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The Professionalisation of Australian Politics

Nick Bryant | 02:28 UK time, Wednesday, 5 May 2010

In search of a quote the other day, I rang up a contact who can normally be relied upon to deliver a near perfect sound-bite, with the requisite servings of knowledge, erudition and controversy. Alas, this time he could not help, because he is hoping to win pre-selection as a parliamentary candidate and thought it better to refrain from public comment.

The conversation then turned to his prospects for being chosen as the candidate to fight the seat, which he did not think were good. The problem, he confided, was that he is not a professional politician, and he would be handicapped by having conducted most of his adult life outside of the realm of politics.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Julia GillardThe professionalisation of politics is much in the news, both here in Australia and at home in Britain: this modern-day tendency for public life to be dominated by those who have essentially lived a political life.

Australia throws up numerous examples. Kevin Rudd spent seven years as a career diplomat, but has been directly involved in politics for 22 years, having started out as the chief of staff for the then opposition leader in Queensland in 1988. His deputy, Julia Gillard, started out as a lawyer, but also left to become the chief of staff for the then opposition leader in Victoria. After turning his back on the priesthood, Tony Abbott worked for a time as a journalist before becoming the press secretary to the then Liberal leader, John Hewson. He has remained in politics pretty much ever since.

This trio is presently dominating Australian politics, and in a neat piece of political asymmetry, two well-known figures who boasted high-profile outside careers before entering politics have seen their political fortunes dip. The former opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, a highly remunerated former lawyer and businessman, recently announced he was stepping down at the next election, only to reverse himself a few weeks later. Then, there is the little-seen environment minister Peter Garrett, the former lead singer of Midnight Oil, who has been sidelined following the home insulation mess.

A few weeks back, the former Treasurer, Peter Costello, weighed into the debate by arguing that it pays to get into professional politics early, a jibe at Malcolm Turnbull, whose skills set appeared to malfunction in Canberra. "I do not think a person's pre-parliamentary career counts one way or another," said Costello. "But I do think that to be successful in politics a person needs to pick it up early." That would appear to disqualify people who want to see their careers come to fruition before considering entering politics.

"A successful businessman has likely spent a long part of his working life outside politics," said Mr Costello. "It's harder to adjust to parliamentary life at 50 than it is at 30. The number of people who enter politics later - from whatever occupation - and go on to have successful careers as senior ministers is tiny."

The alternative view, of course, is that the political late-bloomers bring with them a wealth of experience and expertise. And perhaps they are not so prone to become as narrowly and destructively partisan as professional politicians, for whom politics infuses everything.

As in Britain and America, Australian politics now has the feel and urgency of a permanent campaign, a battle for favourable headlines the next day rather than a battle of ideas which shape the long-term future. Many believe this is a by-product of the proliferation of political professionals, who know little else but politics.

Of course, career politicians are hardly new on the scene. As the veteran Canberra watcher Mungo MacCullum recently observed in The Monthly, the three Prime Ministers who have dominated the past three decades, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard, all started young. He also notes: "In the past 20 years alone, the Liberal Party has embraced John Hewson and Malcolm Turnbull, both outstanding figures in the commercial world, both political disasters."

But would not Australia's increasingly professional political class occasionally benefit from the addition of a few talented amateurs?


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  • 1. At 04:18am on 05 May 2010, Euloroo wrote:

    The "professionalism" of a politician seems to be defined by how saccharine their presentation is, rather than its substance. Cameron and Rudd are classic examples of the former. Brown and Abbott are not.

    To bang the drum, western media outlets are primarily responsible for creating this vacuous situation. But in the sober words of Enoch Powell, "For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship's captain complaining about the sea".

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  • 2. At 05:10am on 05 May 2010, david wrote:

    As Mungo pointed out, Hawke, Keating and Howard were "professional" pollies, and all were strong decisive PMs. I think it's leadership that really counts. It's not easy to define but we all know it when we see it. While I never vote Liberal, I have to admit that Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey seem to have more of it than anyone on the govt side. I voted for Rudd but I've been calling him Butters (South Park character) for at least a year now. At first my wife thought it was a bit harsh, but now she thinks Butters is more decisive. It's not fun watching Australia being lead by someone who can't finish a sentence without using the term "working families". Surely someone can talk Keating into an encore.

