A Political Career

by seangljacobs

Barry Cohen, How to Become Prime Minister, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria, 1990

Barry Cohen, a Minister in Australia’s Hawke Government, published this book back in 1990. Behind the playful title sits some rare advice that may help anyone considering a career in politics.

The kernels of wisdom come from Cohen and his interviews with Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard (who would not become prime minister for another six years). Both place a high premium on life experience. Here is Hawke, for example, on whether there’s a ‘correct age’ for people to enter politics:

People ought to have established themselves to a reasonable extent out there in the world. Whatever you do, you’ve got to have had the opportunity to have been exposed to the Australian public, because Australians more than most nationalities are not prepared to take a person or politician for granted. You’ve got to have earned your stripes.

A grasp of history, also outlined in previous posts, is shared by both leaders. Here’s an important point from Howard:

I’m amazed at the number of people in this building (on both sides) who don’t really know much Australian history. Most of the blokes on my side don’t really know much about the origins of the Labor Party or the Liberal Party…. They don’t have any sort of feel for the history of politics… I think it’s a very important that somebody has a historical feel for the country if they really want to play a role in politics, because there is an historical continuity about a country and how you treat to the country’s problems is really conditioned by how you understand that.

But even possessing the right assets for a career in politics is not enough. Cohen highlights how, a great deal of the time, politicians are at the mercy of broader currents. “The reality of political life,” he writes, “is that however much you might wish to select the time for your entrance and exits from Parliament, the options are rarely yours.”

A recurring theme of Australian politics today is remuneration – could higher pay attract better politicians? Howard’s answer then:

I don’t think paying someone more is necessarily going to improve the quality of MPs. There has to be some element of sacrifice. I mean, I would rather be PM at $120 000, than chief executive of Westpac at $500 000.

And, if you’re a young professional worried about not always speaking up in meetings, here’s some insight from Cohen:

No matter whether it is at branch level or in Parliament, the politician who speaks selectively and with authority is the one who is remembered with affection. It’s the bore and the know-all who fails to impress.

Here here!