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Daily Media Quotation

Why Ambitious MPs Prefer To Play It Safe

March 31, 2006

by John Warhurst - Canberra Times

A safe seat is one that barring a miracle, only one party has a chance of winning. A marginal seat, on the other hand, is one that is held by such a slender margin (less than 5 per cent) that the opposition has a good chance of defeating the sitting member.

After the 2004 federal election the Australian Electoral Commission calculated the 20 most marginal seats in the 150-strong House of Representatives (10 Liberal and 10 Labor). They all fell within a margin of 2.14 per cent. The 20th most marginal seat was Gary Nairn's seat of Eden-Monaro.

One of the consequences of marginal seats is that the political careers of those that hold them tend to be shorter. On the other hand, long careers are built on a safe seat. Aspirants for higher office know this.

Two of the safer seats, both won outright without resort to preferences in 2004, are Hotham and Kooyong in Melbourne. Simon Crean has just retained Labor pre-selection for Hotham, while Petro Georgiou is in the middle of fighting off a young challenger in Kooyong.

The challenges raise several general questions about political careers. One is how long a career ought to be before an MP passes their use by date? Another is whether safe seats ought to produce, even deserve, a certain sort of political career?

Crean and Georgiou have each had fairly long careers, and each has reached a certain age (sixtyish by the time of the next election in late 2007). Crean, born in February 1949, became member for Hotham in 1990. Georgiou, born in November 1947, became member for Kooyong in 1994. Both have reached the stage where they should demonstrate why they should stay on. Parliamentary life should not be a lifetime career. Some MPs go too early but even more stay on too long. Most MPs do their best work between 40 and 60. Few should enter parliament much before 40 and few should stay much after 60. About 15 years is an ideal length of service.

Crean's challenger argued unsuccessfully that his time was up and that he should go so that Labor ranks could be regenerated. Crean responded that he represented invaluable experience, as he and Beazley are the only remainders from the Keating ministry. As a former party leader Crean deserved to pick his own departure date, within reason, but the argument about experience per se is slender. The best argument for Georgiou's retention is that his advocacy of unpopular causes helps the Liberal Party maintain itself as a broad church rather than a narrow sect.

They both illustrate the safe-seats question in a different way. Crean cannot be faulted on this criterion. He became a minister and a leader. But Georgiou has not. After 12 years he remains a backbencher and has no prospects of promotion. His time has passed, some say because he once refused an offer from John Howard to become a parliamentary secretary.

Safe seats should, by and large, produce ministers and shadow ministers. All the notable political leaders in Australian history have had this type of seat. For this reason the common argument that talented up-and-coming candidates should tackle a marginal seat or even an unwinnable seat for the sake of the party is short-sighted and often hypocritical.

Former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett even suggests that Georgiou's 35-year-old challenger should stand against Crean to earn his stripes in the party. It is an old tradition that young candidates should go around a few times in unwinnable seats, but standing in a marginal seat with the hope of winning and staying there is another thing again.

Marginal seats are no place to build a long-term political career. While it is true that a long era, such as the Howard era, will enable some, such as Gary Nairn, to enter the ministry, he is an exception.

In the Howard era, other promising ministerial careers have been snuffed out by being in a marginal seat. Warwick Smith in Bass, who suffered two defeats, is one case in point. Another is Larry Anthony in Richmond, who was also defeated twice.

There have been other cases in the past decade where leaders have sought the safety of safer seats. Labor's Kim Beazley, for instance, who moved from Swan to Brand in 1996. The Liberals' Michael Wooldridge moved from Chisholm to Casey in 1998.

The general rule is that candidates and MPs with a choice play it safe. In their view it is newcomers who should take risks in marginal seats. When parliament is enlarged, as it was in 1949 and 1984, sitting MPs run for the cover of the safest seat possible; when really logic should dictate that the greater good of the party should mean that inexperienced candidates get the safer seats and some sitting members take the risks.

Sitting MPs should be braver, and parties should be more creative in dealing with the balance between safe and marginal seats and in nurturing parliamentary careers. One possibility is for an experienced MP, close to retirement, serving the party by taking on the task of standing for a marginal seat, while leaving their safe seat to a newcomer. Such courage has never been exhibited to my knowledge.

Another possibility is for senior MPs, such as Crean and Georgiou, to be placed in the Senate, from where their experience and particular contributions can be utilised. Their House seats can then be used for rebuilding the party. Whatever happens, one more term should see both of them out.


John Warhurst is Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.


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