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  • 3. At 05:22am on 05 May 2010, buymespresso wrote:

    One of these days a sensible, pragmatic, and undoubtedly mythical country will place a ban on anyone entering a political career till they are forty and have proved themselves in a different, 'real', career.

    Didn't some ancient societies require their leaders to prove themselves in some other manner first?

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  • 4. At 05:49am on 05 May 2010, cmf wrote:

    It's very true. We could benefit from having broadly experienced candidates and representatives (particularly by encouranging those who have gained their non-political experience outside of the government sector).

    Straight out of student politics and into the real thing appears to bread the most cynical and appallingly partisan outcomes - leading to terrible 'binary politics', where debate only occurs at the extremes with no rational middle ground really ever seriously covered. Of all the countries, I've lived in (eight), my own, Australia, suffers most from this cynical political stagnation.

    We could also benefit from making voting here voluntary rather than it being obligatory. After living in the UK, I imagined that the much higher and more sophisticated level of political debate in the houses and the media there might actually arise from politicians not only having to win a vote cast, but also inspiring one to cast their vote in the first place.

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  • 5. At 06:03am on 05 May 2010, ScipioAustralianus wrote:

    The use of the word professionalisation does cause me some grief, primarily because if there were anything professional about our politicians they would carry professional indemnity insurance and be accountable for their negligence.

    The problem with this process is that it has bred a generation, not just a few, but a generation of people who believe that politics is the value creating activity not what happens in the economy. I think the failure of Hewson and Turnbull reflects this and has more to do with their inability to play politics and survive the jungle of Canberra, than in the value they could have brought to the process of government. Peter Costello is wrong to encourage this simply because we are no better governed now, indeed it could be argued we are poorly governed. No other "profession" would survive with that kind of result.

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  • 6. At 06:11am on 05 May 2010, John_R in Western Australia wrote:

    In Australia the oligarchy rules with the active support of media which constantly praise it and denigrate those from outside the “political class” who seek to enter. Pauline Hanson’s name was almost invariably prefaced with the phrase “former chip shop owner”, a neat way of damning her for daring to presume equality with former lawyers, political researchers, trades union officials, journalists, TV and radio presenters and the like who are never described as such because they are the natural heirs to the oligarchy. (I hold no brief for Hanson’s views, by the way.)

    Until our politicians are drawn from the wider community this will continue and government will continue to become more divorced from the people.

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  • 7. At 07:50am on 05 May 2010, lglethal wrote:

    I strongly agree with number #3 above. There should be a rule that a person must be at least 40 and with significant experience in a non-government industry before they can enter politics.

    Some will argue that this would cause discrimination against those who are under 30 (im one of those myself), but as it stands there are no politicians under 35 in parliament anyway! & the extra experience outside of politics would be invaluable - finally we might get an industry minister with experience in industry or a communications minister who has an understanding of communication technology! I suppose i can dream...

    I would also like to bring in 2 additional rules - a maximum age of 65 in parliament (if the rest of us have to retire at 65 so should the poli's!) and a maximum of 8-12 years of being the leader of a political party. After 8 years in charge of a politicial party i doubt you can still be in touch with the common man on the street, at that point its time for change.

    Just a few ideas...

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  • 8. At 08:24am on 05 May 2010, 11pete11 wrote:

    Politics today is nothing like the Billy Hughes, Ben Chifley days. Without a university degree in politics with an understanding of the media, you don't stand a chance. Most of our politicians have university degrees and most are lawyers or barristers.
    And that is what most 'working' Australians dislike. The system is supposed to allow anyone to run for parliament, but even in the party noted for supporting the 'little person', the ALP, its hard to find anyone who hasn't got a degree of some kind.
    And there is one striking reason for this. Cost involving defamation laws.
    For the average Joe or Josephine to become a parliamentarian, they would have to have almost twice the amount of staff as one who has the legal background necessary to protect themselves against liable suits.
    And the press have never been kind to anyone that doesn't have a 'silver spoon' appearance. Just look at how they treated Pauline Hanson or Barnaby Joyce, neither of whom I have any particular leaning towards.
    As I have said in many of Nick's blog, our system need a huge overhaul, which I admit would cost the taxpayer a huge sum, but without it we will continue to slip into the 'haves and have nots' mentality currently driving our political system.

