Ten reasons you shouldn't go into politics

Date: September 28 2005

Politics is a nest of vipers. Don't even think about going there, warns Mark Latham.

I'm sure there are some young idealistic people interested in running for Parliament. I have to say to you, as frankly and sincerely as I can, don't do it.

The system is fundamentally sick and broken, and there are other more productive and satisfying ways in which you can contribute to society. Let me give you 10 good reasons why you should do something else.

No. 1: Public apathy. There was a time when politics was treated as an honoured profession, but that time has now passed. After decades of ridicule in the media and shameful opportunism and cynicism on both sides of politics, most people now treat politicians with contempt. Public apathy has hollowed out our democracy and handed power to a small clique of party machine men. In the Labor Party, for example, active party membership (as opposed to ethnic branch stacking) has collapsed. It became a virtual party, ripe for takeover by the factional chiefs and machine men.

This is the state of modern Labor. I estimate that it has no more than 7500 real members nationwide. And the Liberal and National parties are worse off.

No. 2: Loss of privacy. Politics is now regarded as just another form of entertainment, ripe for ridicule and prying into politicians' private lives. We have gone down the American path in ending the distinction between public and private, looking at politics through the prism of fame and celebrity.

The media feed this habit because it sustains their profits. They try to legitimise it through "the public's right to know" but in practice, they could not survive financially without fostering society's voyeurism.

No. 3: The crippling impact on family. As former Howard Government minister Warwick Smith said to me: every day you spend away from your children is a day you never get back. And in politics, you spend far too many days away from your children. Leaving Parliament behind has been liberating for my health and my family.

No. 4: Rise of machine politics. A recurring theme in my diaries is the corrosive impact of machine politics on the ALP. This is a key point for young people to understand.

As Labor's real membership declined, it was relatively easy for a handful of factional power-brokers to grab hold of the party in the 1980s. A few dozen party officials and faction bosses now effectively control the organisation.You need to be brave and carefree to stand up to them, breaking the code of silence by which machine politics operates. Many senior Labor people privately agree with my analysis of the party, but are too scared to speak openly for fear of retribution.

No. 5: Politics of personal destruction (Labor-style). As the factions have taken control of the ALP, they have perverted its political methods. Dissidents and independent thinkers have been systematically attacked and marginalised by party bosses. Personal matters are seen as fair game and are frequently used to hound the vulnerable into submission.

In practice, the politics of personal destruction, in all its sickness and perversion, is now a regular part of the Canberra culture.

No. 6: Politics of personal destruction (Liberal-style). The John Brogden tragedy has shown that the culture on the other side of politics is just as bad. The political class in this country is narrowing into two types of characters: the flint-hearted machine men who are happy to do whatever it takes, and the freaks and weirdos of the religious right, with their sexual hang-ups and policy obsessions. This is happening on both sides of politics.

No. 7: Entrenched conservatism of Australian politics. These trends are making the work environment of Australian politics incredibly conservative. The power blocs of modern politics - the party machines, commercial media and business establishment - try to foster this one-dimensional approach. They like their politicians to be cautious, predictable and easily brought under control.

No. 8: Arrogance and incompetence of the media. Anyone going into politics has to deal with an extraordinary level of media incompetence - basic errors of fact and misreporting. This is the one industry I know of where the more mistakes people make, the more likely they are to be promoted.

No. 9: Social problems require social solutions. I regard party politics and the media as public manifestations of a bigger, more serious problem - the loss of social capital. Today, the biggest problems in society, the things that cause hardship and distress for people, tend to be relationship-based. They are social issues, not economic. The treadmill of work and the endless accumulation of material goods have not necessarily made people happier. In many cases, this has denied them the time and pleasures of family life, replacing strong and loving social relationships with feelings of stress and alienation.

No. 10: The sane, rational choice. If you are a young, idealistic person, don't get involved in organised politics. Contribute to your community, your neighbourhood, your immediate circle of trust and support. This is the best way forward for a better society.

This is an edited text of a lecture by Mark Latham at Melbourne University last night.