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My Opinion Pieces

The Weekend Australian: The young guns

   Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Weekend Australian Magazine 27-28 November 2010

VETERAN Liberal senator Judith Troeth was dining in a Canberra restaurant with a table full of colleagues when she noticed newcomer Wyatt Roy sitting at a table nearby. The 70-year-old got to her feet and invited parliament's youngest ever MP to join them. Roy is 20. His first vote in a federal election was cast for himself. Before arriving in town for his debut he'd visited the capital only once, en route to the nearby ski fields.

Troeth has been kicking around the corridors of power for 17 years. She was sworn in the year of Wyatt’s third birthday. Before entering politics she’d raised five children and run a family farm for 30 years, shoring up the local community services that depend on the sweat of rural women – the kindergarten, the hospital, the school. Roy has completed two years of an arts degree. Troeth doesn’t hold that against him. “Some people think he’s too young,” she says. “But the fact that he took a seat from the ALP gets you some respect. He’s a very mature person. His maiden speech could have been delivered by a 40-year-old. You can only look at him and wonder.”

Troeth was marvelling with her adult daughter about the Queensland wunderkind when they both glanced across at the senator’s 11-year-old grandson. “Wyatt Roy’s only nine years older than Ned.” Troeth recalls them laughing at such an absurd notion.

Roy’s not the first man-boy with a peach-fuzz chin to grace the benches of the Lower House. Twenty-two-year-old Andrew Jones held the seat of Adelaide from 1966 to 1969 and is now a footnote in the annals of Australian parliamentary trivia, having vanished from public life without a trace. The wider sweep of history is studded with truly remarkable tales of precocity. Alexander the Great was 22 when he set out to sack Persia. The future Henry V led the English army against the Welsh rebels aged 16. In centuries when death struck early, the ambitious had to get a wriggle along.

Closer to home in 2010 we’ve got confident, well-educated young people breaking through the age barrier. In politics, Roy is the tip of a trend most evident in Victoria, where local government is teeming with 20-somethings at the helm of councils. Many of the elected representatives have been serving communities since before their mayors were born.

Debate about young hotheads in power has been aggravated by the downfall of former prime minister Kevin Rudd. Insiders blame his demise in part on the undue influence Rudd gave to a raft of 20-something advisers. Installed as gatekeepers, they became deal-makers invested with real power. Senior public servants, party heavyweights, defence chiefs, even ministers were frustrated by the tyranny of youth and the flouting of long-established processes and traditions. Alister Jordan was 29 when he became Rudd’s chief of staff. Towards the end of Rudd’s term, Jordan was taking the PM’s place at meetings of the nation’s most important security committee.

In Barrie Cassidy’s post-mortem on the 2010 election, former ALP secretary Gary Gray, now a Labor MP, recounts an episode in September 2009 when a group of ministers and parliamentary secretaries met with Rudd and his advisers to discuss changes to the Electoral Act. Gray eventually asked the staff to leave so the politicians could talk. Jordan refused. Later, Gray received a text message from Jordan excluding him from future meetings.

According to Gray, “Rudd’s office was incapable of managing the power put into their hands by the Prime Minister… ministers did whatever the leader’s office wanted because that was a pathway to promotion or an easier life. Alister only had to stare and glare at them and they backed off like kittens.”

Young courtiers have long served prime ministers. Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating employed former journalists who were not yet 30 as sounding boards and media strategists. Their enthusiasm and energy make them indispensable in political engine-rooms where the furnace burns bright and furious. Treasurer Wayne Swan recently hired an adviser who’s 21. Swan himself worked on the staff of Bill Hayden at a similar age. But the best offices draw on a depth of experience, where cooler heads respect the role of convention.

Consultant Simon Balderstone, who served Labor PM Bob Hawke as well as his successor Paul Keating, says: “It is not so much the age but the experience. However, one comes with the other. When a Cabinet minister is told by someone who’s 29 that they can’t put out a press release, human nature being what it is, this irks them. It’s all very well wielding big sticks but you have to have big enough personas to carry them.”

Youth versus experience is a war that will never be won. We are taught that years bestow wisdom, but this creed is difficult to swallow whenever a cocky youngster circles an older competitor in the stakes for advancement. The Weekend Australian Magazine interviewed young mayors and older councillors in the bear pit of local government to see how conflicts are being resolved.

Claude Ullin is 75. Like Senator Troeth he’s a grandparent who boasts a breadth of work experience. His Melbourne advertising agency was so successful he deferred a long-held ambition to enter politics until he was in his early 50s. For the past 20 years he’s served the well-heeled citizens of Malvern, Toorak, Prahran and South Yarra in the roles of both councillor and mayor.

He was staggered last year when 26-year-old Tim Smith won the mayoral post with no background in municipal affairs, becoming the youngest person ever elected in Stonnington. Smith is a former elite athlete who rowed for Australia. After completing a masters degree he worked for two Liberal state MPs. Now 27, as mayor he oversees a workforce of 800 people and is responsible for a $140 million budget.

“I was very apprehensive about what a young mayor might do,” Ullin recalls. “I thought, ‘He doesn’t have the experience. This is madness.’ I was deliberately obstructive, to test him, at first. I got stuck into him. He lost his temper a few times. I thought I’d be able to control him. I was wrong. That’s why I had to rethink our relationship. It really taught me a lesson.”