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  • 9. At 10:52am on 05 May 2010, Will wrote:

    Rudd is plagued by two major problems, neither of which have to do with 'professionalism' or being a 'professional politician.'

    He has a useless supporting cast, with little depth, intelligence or real life experience. Peter Garrett was a rocker (literally) who let Rudd down very badly on simple issues. Swann's money grab from the miners was a poorly calculated attempt to seize upon a perceived public distrust of big business. Garrett is also symptomatic of many in the ALP who have sold out and watered down their beliefs in an attempt to be everything to everyone. Perhaps Rudd's dimplomatic background is a pointer as to why he appears to have no concrete position on any single issue.

    The failing Rudd government has more to do with the fact that it stands for nothing than a lack of professionalism. Whatever people thought of Howard, he was genuinely respected by the majority as you knew exactly where he stood on all the important issues, whether you liked him or not.

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  • 10. At 11:05am on 05 May 2010, Rex Mundi wrote:

    90% of ALP MPs come from one or a combination of a few professional backgrounds - union organisers, public service, teachers, lawyers and, increasingly, journalism. They are the groomed by institutions which have been fully infiltrated by the left wing political class. Coalition MPs generally come from a wider range of backgrounds - most notably small business.

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  • 11. At 11:10am on 05 May 2010, Mick wrote:

    I would certainly like to see a law that requires all would-be politicians to spend at least five years in a real job (and I would exclude law from that, too). While this sounds a like a good idea, in practice many of the politicians in Canberra who have done 'real' jobs are also mediocrities or cranks. I'm thinking Barnaby Joyce (accountant) Steve Fielding (engineer) and Peter Dutton (police) for starters.

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  • 12. At 12:23pm on 05 May 2010, Adam Wadrope wrote:

    It is a sad sign of the times in Australian politics,it has become a staffers club.

    The people who represent the voters have never held down a real job and only know the party line. This goes for both of the major political parties in Australia today.

    Which means ,some very ordinary people get selected to stand for election .

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  • 13. At 1:20pm on 05 May 2010, kilonewton wrote:

    I once harboured ambitions of a career and then at the appropriate juncture, moving into politics. Not now.
    The safe seat that I am registered to vote in has a retiring member and the incumbent party has pre-selected a hack from hundreds of kms away who's been casting around for a seat for years. Local people, doing local jobs, don't seem to get a look in any more.

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  • 14. At 1:47pm on 05 May 2010, ghostofsichuan wrote:

    Politics has become a club and one needs to be sponsored by a party or already elected person. The special interest want to know in advance of positions and the way one may vote before financing a campaign. There is a "group think" in politics that dashes any new apporaches or ideas. The primnary objective is the maintenance of government for the good of government and political friends and to give the public just enough to keep them voting your way. Big business provides the money and expects favorable rules in their favor. For big business it is a candy shop and for the citizen it is the dentist.

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  • 15. At 3:08pm on 05 May 2010, Greg Warner wrote:

    You have to be kidding!
    Take a look at the Liberal Party front bench...lightweight would be being kind.
    Abbott should be a PE teacher and Hockey should be running the local supermarket.
    On the other side...suggest you look past Rudd and focus on one of the great front bench teams in Australian politics for decades...there is REAL depth there.
    As to Howard..."he was genuinely respected by the majority as you knew exactly where he stood on all the important issues, whether you liked him or not".
    I disagree completely...Howard's end was Howard the idea of reality...just one of those "professional" politicians of whom Nick writes who are or become totally out of touch with reality.
    I also disagree with your words which I have quoted above...there are many of us who can not respect people we don't like.
    If you don't like don't respect them.
    Better to be able to like AND respect those we choose to govern us.
    Of course, if we elect our own President, he or she doesn't have to be a professional politician...perhaps this is the answer to the last question Nick asks in his blog.
    A wonderful, inspiring, noble and gifted amateur.
    Thank you Nick for that thought.

