Parachuting pollies into safe seats fuels political cynicism
16th September 2021

There are no rules preventing MPs living outside their electorates, but when political parties choose to parachute an outsider into a seat without any links to the people who live there, it risks sending a very dangerous message to the local community.

The debate about whether such distances matter has reared its ugly head again after the NSW Labor Party agreed to ​​plop one of its federal senators, Kristina Keneally, into the lower house seat of Fowler in Sydney's southwest at the next election.

Labor Senator Kristina Keneally.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The only problem is, Keneally who previously served as NSW premier, lives about 45km away in a multimillion-dollar home on Scotland Island, on Sydney’s northern beaches accessible only by boat. Half her luck.

From a cultural and socioeconomic perspective, this is akin to the Victorian Labor Party selecting a candidate from Brighton to stand in Dandenong or St Albans.

It could be argued, as Labor leader Anthony Albanese valiantly attempted to do, that Las Vegas-born Keneally is an example of a migrant “success story” and therefore understands the struggles of the many migrants who live in the electorate, such as the 15 per cent of residents who are of Vietnamese descent.

She is also a woman, and lord knows we need more of them in Canberra.

But parachuting her into a seat not only denies local Vietnamese-Australia lawyer Tu Le the chance to represent the seat, it sends a message that Labor was unable to find a candidate as capable as Keneally among the 107,000 voters who call the diverse battler suburbs of Cabramatta, Liverpool or Fairfield home.

But let’s not pretend this is just a problem in federal politics. The Victorian Parliament is also filled with MPs who can't quite bring themselves to live among the people they are meant to represent.

This is not a problem that exists purely within the Labor Party but it’s undeniable that the Liberal Party’s preselection process gives more power to local members to choose their candidates than Labor’s process where there is a greater emphasis on factional control meaning outsiders face fewer obstacles.

Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas is often cited as an example given he lives in Williamstown, about 20km away from Werribee where he regularly asks voters to re-elect him every four years. But at least he settled on the same side of the city as his electorate. So too, Energy and Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio who calls Brunswick home but represents the good folk of Mill Park, about 17km northeast.

Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas. Credit:Paul Jeffers

But it becomes a little more difficult to argue that Disability Minister Luke Donnellan’s home base in Fitzroy North is reflective of the south-eastern electorate of Narre Warren North where he is the local member. So too Jobs Minister Martin Pakula who is the member for Keysborough but lives in the idyllic bayside suburb of Black Rock.

Then there is the upper house member for Eastern Victoria Jane Garrett who calls Carlton home and former ‘Broady Boy’ Frank McGuire (Eddie’s brother) who hasn’t called Broadmeadows home for a long time.

It can be argued that failing to live in the community you represent doesn’t stop MPs from championing issues that matter to their constituents. But sending outsiders in sends a message to the community that perhaps there are no locals of comparable talent to make it into politics.

Lawyer Tu Le, who had been the successor favoured by Fowler’s incumbent MP, Chris Hayes.

That was the argument made by former Labor prime minister Paul Keating who this week said: “Local candidates may be genuine and well-meaning, but they would take years to scramble to her [Keneally’s] level of executive ability, if they can ever get there at all.”

Such an elitist argument will prevent hard-working and passionate candidates from putting themselves forward for public office.

And this leads to another problem; the professionalisation of politics.

Parliaments aren’t like any other private businesses. The boss, being the prime minister or the premier, can’t fire MPs who speak out or step out of line in the same way they sack an employee. Instead, the voters send them MPs who we believe best represents our community, and they speak on our behalf.

At times this system is frustrating, but it ensures a wider range of voices are heard. Allowing parties to parachute slick careerists politicians into winnable seats will likely leave us with a generation of politicians more interested in gaining and retaining power than achieving outcomes for their local communities.

Much of the public's cynicism about the state of modern politics is driven by the fact the public don’t feel their MPs in Parliament represent them or their communities. If parties continue to parachute outsiders into winnable seats it will reinforce the message that passionate locals shouldn’t be bothered fighting for their areas, especially those that lack clout or capital.

Annika Smethurst is state political editor.

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