Bob Hawke blames decline in quality of politicians on intrusiveness of media

Former prime minister says the ‘poor quality of representatives’ is a worldwide phenomenon partly caused by media focus on politicians’ private lives

Bob Hawke has blamed “the increasing intrusiveness of the media into private lives of politicians” for what he sees as a decline in quality of MPs and leaders in Australia and abroad.

In a wide-ranging address at the Woodford Folk festival in Queensland, where the 87-year-old has spoken for eight years in a row, the former prime minister said “poor quality of representatives … is not a purely Australian phenomenon – it’s a worldwide phenomenon”.

Hawke said the world was living through a unique period where it was the first time since the end of the second world war that there hadn’t been “an outstanding political leader … anywhere in the democratic world”.

“Some people talk about Merkel and I do not run her down in any sense at all; I simply make the point that if you compared Angela Merkel with the chancellors of Germany in the postwar period, she’d rate about sixth.

“So is there some reason why the quality of people going into the parliament is not as high? I don’t know the complete answer but I think, in fact I’m sure, that part of it is the increasing intrusiveness of the media, the general media and social media, into the private lives of politicians and their families.

“I think this is more of a problem for the conservative side of politics than mine because on our side we tend to have some ideology-driven move which brings up good people.”

Four minutes into his 20-minute address to a crowd of more than 1,000 festivalgoers, the former prime minister had broached one of his pet topics, calling for an overhaul of the Westminister system and the abolition of the states.

“What we have today basically represents the meanderings of British explorers across the Australian continent more than 200 years ago,” Hawke said. “Lines were drawn on a map and jurisdictions and governments followed. And so you have 13 governments dealing with much the same issues and I believe that the simple fact is that the states should be abolished.”

Hawke also warned that if climate change was not immediately addressed it would result in the imminent and “total destruction of mankind on this planet”.

Drawing considerable ire from the progressive audience, Hawke advocated nuclear power as one integral part of the solution to climate change, returning to an issue he has been passionately pushing since the late stages of his prime ministership: that Australia, as the most geologically stable nation on Earth, has a responsibility to store the world’s nuclear waste.

“Nimby – not in my backyard – ignores the fact that the world’s leading geologists have said that we have geologically the world’s safest backyard and we cannot ignore that fact if we are to be serious to ourselves, our children and our grandchildren. I think more work should be done on this by our government, leading to an affirmative decision.

“It would be a win for the global environment and it would be a win for Australia,” he said, arguing nuclear powered nations “would pay well for the storage of nuclear waste”. He also added that during a recent visit to Japan he met with the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who he said “nearly had an orgasm” when he raised the mere idea of Australia accepting nuclear waste.

Hawke said Indigenous Australians would be a “further winner” if Australia became the world’s dumping ground for radioactive waste.

“The greatest stain upon this great Australian nation’s character, without any question, is the great gaps that exist between our Aboriginal brothers and sisters in terms of their health, their education, their living conditions, their incarceration rates and life expectancy. It’s a great stain. I would argue strongly that a non-negotiable condition of taking this big decision to take the world’s nuclear waste … would be that a significant potion of the income that we got in this way should be directed to closing these gaps that exist amongst the most underprivileged in our nation, Aboriginal people.”

In his only dig at Donald Trump, which drew laughs, Hawke said: “There are few people of any substance – inside or outside the world scientific community – who now question the fact of global warming. I think there’s an incoming president of the United States, a guy called Trump, who says it doesn’t exist. To me that’s prima facie evidence of the fact it does.”

Speaking later in a one-on-one interview with Guardian Australia, Hawke said it was “almost impossible to overstate how dangerous” it was to have the leader of the US expressing scepticism about climate change.

He said if he was in Malcolm Turnbull’s position today and forced to play the diplomatic game with Trump, “I would hold out my hand to him. I would try to do all I could to be positive with him; to gently explain where I thought he was mistaken and where his pursuit of his campaign statements could create problems for the world.”

Hawke also expressed alarm at Trump’s pivot towards Russia and protectionist leanings, saying: “If he starts to try and smash international trade, that will be disastrous.

“One of the things that worries me most about him is his closeness to Putin. The man he has appointed as secretary of state has a business relationship with him. I think Putin is an extraordinarily dangerous man. I think he’s trying to recreate the Soviet empire and it’s that connection which I think should be very worrying to a lot of people.”

Hawke said he did not advocate centre-left politicians emulating Trump’s populist style but stressed that every political party needed to be sensitive to the changing view of the electorate.

“One fundamental issue which Trump did take advantage of was the increasing disparities of income in the United States. So many people saw the rich getting richer and it not being spread around. It’s affecting European politics too now.”

Hawke also defended the prime ministership of his former treasurer and political rival, Paul Keating, conceding “I certainly would not argue that I would’ve done a better job than Paul” in guiding the Australian economy through the 1990s recession.

“Paul was a very competent treasurer and he must be commended from where he came from. He had no formal training in economics and indeed, in the early days of government he said to me: ‘God I hope they don’t ask me any detailed questions in parliament,’” Hawke laughed.

“But he grew in the job and become one of Australia’s great treasurers.”

Hawke has become a major drawcard to the annual six-day Woodford Folk festival, which is now in its 31st year and pulls crowds of more than 120,000.

On Tuesday night the former prime minister stole the show at the festival’s “welcoming ceremony”, leading a crowd of about 15,000 people in a rousing, operatic rendition of Waltzing Matilda complete with intermittent fist-pumping.

Bob Hawke sings Waltzing Matilda at Woodford folk festival


Janine Israel

The GuardianTramp

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