Good politician

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Peter Andren Eulogies for Peter Andren, federal MP for Calare in Central West NSW, included many metaphors. Perhaps the finest was Senator Bob Brown’s. He described Mr Andren as a refreshing rain on the parched plain of Australian politics.

Mr Andren was held in high regard within his electorate, and while people often respect their local MPs more than politicians generally, Andren was admired beyond Calare, with many observers describing him as the 'conscience' of the parliament.

Because we all have an interest in the quality of democracy and government, it is important to reflect on the Andren phenomenon. Certainly, some of Mr Andren's success is attributable to personal characteristics that cannot be taught or acquired, but some factors provide a model that aspiring politicians should emulate.

At the 1996 election Andren nominated as an Independent. He believed regional Australia suffered disproportionately under economic rationalism and major party neglect.

Calare covered two NSW state seats: Bathurst (traditionally Labor) and Orange (National Party territory). The seat coincided with the Prime television viewing area, and Andren was its main newsreader. Rural journalists are heavily involved in the community and Andren was widely known, respected and liked.

Still, a high profile, strong opinions and compassion did not guarantee either election or success as an MP. Sceptics suggested Andren's election on preferences made him a compromise MP who might serve one term. But by 2001 Calare was among the safest seats in the House of Representatives.

Yet Mr Andren did not take the electorate for granted, but continued to work hard. A ParlInfo search at returns some 200 contributions as Andren asked questions, proposed and debated legislation and commented on matters of public importance. He was accessible and involved in the community and retained a sense of humility.

He told the ABC program Compass that he recognised a force greater than himself and when under pressure, he would fall to his knees and beg for assistance. Compass called Andren a 'Real Believer', and belief was central to his success. He had faith in himself, in the importance of principle and in the decency of ordinary Australians.

Constituents supported Mr Andren enthusiastically. They rejected the parties' claims that their MP would be isolated on the cross bench and could not secure attention for the electorate. They did not resent him taking stances on issues such as the invasion of Iraq and asylum seekers that differed from their own. They knew he took his responsibilities seriously and put their interests first. They respected him for expressing views that were strongly reasoned and sincerely held and felt proud of the wider admiration he attracted to Calare.

Peter Andren held a distinct political philosophy. One typology casts parliamentarians as politicos, delegates or trustees. Politicos are party animals, as are most MPs. Many electors resent MPs giving first loyalty to their parties. Parties distribute perks such as ministries, allowances, salaries and superannuation. Enduring personal vilification in Canberra, Andren exposed the rorting of travel allowances and campaigned against increased benefits for MPs. He was vindicated in both cases.

Some Independents see themselves as delegates, political neutrals who continually test the electorate's wishes. Although respecting public opinion, Mr Andren believed in leadership. He praised the prime minister for taking the lead over firearms control in 1996, but criticised him and Opposition leaders for following opinion expressed in newspaper polls and talkback radio programs on issues such as heroin injecting room trials, mandatory sentencing, the Northern Territory's legislation on medical assistance for the dying and asylum seekers.

Mr Andren displayed all the best qualities of the trustee. By openly stating his own values, he earned the respect of his electorate, and managed to provide local leadership. Research conducted by Australian Fieldwork Solutions into why people voted for Andren showed that many electors changed their views on issues after hearing his arguments. Mr Andren was a skilled communicator. He stressed the importance of listening carefully and his media skills were a definite asset.

While Mr Andren was proved correct in most instances, he held his principles humbly, and believed his own values were commonly held. He shunned the notion that the market should determine social values and believed that most Australians happily surrendered freedoms to allow the state to participate in their lives. The great democratic project is to redistribute resources and guarantee all Australians equal access to justice.

In his final term, Andren grew disillusioned with government control of debate in the lower house. He lauded the proportional representation electoral system used in the Senate and decided to run for that chamber, hoping to help renew its status as a house of review. This campaign was ended by a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. His life was cut short soon thereafter.

Wildflowers can blossom on a parched plain, but although concrete can be washed clean it is essentially impervious. Anyone seeking to emulate Peter Andren must eschew self-aggrandisement, advocate for the supremacy of parliament, treat constituents with respect, work tirelessly for the community, formulate principled positions and defend them courageously, and display genuine leadership.

But they must also be persons of integrity, gentleness, humility and compassion. Peter Andren most certainly was, and a suitable legacy would be that we adopt similarly high standards for all political aspirants.

Tony Smith Tony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.




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A remarkable man. If only more politicians were as honest as Peter perhaps Australians would have more respect for our politicians.
Sheilavangent | 18 November 2007


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