Why Do People Become Politicians? (26/10/2010)

In this opinion piece originally published in the Illawarra Mercury, Nick Hartgerink poses the question while considering the future prospects of Stephen Jones.whoindeed_300crop.jpg


WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND would choose a career that keeps them away from their families for weeks on end, robs them of their privacy, makes their pay and retirement packages public knowledge and from which they can be sacked by a fickle public?

Who indeed? So why do people go into politics?

I was pondering that question a few weeks ago at a Saturday night charity function attended by Stephen Jones, the new Member for Throsby.

I was there with family and friends, having a great night and supporting the organiser, a friend who was raising funds for that most worthy of causes - helping sick children. Stephen Jones was there simply because it was a cause he felt worthy of support.

Such is the life of a politician. Church fetes, school speech nights, plaque unveilings, fund-raisers … you name it, they attend it.

The late Frank Arkell, formerly a Wollongong lord mayor, was the master of making appearances at all manner of functions.

I swear he used to walk in the front door, make sure he was seen by the maximum number of people in the minimum time, and walk out the back door 10 minutes later.

At that rate he could be seen and heard at a dozen or more functions in one night. It was a secret of his success.

Stephen Jones wasn't at our function simply to be seen.

He was there because he cared.

But I did put the burning question to him during an interview for a University of Wollongong alumni publication a few weeks later.

Why did he go into politics? Why take on a career that involves lonely nights away from his family in Canberra or at functions in his electorate?

His answer surprised me a little, and heartened me a great deal.

"From an early age my parents drilled into me that we are put on this earth for a purpose that is much more than about ourselves," he said.

"We have a responsibility to use any skills and talents we have for the greater good. I am humbled that politics has given me that chance … but if I wasn't doing this I'd be doing something else. My jobs have never been about making money, they've always been about advocating for others and trying to bring about change for the better."

So there you have it - a politician who wants to do good for people. The cynics will say that it won't take long for the political system to beat those good intentions out of him, but somehow I doubt that.

Stephen has worked in a series of jobs that have been all about helping others - from advocating for at-risk youths to people with spinal cord injuries.

As a national trade union leader he worked on two of the biggest campaigns of the past decade - taking on James Hardie on behalf of people with asbestos-related diseases, and the Your Rights at Work campaign against the WorkChoices legislation.

Rather than bagging politicians, we should be grateful that people of quality - people such as federal MPs Stephen Jones, Sharon Bird and Jo Gash - are prepared to do a job that very few of us could handle.


Nick Hartgerink is a former Mercury editor who now runs his own media consultancy. This article originally appeared in the Illawarra Mercury.