Could Ben Chifley get preselection today? Some evidence on current backgrounds

Frequently we hear that politicians are drawn from too narrow a range of backgrounds; and that this is a problem for Labor in particular due to its connections with the trade union movement; and in particular in the Senate, due to the influence of unions on decisions on Senate tickets by State Labor Party branches.

Let’s have a quick look – based on published bios on the Australian Parliament House website.

Name Professional background Union background Qualifications listed
Senator Catryna Bilyk Medical admin, research; early childhood education Yes: industrial officer, trainer: ASU
Senator Carol Brown Party and political admin officer and adviser Not indicated
Senator Joe Bullock Trade union official Yes: SDA
Senator Doug Cameron Fitter, machinist Yes: AMWU, ACTU
Senator Kim Carr Teacher, ministerial and policy adviser Not indicated BA (hons); MA, Dip Ed
Senator Jacinta Collins Social welfare, research, industrial officer w SDA ; policy consultant Yes: SDA BA BSocWk
Senator Stephen Conroy Superannuation officer (TWU) Yes: TWU BEc
Senator Sam Dastyari ALP positions Not indicated BA
Senator Alex Gallacher Labourer, truck driver, airline ramp services operator Yes: TWU
Senator Chris Ketter Union research officer, organiser, official SDA BA, BComm
Senator Sue Lines Teacher, community organiser, union official Yes: United Voice BEd
Senator Joe Ludwig Barrister, industrial inspector and advocate Yes: AWU BA LLB
Senator Kate Lundy Builders labourer; union organiser and official CFMEU
Senator Gavin Marshall Electrician; union official Yes: ETU
Senator Anne McEwen Clerical, admin; union organiser Yes: ASU BA
Senator Jan McLucas Teacher; electorate officer Not indicated DipT
Senator Claire Moore Public servant; union official Yes: CPSU
Senator Deb O’Neill High school teacher; university lecturer Not indicated BA, MA, Dip T, Grad Dip Lit Ed
Senator Nova Peris Olympic athlete Not indicated
Senator Helen Polley Political adviser Not indicated Dip Business Admin
Senator Lisa Singh Union organiser; political adviser; director Working Womens Centre; public service manager Yes: AEU BA (hons); Master Int Rel
Senator Glenn Sterle Furniture removal, truck driver, owner operator, union organiser and official Yes: TWU
Senator Anne Urquhart Process worker; union organiser, official Yes: AMWU
Senator Penny Wong Industrial officer; policy adviser; barrister and solicitor; legal officer Not specified APH but yes: CFMEU, LHMU BA LLB

So, Senators with trade union backgrounds include :

  • a process worker;
  • a fitter/machinist;
  • two truck drivers (with two different practical careers after that);
  • an electrician;
  • a social worker;
  • two public servants;
  • a builders labourer;
  • a teacher;
  • two lawyers;
  • a clerical worker; and
  • someone who had worked in early childhood education and medical administration .

Only three Senators with trade union backgrounds listed their union role as their sole or primary occupation before entering Parliament; and of those, one – Senator Conroy – held a professional role as superannuation officer which has counterparts in other public and private sector organisations across Australian society.

Not a bad start on diverse backgrounds. (On other dimensions of diversity, current selection processes have given us 14 women out of 24; and some non-Anglo names including Bilyk, Dastyari; Singh; and Wong.)

None of this is to deny the value of having among our representatives people with qualifications enabling them to deal with a range of issues as they present themselves – yes I do mean lawyers, economists and public policy professionals. Just note that, not co-incidentally, Penny Wong is (and obviously deserves to be) Labor’s leader in the Senate.

Nor is any of this to deny the need , which Gough Whitlam saw, for  the Labor party to regularly renew its structures to ensure it stays relevant and effective in modern Australia.

We’ll come back to talking about lawyers next time with the House of Representatives, as well as a look at people with higher level qualifications, and whether we have enough people with literacy in science (including in dealing with environmental crisis).

But those who have asked questions like, “could Ben Chifley get pre-selection today” might take a look at this list in looking for their answer.

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