Politicians failing to cash in their chips

Late last month, a woman stood alone on the forecourt of Canberra's Parliament House inhaling gulps of cigarette smoke. "All very nice," she said. "Too late. Tomorrow it'll be wrapping chips." She was, in her knowing bitterness, more prescient than she could have guessed.

Late last month, a woman stood alone on the forecourt of Canberra's Parliament House inhaling gulps of cigarette smoke. "All very nice," she said. "Too late. Tomorrow it'll be wrapping chips." She was, in her knowing bitterness, more prescient than she could have guessed.

The woman was one of hundreds of parents, the vast majority of them mothers, some supported by their lately found grown children, who had sat within Parliament's Great Hall to hear the apology of a prime minister and an opposition leader for lifelong pain visited upon them.

The women had given birth to sons and daughters in the 1950s, '60s and '70s only to endure the agony of having them wrenched away and adopted out. Single mothers condemned, 150,000 of them, to a life of lonely wondering, elemental bonds and hearts broken. Their children, too.

And so this was to be a big day in the lives of these parents who had not been allowed to be parents.

"This apology is extended in good faith and deep humility," the Prime Minister declared in one of her better speeches. "It will be a profound act of moral insight by a nation searching its conscience."

The Opposition Leader offered that: "We were hard-hearted and we were judgmental; that's why we should apologise. We did inflict pain on those we loved."

Hardly had the solemnity in the Great Hall drawn to a close, tissues fluttering and eyes dabbed, than the depth of the occasion was indeed consigned to the status of chip wrappings.

Parliament was about to be consumed by self-indulgence so profound that it stripped the dignity and the humanity from what had occurred.

A Labor Party elder, Simon Crean, would suddenly demand a ballot for the prime ministership and the panic and the excitement of an impending kill would sweep the House on the hill. It would all be for nothing. The putative challenger, Kevin Rudd, suddenly timorous despite his years of self-righteous head-tossing, would baulk and stalk away.

Nothing in recent memory could emphasise more clearly the cleft that has been hewn between the people and the political class.

A deep sourness almost without precedent has evolved in public attitudes to the body politic.

No one really needs the evidence of polls. You need only fall into conversation in a pub or a dinner table to discern it. Disdain, outright anger or more likely an unwillingness to engage are the likely reactions to an invitation to discuss federal politics. Even a sense of humour, that fall-back that is a form of forgiveness, has all but disappeared.

Something has broken. Call it trust. Call it respect. Both, to be worth the name, require reciprocity: two-way conversation.

No prime minister or opposition leader can sit down for a face-to-face chat with all 23 million Australians, of course, and few enough voters will get to meet personally the nation's political leaders.

The various media - TV, radio, newspapers, websites, social media vehicles and the rest - have come to serve the purpose of relaying the exchange.

Here, we might muse, is where the disconnection is at its most stark. There is ample evidence that large slices of the public don't trust their traditional media, either.

Yet if there is to be a serious form of engagement between politicians and public, it must breach the gulf through the conduit at hand.

Problem is, political leaders - particularly the hard-pressed prime minister - have become afraid of their own shadows. With Parliament so precariously balanced and an election approaching, neither government nor opposition can afford to put a step wrong.

The leaders, by and large, hide behind press secretaries and spin doctors and appear in person only at lecterns and the parliamentary dispatch box. The personal touch, the ability or willingness to reveal something of themselves and their hearts, is missing.

It wasn't always quite this way.

There was a time, right up to John Howard's administration, when leaders took the media into their confidence, face to face, knowing some of those confidences would seep to the wider public, building at least the potential for reflected trust and understanding.

Senior journalists flew around the world on the same plane as prime ministers like Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and, for a time, Howard, before he pensioned off the big old VIP planes and replaced them with jets too small to accommodate journalists.

As the hours went by, those former leaders tended to wander to the media cabin for long chats. Their thoughts and fears and boasts found their way into feature articles and informed the prognostications of columnists and commentators. It humanised those politicians and, in turn, the public was informed at a deeper level than is possible now.

If Paul Keating, for instance, had pulled off the sort of coup that Julia Gillard achieved in China recently, securing a joint currency deal and annual leader-to-leader meetings, you could be sure that by the time his plane had arrived in Australia, he would have sold it in detail as an accomplishment worthy of weeks of scrutiny and celebration.

Gillard hardly managed to sell for a day her execution of an agreement for which most Western world leaders would have given their eye teeth. Having explained it in no more than a press conference and a media release before boarding her media-free plane home, the matter faded from media and public consciousness with astonishing swiftness.

Former prime ministers had other ways, too, to reveal themselves to communicators. The media found themselves invited from time to time around to The Lodge for a fireside chat. The prime minister of the time might serve up a roast, stir the fire in the grate and both offer his thoughts and mine the views of his guests. It was rarely too cosy - neither leader nor journalist would let down their guard too far, but it was a form of communication now all but lost.

Hawke added a bit to the equation, playing billiards 'til dawn at The Lodge with guests from the media. It worked, for he was granted admiration for being a larrikin. Keating had a more direct approach. If he found fault with a media report, he'd pick up the phone and personally grant a free character assessment of the journalist involved, often ending these white-hot episodes by offering a long explanation of a policy in a way no spin doctor could achieve. There was a grudging respect for a prime minister who wouldn't dilute his anger through a press secretary.

Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, as it happens, have the ability to be personally engaging, human and even fun. Their minders - particularly those of the Prime Minister - rarely allow more than a chink of that humanity to shine through. The result is they often seem not much more than programmed talking machines.

When things go awry, machines can be discarded without remorse.

Just like chip wrappings.

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