Oz Blog News Commentary

The value of Andrew Charlton

March 27, 2022 - 19:42 -- Admin

Andrew Charlton, an economist, is apparently to become the Labor candidate for Parramatta. There is an open question about the potential value that he offers to the electorate, to the parliament, to the party and the nation. Questions of value and marginal cost/benefit should be standard for an economist, and political analysis has a lot of tu quoque assessments, so let's apply these to Charlton himself.

Let's also apply them to the journosphere, which seems solidly convinced that Charlton can help improve the ways we are governed without really thinking through the questions to which Charlton might offer an answer. That thinking is a major part of their value proposition, and as ever they are shirking it.

Have a go, get a goFrom 1996 to 2004 the Federal MP for Parramatta was Ross Cameron. He was (and probably still is) personable and clever. By 2003-04 he was a junior minister in the Howard government, despite having employed both John Ruddick and Alex Hawke in his office. The increasingly frequent media profiles on him suggested Cameron was going places, a man with as bright a future as other junior ministers like Joe Hockey or Peter Dutton. Cameron would have been a cabinet minister in the Abbott government had the 'momentum' evident in those profiles continued.

Cameron was shaping up for a fourth term in 2004. He was well-connected in the community and a gun fundraiser. Beyond Parramatta, he was highly regarded in the Liberal Party as a rising star, and his links to conservative movements gave him supporters and funds not available to standard Liberal candidates.

Labor had to win Parramatta to take government in 2004. It had changed leaders twice in the previous three years. The NSW Liberals had spent their entire existence trying to crack western Sydney, and now seemed on the verge of doing so: Cameron, and other Liberals in seats like Macarthur and Lindsay seemed to be making this long-held, long-term ambition real. In the face of this historic challenge, Labor's big dogs in Parramatta baulked: then State MP David Borger and long-serving Parramatta Councillor Pierre Esber declined to run for ALP preselection, as though their time would come eventually.

Eventually, Labor preselected Julie Owens, another Parramatta councillor but with no public profile beyond the community. She had worked as a musician and in arts administration. She had been the ALP candidate for the safe Liberal seat of North Sydney (against Hockey) in 1996 - but so what? The mail on Owens (insofar as there was any) was that Cameron would beat her soundly.

Parliament is full of imperfect humans, so when the press gallery actually decided to finger Cameron as a root-rat it was a major surprise for both politics and the media. The voters of Parramatta were better informed than they had been before or since: the then Mrs Cameron had been active in the community, and was pregnant with his child. Owens was one of the few Labor candidates to beat a sitting Coalition MP, let alone one with as high a profile (for good and ill) as Cameron had, and despite the encumbrance of western Sydney's own Mark Latham as her leader.

Say what you will about Charlton: he isn't prepared to stick his neck out like Owens did, is he? The Liberals have won Parramatta at state level and may yet select a candidate who won't be carried to Canberra on a sedan chair as Charlton would have Labor do: they could well win Parramatta against the general trend as Owens did in 2004. Maybe he just doesn't have her guts or tenacity, assuming these are qualities needed in federal politics.

The profiles talking up Charlton contrast his crackling potential with that of time-servers generally (not mentioning Owens by name). They don't really demonstrate why Charlton would be a better choice than someone local, as though the would-be candidates for Labor preselection couldn't do everything Owens had, everything Charlton might.

The drop-inThe Liberals have a stronger record with drop-in candidates than Labor does. Garfield Barwick QC was member for Parramatta from 1958 to 1964, and was Attorney General and Foreign Minister. William McMahon represented the inner-west electorate of Lowe from Kings Cross and Bellevue Hill, and was one of the longest-serving MPs ever (and Prime Minister). Daryl Williams, Malcolm Turnbull and Brendan Nelson are other examples of people who built a profile outside the Liberal Party before assuming high office within it. For those who know, like, and believe in Charlton, look at Maxine McKew, Cheryl Kernot and Peter Garrett, and think again.

Parramatta is full of people who weren't born there (69.6% of the electorate's voters in 2016 apparently had both parents born overseas) and it would be easier to embrace this newcomer if he could demonstrate some of the slow boring through hard boards that other Labor preselection candidates could.

Like Charlton, Josh Frydenberg has qualifications in economics and worked in the Prime Minister's Office (Howard's). Do you think he has lived up to his promise, or that his best is ahead of him? Are you convinced that Frydenberg is using his economics brilliance to the benefit of most Australians and the country at large? Can you understand why those of us, we many millions, who know Andrew Charlton less well than you do, might be sceptical? How might we assuage our doubts?

The big debatesSince Charlton left Rudd's office as economic advisor:

  • Wages have stagnated;
  • Public and private debt has ballooned, with little productive infrastructure to show for it;
  • Carbon pricing has been abandoned and the government's abatement measures have seen emissions rise, not fall;
  • Climate change has made particular communities uninsurable, and possibly unsustainable, in ways that had only been talked about by people not particularly focused on the economy;
  • Requirements to work from home during COVID-19 have changed the value proposition of commercial real estate; and
  • The economy has transformed in many different ways, broadly and in terms of the ways it affects people's lives (in Parramatta and elsewere).

