More featuring Robert Haupt»

For several weeks Robert Haupt wrote the holidaying Mungo MacCallum’s Sun-Herald “Capital Capers” column; a few work well together today:
1. What should politicians be paid and why? (July 19, 1981)
2. A capital fit for big egos (August 2, 1981)
3. In Canberra there is much less than meets the eye (August 9, 1981)

***
1.
Robert Haupt, “Capital Capers” column,
The Sun-Herald, July 19, 1981, p. 156.

Robert Dole, one-armed heir to a pineapple fortune, once asked why he was seeking to become Vice-President of the US, replied: “Well, it’s indoor work, no heavy lifting.”

The American voters did not give Senator Dole a chance to find out.

He returned to the obscurity of the Senate (a legislative chamber which, thanks to Senator Dole and the Hawaiian war hero Senator Daniel Inouye boasts 100 men, but only 198 arms).

His description of the duties of The Man Who Is A Heartbeat Away From The Most Powerful Man On Earth springs to mind during the flap over Australian political salaries.

What is a politician worth?

Grape pickers have no such doubts: by and large, they are worth as many grapes as they can pick. The fellow who rolls beer barrels down the wooden slide into pub cellars is, with a little assistance from the Beer Barrel Rollers Union, worth broadly what he contributes to the happiness and good order of society through barrels rolled.

Closer to home, even an editor discovers his or her worth in the marketplace, when people buy, or don’t buy, publications such as The Age Monthly Review (on sale now at city and selected suburban newsagencies, price 30 cents).

No such measurements exist for the men and women who fill the Canberra air with their voices.

As a radio show, Parliament is a ratings disaster; on television, it would be worse.

True, politicians don’t come to Canberra to entertain the locals.

Despite appearances, the proceedings of the House of Representatives are not a remake of Dad ‘n Dave; the Senate is not scripted by Gwen Meredith. So why do the politicians come to Canberra girls and boys?

That’s right, to govern us.

There is no accepted measurement of good government, but J. K. Galbraith, the American economics writer and wit, got close to one when he proposed that the salaries of public officials be calculated thus: $5,000 for every point by which inflation or unemployment is cut, zero if they stay the same, and a fine if they rise.

Looking back over the past 10 years — seven Liberal, three Labor — who would say we have had more sunlight than shadow?

If they are unable to convince us they have worked well, politicians fall back on saying that at least they have worked hard.

The relevant thing is that there are plenty of people, on both sides of politics, itching to get their backsides on to the parliamentary benches, pay rise or not.

It is said that higher pay attracts a better class of candidate, but where is the evidence?

A great lament goes up every now and again at how few business people go into Parliament.

The explanation for this is simple, and it has little to do with pay.

Business people — from ma and pa in their corner shop to Sir Roderick Carnegie in his — are doers, not talkers.

Lawyers are talkers, and that’s why Parliament is full of them.

***
2.
Robert Haupt, “Capital Capers” column,
The Sun-Herald, August 2, 1981, p. 164.

Enough time has elapsed for me to tell the secret story of what can happen when men of stature get together at an international summit meeting.

It happened in 1973 at Mont Tremblant, Pierre Trudeau’s holiday hideaway near Ottawa, in Canada.

All the Commonwealth leaders turned up for the summit — except Idi Amin who, having achieved power in a coup when his predecessor attended the last Commonwealth meeting, prudently decided to stay home.

After a relaxing weekend, the leaders came to the airstrip to be ferried back to Ottawa in smallish planes.

Naturally enough, neighbours formed groups, and so it came that into one place bundled the leaders of our region.

There was the late Norman Kirk of New Zealand, a former enginedriver, a ponderous man with powerful arms and shoulders; Gough Whitlam, 1.96cm tall and big with it; Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara of Fiji, who amply fulfils the South Sea tradition of having a bit of bulk in their leaders; and the King of Tonga, the heaviest of them all.

As they walked down to the back of the plane to have a good chat, the aircraft, to everyone’s astonishment, tilted back on its tail under the weight.

I am somehow reminded of this story by the tremendous explosions which have shaken Canberra regularly as the politicians dig themselves in on Capital Hill — their choice for a new home.

For it shows that when big men gather — even from the most innocent of motives — mayhem can result.

Or as the Asian saying has it, “When the elephants make love, it is the grass that gets flattened.”

It is not the size of the politician which accounts for all the blasting and digging in Canberra, it is the size of the politician’s ego.

The early buildings of Canberra — Parliament House and the Hotel Canberra, above all — were open buildings with courtyards, colonnades, many entrances and open spaces.

The later buildings — like the High Court — are fortresses.

I am willing to be persuaded that the new Parliament House won’t be a fortress, but two signs worry me.

One is the statement by the Minister for the Capital Territory, Mr Hodgman, that the protestors outside Parliament House have had a “fair go” and should move on.

Mr Hodgman might be right — probably the lawns do need top-dressing before spring if Parliament House is to look a picture — but you wonder whether the politicians aren’t getting a bit carried away with their own importance.

This sign looks most menacing when you look at the greatest change in the parliamentary atmosphere over the past 20 years: the recent intrusion of security.

I would propose that our parliamentarians follow the lead of the US Congress. You don’t need a pass to call on your Congressman at his office — just an airport-type security check.

Yet America has had plenty of political assassins, Australia has had none.

***
3.
Robert Haupt, “Capital Capers” column,
The Sun-Herald, August 9, 1981, p. 148.

There is a wise and cynical saying that it doesn’t matter who you elect to Parliament because he always turns out to be a politician.

The truth of this is widely known. A fellow who used to be a knockabout sort of a bloke becomes — the moment his seat hits the green or red benches in Canberra — an orator.

He starts waving his hands around and says things like “at this point in time” and “in respect of.”

People see through this act, and conclude that anyone who says, “at this point in time” instead of “now,” and “my honourable and learned friend” when he means “you” (and “I address myself to my honourable and learned colleague” when he means, “hey, you”) has fallen casualty to the politician’s disease, mouth-over-mind.

It is the overblown language — and the bad acting which goes with it, especially the synthetic age — which gives Parliament a bad name.

You hear someone in full pitch and imagine it is Cicero addressing the Roman Senate, or at least Edmund Burke in the House of Commons defending the American revolutionaries.

And the great wall of rhetoric turns out to be a contribution to public enlightenment on the Poultry Act, contributed by the Member for Somewhere Flat and Uninteresting.

Because of this, people are bored and distrustful of politics. Why shouldn’t they be?

There is a conspiracy of academics, politicians and some journalists to persuade us otherwise. We are told that we should be more interested in politics — that apathy is bad.

But a bad film doesn’t draw people to the box office. Why should bad acting in Parliament interest us?

This difference between the way politicians think we should think of them and the way we really do think of them gives rise to an important, and much-ignored, truth.

It is that the ordinary person has a far better grasp of what is going on in Canberra than most politicians have. Why? Because the ordinary person knows that in Canberra there is much less than meets the eye.

Just look at recent events. The Labor Party detracts from the smooth running of an international hotel in Melbourne in order to decide whether it is theoretically in favour of a strange and ancient beast called, “the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”

Malcolm Fraser goes overseas to see whether a discussion of ways to eliminate poverty in the world ought to outweigh a discussion over ways to eliminate racial hatred at a conference which will tie up just about every major hotel in Melbourne later this year.

Then Mr Fraser dashes home to call a conference to see whether there is a way to stop workers asking for more pay.

Who in their right mind would imagine that these events had much to do with the real world? Of course they don’t.