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Life after politics

15 November 2009 1,764 views No Comment

THERE has to be a political afterlife that is acceptable to the people of Australia.

Given our national antipathy toward ex-ministers taking corporate jobs while drawing a pension, we must find a better way to put their experience to good use, says Ross Fitzgerald.

For years I have been observing the public debate over what politicians should do after they leave or are defeated in parliamentary politics, and I know there is no perfect answer. Some ex-pollies stay in the political game, others set out to make money as consultants and corporate board members, while others remain in public service by taking overseas posts.

Australia’s cultural norm is anti-politician, and is therefore strongly opposed to politicians sitting on large pensions in retirement and being appointed to government or corporate boards.

It has now been two years since the defeat of the Howard government and the retirement undefeated of three of the countries most successful state Premiers : Bob Carr of NSW, Peter Beattie of Queensland and Steve Bracks of Victoria.

Following the recent appointment by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of former Treasurer Peter Costello to the board of the Future Fund, and the strong criticism of that decision by former PM Paul Keating, it is worth examining the different courses taken by some of these high-profile players to see if there is an acceptable course.

First, former PM John Howard has been travelling, making speeches, receiving appropriate international acknowledgements. Last week he branded Kevin Rudd and his Cabinet a ‘do nothing’ government. This is in the tradition of former PMs Paul Keating and to a lesser extent Bob Hawke of remaining in the public debate.

Considering the parliamentary pension and entitlements of former prime ministers, this is an easy post-political life for them to pursue, but is a waste of the experience and standing. Australians would prefer to put them to work.

However, as the Mark Latham-inspired superannuation changes work their way through the system and the parliamentary pension returns to roughly community standards, it will be more difficult for politicians without personal private wealth like Kevin Rudd to follow this option. Future failed opposition Leaders like Mark Latham will not be entitled to Rudd’s superannuation entitlements.

When Rudd appointed Peter Costello to the board of the Future Fund, there was the predictable public debate. In a nation of 22 million people, we have to use the talent we have in Australia and overseas.

The Costello appointment may not have been universally applauded, but it was a common sense decision because his experience will benefit the Fund and Australians whether they approved or not.

The same can be said of the appointment of Kim Beazley to the role of Australia’s ambassador to the US, a position he takes up next year. As a former Deputy Prime Minister and a keen student of American politics, he will be warmly welcomed by the Americans and will have clout in Washington in a way a career diplomat would not. The reason for that is simple. US Administrations are used to the Oval Office appointing ambassadors who are among his favourites and have the ear of the President. Kim Beazley is perceived to have the ear of our PM, and will be taken more seriously. That is how the Americans operate.

On the other hand, Rudd’s appointment of Brendan Nelson to be Australia’s newest ambassador to the European Union is more questionable. It may have been a smart, short-term political move, but Nelson’s ministerial experience does not give him the ear of the current Prime Minister or a status that would open any more doors than a career diplomat. A career diplomat would have been a much better choice.

On the undefeated Premiers, three-time election winners Bob Carr and Steve Bracks have in effect gone into the private sector and become corporate consultants. Like former PMs, both have access to publicly funded offices and support and both have superannuation entitlements. They have set out to make a buck on the back of their political experience.

Four-time election winner Peter Beattie was prevented from accepting board appointments for two years by the Queensland post- Fitzgerald system, and instead accepted a position in the US as the Queensland government’s Trade Commissioner. From time to time he has written in The Australian about developing energy trends in the US.

Unlike the Americans, we do not tend to use our past politicians for the public good. Surely John Howard should have used Bob Hawke or Paul Keating in our relations with Indonesia over the struggle for independence in East Timor. And surely Kevin Rudd could have most effectively used Paul Keating and Bob Hawke in Australia’s recent spat with China.

When Rudd finds a useful role for John Howard in international relations, then he will be treated kindly by history for using the nation’s talents effectively.

While Steve Bracks reported on the car industry for the Rudd government, Rudd has generally been reluctant to use the talents of Howard, Carr, Beattie and Bracks for the benefit of the country. All have standing and respect in the community. Beattie and Bracks retired in their early fifties, and Carr in his late fifties. They are, after all, on lifetime parliamentary pensions.

There will never be a consensus on what senior politicians should do in retirement, but we need to make better use of their experience and knowledge for the public good.

Why not put them to work for Australia and pay them expenses only? Now that is something most if not all Australians would support.

SPECTATOR AUSTRALIA 14 November 2009