It isn't true that Charlton has made no contribution whatsoever to these debates. He has written a few articles in the Nine mastheads and made a few appearances in traditional media that don't seem to stick in the mind.

Those of us who have not participated in economic debates within the Prime Minister's Office should have more of the benefit of Andrew Charlton's thinking about these matters than we do. I don't doubt Charlton makes a real impact behind closed doors, but it's incumbent on journalists to tell us what those were in detail (and no, nobody is obliged to accept your assurance that every contribution Charlton made was solid gold).

Federal politics isn't all economic policy, of course, and I'm sure people who know Andrew Charlton would agree there's more to him than that. If he has any close friends or relatives who are Indigenous, rape victims, or transsexual, their travails and the impact(s) on Andrew is well hidden from us. David Pocock has been more open about that stuff, and he only wants a seat in the Senate outside the major parties - nobody in that position gets invited to the PMO for cocktails, let alone to shape economic policy.

How would anyone know what policy outcomes were a personal triumph for Andrew Charlton? What policy outcomes might be considered a compromise (and does our boy cope well with getting less than what he'd hoped?)? How would we know if he were publicly fucked and burnt: does he do furniture-tossing rage, or does he retire to his chamber for days like one of the more insipid characters in a Brontë sisters novel (or Scott Morrison)? None of this is obvious, and I read widely and in detail about Australian politics. People who have worked their way up to the peak of politics through the local council, organising union workers, or sharpening the chamber of commerce to forcing local by-law changes, have worked this stuff out long before two months before election day.

We need politicians of Andrew Charlton’s calibreWhen Chris Wallace declaims "we need politicians of Andrew Charlton’s calibre", I am not sure who she means by 'we', or for what purpose. I realise nobody is suggesting Charlton become PM straight away, but let's apply a number of tests to see whether he has the goods:

1. Can he do the substance and theatre of politics?

Substance? Possibly. Theatre? No evidence so far. I don't mean in the press gallery sense of having him eat a pie or wear a funny hat - hell, Steven Marshall could do that stuff - I mean he needs to show us that he won't get tripped up or fluff his lines like an old hand wouldn't.

2. Can he bring voters along with him into key portfolios?

Dunno, can he? Any examples would be appreciated.

3. Can he create policy winners, not losers?

And if so, who would they be?

4. Can he get excellent polling, focused on the primary vote?

Dunno, can he? Having relied on ALP head office for his preselection, why wouldn't he rely on them for that too?

5. Can he make regional variations work for him, not against him?

The northern part of the Parramatta electorate is different in ways not detectable from Bellevue Hill. How exactly? See 4 above, maybe ALP branch members can help you. Good luck with that.

6. Can he negotiate better relationships with opponents on the same side of politics?

Who might they be? If he doesn't have the weight of the PM's office behind him, how might he go in persuading [one of the dimmer ALP frontbenchers] to do something they weren't inclined to do? What about one of Labor's more senior frontbenchers, someone who was a minister under Rudd, would they just fall about in the face of Charlton's sheer brilliance?

7. Can he neutralise hostile media and befriend unbiased journalists?

What hostile media? The journosphere is unanimous about how keenly our country needs him. If you ask them, all journalists are unbiased. This question answers itself, no?

8. Can he do brilliant cut-through ads?

No evidence either way.

9. Can he be social?

Hard to disagree that "[s]ocial media is the great unrealised upside of Australian politics waiting to be deployed for good". Even people who like Andrew Charlton would have to agree that his general excellence does not extend to mastery of social media.

10. Does he know that every election is winnable?

Does he?

Wallace makes an impassioned case for Charlton but undermines it with the idea that he could do a job that doesn't require election to parliament. In this sense Charlton may be like Whitlam staffer Jim Spigelman or Hawke staffer Bob Sorby, who both became judges - able to exercise power over us without having to explain to us why.

The Liberals and Nationals are under siege from independent movements who choose better candidates than they do. Throughout Wallace's artice is the tone that party head office has a higher understanding than the rank-and-file about what's best for them, and for the country. Labor in Hunter, the Liberals in Hughes, and the Nationals destroying the once-formidable CLP in the Northern Territory show that captain's picks and party head office can do mediocrity every bit as well as the rank-and-file. When the evidence goes against the imprecations of the journosphere, you have to go with the evidence - even if it puts the journos' noses out of joint, even though it diminishes political journalists and academcs as authorities on what they've spent years covering (up).

Should Andrew Charlton win Parramatta? This isn't a question of whether he could win. He may pull out some political skills that have gone unremarked upon by the journosphere so far. For all I know, he's a regular Ferris Bueller:

I know that the journosphere thinks this. I just don't know why, or what the alternatives are.

It isn't the journosphere's job to impose undemocratic choices on party members, voters and newspaper readers. If you want to persuade us that Andrew Charlton - or anyone really - should be in our parliament and government, then it's on you to explain why you think that and to engage with those who are either undecided, or who take a different view. It's boring to watch political novices trip over themselves and I don't have to vote for them. You don't get to complain about the quality of public debate when you won't participate in that debate, let alone offer leadership.