Hacking the parties

You’ll never start an argument in the pub by saying that politicians are space-wasting, self-serving, unprincipled scallywags. They generally rate lower on professional respect surveys than insurance salespeople and door-to-door evangelists.

By and large our cynicism goes unchallenged, but occasionally we get a shock. Ted Mack, Phil Cleary, Bob Brown, Brian Harradine or Peter Andren come along.

Peter Andren is the former television journalist turned member of the House of Representatives for Calare in the federal parliament. Calare is a 25,000 square kilometre New South Wales electorate taking in Bathurst, Orange, Lithgow and Cowra. It has traditionally been held by the party in government, so after several ALP years Calare was ready to fall to the coalition in 1996.

But Peter Andren came along to spoil the party. Not content to do what every other sensible citizen does—sit back and moan about the cupidity of our elected representatives—he reckoned the time had come to break the stranglehold of the parties on the system. He stood as an independent and, with less than 30 per cent of the primary vote, he won.

Peter Andren is an unusual politician. His electorate is not populated with inner city, left-leaning greenies. So what is he doing supporting gun control, opposing mandatory sentencing, supporting
Aboriginal land rights and damning the government’s border protection legislation? And then, would you believe, going on to increase his vote so that by the time of the Tampa election he carried the seat with an absolute majority of first preference votes and now has, at 70 per cent two-party preferred, one of the safest seats in the parliament.

Andren’s success is an indictment of the moral turpitude of the Labor party that believed it could not win the 2001 election if it appeared soft on asylum seekers. The Coalition has no moral credits to lose on this issue and so it threw its dirtiest tricks against Andren, putting out flyers during the campaign claiming that, ‘A vote for Andren is a vote for illegals’. And his National Party opponent said: ‘We’ve got a situation where Australia is going to war but Peter Andren wants to let them in to shoot us.’

Who is this strange man who won’t accept campaign donations larger than $200; who doesn’t do preference deals; who rails against the perks and privileges that politicians routinely vote themselves, including an obscene superannuation scheme; who says he represents no-one but his constituents, but is not afraid to be out of step with them if his conscience dictates? The Andren Report is Peter Andren’s personal and political memoir, and it gives one or two clues about the man.

There is no overblown rhetoric in The Andren Report. It’s all very matter of fact, including the advice that he got from another fine politician, Ted Mack. Mack told him to get a distinctive vehicle and paint his name on the side in big letters.

Andren’s account of polling day 2001 is profoundly moving. He begins the day in Cowra, the One Nation end of the electorate, thinking that his stand on Tampa and border protection has probably brought his short parliamentary career to an end. By nightfall, and with counting barely under way, he has already won with a thumping majority. The electorate doesn’t just respond to nudges in the hip pocket and appeals to prejudice, as we thought.

Calare has enjoyed the full benefits of globalisation, economic rationalism and competition policy. Factories have closed and jobs have been exported to Asia. The banks have left town and the telephone system is unravelling. Orchardists have been squeezed out of business by the Coles/Safeway buying duopoly. There might not be much that an independent MHR can do for them, but the voters know that whatever he does will be a damned sight more than they can expect from a party hack.

Andren now faces the same moral dilemma as Ted Mack: how does he get out of this system without taking the spoils—the superannuation payout that will give him an indexed pension for the rest of his life? Mack solved the problem by retiring from parliament twice, once state and once federal, before being eligible for the pension. Andren doesn’t care for that solution. 

Terry Lane presents The National Interest on Radio National, Sunday at 12 noon, Monday at 4pm, and is a columnist for the Sunday Age.



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