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  • 16. At 7:58pm on 05 May 2010, BluesBerry wrote:

    Most of the increasingly professional political world would benefit from the addition of a few talented amateurs.
    But then alas, you would still have plutocracy vs, democracy.
    To become a politicinan takes more than "experience"; it takes money - lots and lots of money.
    So it may be that Abe Lincoln was, and will remain, the last president to be born in a log cabin. Now you must to manor born with silver spoon already protruding from the mouth.

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  • 17. At 11:31pm on 05 May 2010, 11pete11 wrote:

    10 murph73v2 wrote: "Coalition MPs generally come from a wider range of backgrounds - most notably small business."
    Quite the contrary, most Liberal MPs come from the legal profession, particularly the corporate legal areas. Names include Howard, both Bishops, Pine, Turnbull to mention just a few.
    The Nationals certainly have members more associated with small business, and are accused regularly of not know what politics generally is all about.

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  • 18. At 00:10am on 06 May 2010, Robert-Mugabe wrote:


    Were you able to keep a straight face when you came up with this gem?

    On the other side...suggest you look past Rudd and focus on one of the great front bench teams in Australian politics for decades...there is REAL depth there.

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  • 19. At 00:46am on 06 May 2010, Treaclebeak wrote:

    The increasing dominance of professional politicians and their minders is partly a response to the superficial nature of most journalism here in Oz.The political skills required are the application of 'spin' to counter some 'beat up',rather than policy evaluation and presentation. For example, the press has portrayed the arrival of a trickle of refugees as a flood,think of the time and energy our politicians spend trying to extract some leverage from this nasty fear-mongering.'Amateur' politicians are loose cannons in this environment,they could actually express an independent and honest opinion,they might even ignore the 'opinion' polls and tell the public the truth.The major parties can't risk recruiting many amateurs.


    The high percentage of lawyers in Parliament is depressing news indeed,since that profession is process rather than results oriented.

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  • 20. At 00:55am on 06 May 2010, DaveG wrote:

    I think you could equally call this article the 'disassociation of politics'. The current levels of voter apathy are, in part, due to decisions made on short term media and public popularity criteia rather than best option assessment.
    CPRS and any Sydney transport plan in the last 10 years are perfect examples of decisions based on short term votes rather than long term best option for society.
    Professional politicians have a 4 year cycle instilled within them and are adverse to undertaking anything that will not fit into this time scale. As such many major issues and projects are left alone for quick political wins that only patch over the problem at hand.

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  • 21. At 02:59am on 06 May 2010, 11pete11 wrote:

    20 DaveG: Though your comment is suited more to State politics, namely NSW...Federal Elections are held ever three years not do make a very good point.
    I can recall a friend and member of the Democrats espousing the idea that the House of Reps should run similarly to the Senate. That is half the reps go up for election every four years as happens with the Senate.

    That would definitely keep the Government and Opposition on their toes.

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  • 22. At 04:40am on 06 May 2010, Greg Warner wrote:

    Your reply brought a grin Andy...
    Not sure where you come from, but think through all the key portfolios.
    The current Labor front bench is pretty solid, especially if compared with the Libs.
    I know Peter Garrett copped a lot of stick over the Insulation Scheme but if you look beyond him you will find, as I said, some real depth...Gillard and Tanner in particular.
    I'd be interested if you could give your list of Liberal frontbenchers who you find inspiring...or if that is too hard...competent...

    16. BluesBerry:

    Don't forget, Honest Abe was also a lawyer. But you're right about the money.
    My point about an Australian President perhaps being the great and all embracing amateur who the majority of voters could support is that the greatest leaders always find a way of breaking through the barriers that politics impose on electing non-mainstream party individuals.
    There will always be a place in Australia for the "exceptional outsider" to come through.
    Well, hopefully.

