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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Star Candidates

Only days after NSW Attorney General Bob Debus's announcement of his departure from State politics, possibly to contest the Federal seat of Macquarie, comes the news that his successor is likely to be Phil Koperberg, the high-profile Commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service.

I should imagine that Koperberg commands a lot of respect in the Blue Mountains, given that it's an area which has seen its fair share of bushfires. Coincidentally, Debus named as one of his key achievements the modernisation of the Rural Fire Service through the Rural Fires Act 1997, an act which largely shaped Koperberg's position as overseer of bushfire emergency management.

It's interesting to compare the positions of the two men, both of whom might be described as `star' candidates - not celebrities as such, but justly respected people with a high profile and a demonstrated track record.

While the nomination of both men ) could be seen as part of a growing trend of encouraging high-profile people into politics, such as Pru Goward, Peter Garrett and Malcolm Turnbull - I think there's a little more to it. I should emphasise that though Koperberg only recently joined the ALP, he is, as Debus is, certainly a genuine local in their chosen electorates, and it has been reported that a rank-and-file preselection will take place for the Blue Mountains seat, though Koperberg is thought to have the numbers.

Tony Blair once claimed that Australia's Federal system hampers the chances of the ALP in that too many talented politicians play out their careers in the State rather than Federal arena. At the time I thought it was all a bit silly, but thinking over it, and comparing Koperberg and Debus as candidates, I think Blair's assessment is not entirely correct, but has a grain of truth. Surprisingly few State politicians have made the transition from state to Federal politics - former NSW Transport Minister Bruce Baird and Labor's Shadow Immigration Minister Tony Burke are two that spring to mind.

Yet, to think about it, there is some sense in encouraging more politicians to make the shift. It could be argued that Federal cabinets and Shadow cabinets could highly benefit from MPs who have already learnt the trade, so to speak, and proven themselves effective in another jurisdiction. Looking at it in terms of career progression, it would seem quite logical for a local member, already knowing the concerns of their constituents, to move to representing whatever concerns may be addressed at a Federal level that were out of their hands at a State level - much the same already occurs in the case of the numerous members of local government who move to State politics. It may even make a certain amount of sense to introduce universal electoral boundaries for both levels of government (an idea recently floated by NSW Democrats MLC Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, as part of an otherwise harebrained Private Members Bill) - although it's hard to say whether this would reduce or increase the confusion between the two levels of government that so many people already experience. Nevertheless, formalising such an idea would reduce the current appetite for `parachute' candidates, which I think most would agree would be a good thing, and may be a better way of forming consistent, high-quality cabinets.

The disadvantage, of course, would be the possibility that State governments would be drained of talent. This is certainly a consideration; yet another way of looking at it is that such an approach would provide the much-mooted `renewal' that parties are always telling us we need. Federal politics certainly wouldn't be a career for everyone, and, of course, local members do not change often. Yet surely it's sensible strategy to provide a candidate for a crucial seat such as Macquarie who is both an excellent candidate and a local. This may be a good way for Labor to win such crucial seats and properly represent local people at the same time in the future.

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