilling to put on a zany show for us: we know the good guys are the ones who share funny memes and deliver a good zinger and kick back with a few bottles of wine at the end of the day and fall asleep and oops, forget to do their job: what a character!

The media loves a character, because they’re fun to write about. The press gallery wants their job to be fun, so they applaud the politicians who put on a show and bemoan the ones who won’t entertain them in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. It’s time to flip the script. The Australian people, and the media in particular, has a responsibility to look at the contempt in which Tony Abbott has admitted he holds the public, and remind ourselves: this is what politicians are. They are not our friends. They do not care about us. They are in it for themselves, and the only way we get good government is by forcing them to believe that they won’t get what they want unless they give us what we want. In short: politicians aren’t going to do their jobs unless they’re scared that if they don’t, they’ll be unemployed. It’s about time we got back to scaring them.

Or we could just leave things as they are and chuckle along at the big joke our elected leaders are having at our expense.