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  • 23. At 04:53am on 06 May 2010, Rossco737 wrote:

    The point you have raised is disappointing. Though the ordinary pay levels probably discourage the best and brightest from bothering with Canberra until they have earn't their fortune ala Malcolm.
    What I find more distressing is that Turnbull is disliked by Australians for being rich and successful. Pathetic! Surely it is what we all strive to be.

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  • 24. At 06:56am on 06 May 2010, Smudge wrote:

    As a finishing comment to his Dec 2008 address to graduating engineers at the University of Queensland Campbell Newman, Lord Mayor of Brisbane (and an engineer) made a plea to the graduates that as engineers they should become involved in politics because there were to many lawyers in politics. As an engineer attending my son's graduation I'm proud to say I started to applaud this comment and within seconds the rest of the audience had joined me in rapturous applause. Methinks that says a lot about what we think of our pollies.
    And if I gave you my honest opinion of Messr Rudd & Swann there's no way my comment would even be considered for publication.

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  • 25. At 07:16am on 06 May 2010, Michael wrote:

    2. david wrote:
    As Mungo pointed out, Hawke, Keating and Howard were "professional" pollies, and all were strong decisive PMs. I think it's leadership that really counts.

    To quote Terry Pratchett; "Leadership is about making decisions firmly. If the decisions are correct than that is a happy bonus."

    I agree with the idea that people shouldn't be allowed to enter politics until they have real world experiance. Preferabbly succesful experiance, unless you want a situation of Gearge W Bush having run three copmanies... into the ground.

    I don't know about anyone else, but I have an automatic distrust of anyone who studied politics at univerisity and went straight into politics afterwards.

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  • 26. At 09:26am on 06 May 2010, 11pete11 wrote:

    I note here and in previous blogs of Nick comments concerning competency of the Rudd government, particularly in relation to the Insulation rebate scheme.
    Many of us have said that it wasn't the government at fault but shoddy installers that broke the law.
    Here is the latest on the matter, and no doubt not the last, concerning the slow long arm of the law concerning these individuals who were the real culprits.

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  • 27. At 09:34am on 06 May 2010, Rex Mundi wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 28. At 09:54am on 06 May 2010, Fair_and_Balanced wrote:

    @ Greg Warner: I just wonder if you can tell me why if the Labor frontbench is so talented, why 4 members of some "working families" were killed under Garrett's watch even though the government was forewarned of this possibility and why Julia Gillard and a few others are having inquiries into activities under their watch? And why is industry and the media complaining about the Treasurer being unable to talk about his plans with them? And why does the PM keep clear of bad news? and I could go on...this government is finding out what all governments find out: that it is better to not promise too much and deliver too little.

    The professionalisation of politicians has not really changed that much, but the shortening media cycle has, with pollies having to be more ready for media interviews and a better educated public who are less sympathetic with stuff-ups.

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  • 29. At 10:00am on 06 May 2010, Rex Mundi wrote:

    The Coalition shadow cabinet is extraordinarily top heavy with lawyers (particularly barristers)...

    Abbott = journalist, political hanger on
    Bishop = lawyer
    Truss = farmer
    Minchin = lawyer
    Abetz = lawyer
    Hockey = lawyer
    Pyne = lawyer
    Macfarlane = farmer
    Joyce = accountant
    Brandis = lawyer
    Johnston = lawyer
    Dutton = police officer
    Andrews = lawyer
    Hunt = lawyer
    Scullion = fisherman
    Robb = lecturer
    Cobb = farmer
    Billson = political hanger on
    Smith = political hanger on
    Morrison = tourism
    Mirabella = lawyer
    Ciobo = business consultant
    Hartsuyker = small businessman
    Ley = pilot, farmer
    Stone = farmer
    Keenan = estate agent
    Baldwin = small businessman
    Cormann = lawyer and gardner
    Markus = social worker
    Fierravanti-Wells = lawyer
    Bishop = lawyer
    Ronaldson = lawyer

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  • 30. At 10:04am on 06 May 2010, 11pete11 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 31. At 11:09am on 06 May 2010, Fair_and_Balanced wrote:

    @11pete11: But the government is always responsible for its programs, no matter who is delegated to the task...the professionalisation of government makes it doubly so as professionals are liable for their actions in their respective profession, so the argument of the government being above the fray, so to speak, holds no water. These lawyers and others understand and accept this, but hope to spin it the other way to gain the votes of the gullible. This is standard political practice in the West: keep the ignorant masses happy with weasel-worded promises and change the terms of those promises after you're in!

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  • 32. At 11:51am on 06 May 2010, 11pete11 wrote:

    31 Fair_and_Balanced: I assume you were referring to my post at 26. The question is not whether a government is responsible or not, it is that unscrupulous operators broke the law.
    Its the same with any laws, it is not the fault of the government when individuals break those same laws.

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  • 33. At 11:58am on 06 May 2010, 11pete11 wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 34. At 12:17pm on 06 May 2010, lglethal wrote:

    @29 murph73v2

    Thats an incredibly interesting list! I never realised it was so lawyer orientated!

    Any chance you can do one for Labour as well? It would be interesting to see the comparison!

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  • 35. At 1:49pm on 06 May 2010, Greg Warner wrote:

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

  • 36. At 2:29pm on 06 May 2010, Rex Mundi wrote:

    Let's look at the background of the current Australian cabinet shall we...

    Rudd = public servant
    Gillard = lawyer and student unionist
    Mar'n Fer'son = union organiser
    Craig Emerson = public servant
    Wayne Swan = lecturer in public administration
    Chris Evans = union organiser
    John Faulkner = teacher
    Lindsay Tanner = Lawyer
    Simon Crean = union organiser
    Stephen Smith = lawyer
    Nicola Roxon = lawyer and union organiser
    Jenny Macklin = professional student and political adviser
    Anthony Albanese = bank officer and professional political adviser
    Stephen Conroy = union organiser
    Kim Carr = teacher
    Peter Garrett = bad dancer
    Penny Wong = lawyer and union organiser
    Robert McClelland = lawyer
    Joe Ludwig = union organiser
    Tony Burke = union organiser
    Chris Bowen = public servant

    I dunno about the rest of you but I see a certain pattern emerging.

    p.s. lglethal, I did before but someone from Rudd's office must have gone crying to teacher

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  • 37. At 00:23am on 07 May 2010, Greg Warner wrote:

    #36. murph73v2:
    Murph...your post may have been removed for the same reason as mine at #35...probably the same with a couple of pete's.
    "This is because special House Rules are in place during election periods"...according to the BBC.
    Draw your own commenting on current Australian politics...British election...etc
    Oh those ties that bind...

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  • 38. At 00:46am on 07 May 2010, 11pete11 wrote:

    36 murph73v2 wrote: p.s. lglethal, I did before but someone from Rudd's office must have gone crying to teacher.

    Actually murph, I had my post removed because I quoted your original comment on Peter Garrett.
    Your original post had been there for hours and no one at BBC even looked.
    I asked the gods at BBC why you could post what you did, yet I had the same thing removed, and then they removed both our posts.
    Nothing to do with Rudd's office.

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  • 39. At 02:02am on 07 May 2010, 11pete11 wrote:

    31 Fair_and_Balanced: Further to my reply to you, this just appeared on a news report at the ABC:

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  • 40. At 02:17am on 07 May 2010, 11pete11 wrote:

    36 murph73v2 wrote: I dunno about the rest of you but I see a certain pattern emerging.

    I think it emerged many years ago. On one hand you have rank and file workers who have made their way to the top of their profession fighting for the underdog, while the other side is represented by the very profession that invented spin.

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  • 41. At 02:26am on 10 May 2010, cincypix wrote:

    Sry to comment on Billy Sing on this thread but there's no opportunity to comment there.

    The story's here

    Regarding the director's choice to select his son as the hero and recast the father as a Caucasian ... and his lame excuse that there were no qualified older Asian man who could play Billy Sing's dad.

    So this man never watched the original Star Trek?

    FWIW, George Takei is actively working for work. I think he could play Billy Sing's dad.

    Obviously, the director wasn't working so hard to find a decent cast. Looks like a direct-to-toilet production :(

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