Ullin credits Smith’s gifts as a media performer for firing up the council’s war against the state government’s introduction of clearways through the suburb’s swanky retail boulevards. Smith went on radio and television to sling off at the roads minister. Ullin says that, when he was mayor, “I vowed to fight this to the death but in my ¬public statements I was not as personal or critical in my attacks”.

But the council ultimately lost, and spent $300,000 challenging the Minister’s right to change the rules. There’s muttering now at the costly nature of this defeat. “That’s one of the things I find around younger people,” Ullin says. “They’re not tempered by experience. They have lots of courage. No fear. They have incredible egos.”

Smith has just been to Washington DC as the only Australian to participate in a US young leadership program. He tells me he lay back on the flight over and shook his head, bewildered by how far he’s travelled since leaving school. “If you’d told me four years ago I’d be mayor of Stonnington and I’d have taken the State Government to court, I’d never have believed it.”

Ullin also shakes his head. “Could I have done the job he’s doing when I was 26? There’s no way. I wouldn’t have been mature enough. I would have had the energy and passion, but not the maturity. I had a much more sheltered education than these kids. They are a hell of a lot more articulate. They’ve got all this ability. It staggers me. We were all too frightened at their age.”

A trait that ebbs with age
Youthful feats can take our breath away. There’s no denying the spunk of 20-year-old criminology student Marisol Valles, who made headlines last month when she became the youngest police chief in a violent, drug-plagued region of northern Mexico because “she was the only person to accept the position”. Valles told reporters: “We can’t let fear beat us.”

Crazy-brave is a trait that ebbs with age as caution and conservatism gain influence over the risk/benefit calculations that people make. Youngsters are stepping up earlier than previous generations to positions of power and influence. The world has always had prodigies. But the internet, and technology generally, have expanded the platforms for people and removed age barriers to participation. Fourteen-year-old Chicago schoolgirl Tavi Gevinson started a fashion blog called Style Rookie that is the envy of her middle-aged competitors. She got the idea from her girlfriend’s sister and now attracts 50,000 visitors daily.

Opportunities abound for young adults. They’re better educated; they’ve been encouraged to speak out; they’re media savvy; they’re committed to building a career; and they’re prepared to work for change within the system.
Rob Spence, who heads the Municipal Association of Victoria, says Tim Smith is one of a crop of young mayors around the state. “I think it’s becoming more common,” he says. “I’m 65. When I think of where I was at the age of these guys! There’s been a reshaping of the public policy scene. We used to have marches when I was coming through. We’d be out protesting, but these guys want to participate. They see local government as a great spot to cut their teeth. They are more rounded in their education and more mature.”

Baby boomers defined themselves in opposition to the status quo during a period of social upheaval. The Australian’s Imre Salusinszky recently made the wry contrast between what his cohorts got up to at university, experimenting with home-made bongs, and the story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who engineered the social networking site while he was a student at Harvard. Now 26, Zuckerberg is one of the world’s youngest billionaires.

Parenting has become more of a science during the past three decades, and the role of educational advancement along the ladder of opportunity is better understood. Zuckerberg’s parents were medical professionals who hired a software developer to tutor their then 11-year-old son, and later enrolled him as a teenager in a graduate computer class. But the rise of this bright young thing hit a horrible snag when Harvard contemporaries accused him of stealing their idea. They sued him and won a $65 million settlement, inspiring David Fincher’s film The Social Network.

Hubris is a flame fanned by success and dampened by experience. Geoff Lake, now 30, was the same age as Wyatt Roy when he was elected to Melbourne’s City of Monash council, and 22 when he became mayor. “Although I held my own with councillors who were on average aged in their 50s, I’m much better at 30 than I was 10 years ago because of the benefits that come from experience,” he says.

“I handle conflict differently now and I’m more interested in achieving policy outcomes and creating a team approach that cuts through bickering and one-upmanship. Back then, I took positions that fuelled angst and division.” As mayor, for instance, he sought to ban self-funded retirees from discounts to recreational facilities such as the golf course and swimming pool. “I said it was like giving Kerry Packer concessions. There was a big outcry and I backed down.”

Youth empowered him to take on vested interests. He’s prouder of his attack on the symbols of power, junking mayoral robes and overseas trips. For the past year he’s led the Australian Local Government Association, which entitles him to sit on the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) alongside premiers and the PM. He’s the youngest at the table, engaged in negotiating national reform of state health systems and water rights. He has watched Victorian councils elect young mayors and says the trend is gathering pace interstate: “For young people interested in politics, it’s a natural starting point.”

Steep learning curve
Charles Pick was 22 when he was elected to Manningham City Council in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Now mayor at 27, and an ALP candidate in the state election, he sounds more mature than his years. “At the beginning I’d get irritated by those who’d say to me, ‘When you grow up son, you’ll understand.’ I’d get sick of the brick walls in the way of my enthusiasm for change. They’d say, ‘Oh we tried that back in 1975 and it didn’t work.’”

But he learnt from the old dogs. “They have an incredible knowledge of the past. When you first come in you think you can change things overnight – and sometimes you can – but what I took from more senior councillors is that sometimes a consensus approach is better than a winner-takes-all. It’s better to do things gradually and achieve long-lasting reform.”

Patience paid off in a recent battle to save small parcels of land that had been earmarked for development by some councillors who dubbed the vacant blocks “excess space or surplus land”. Pick preferred to call them “family parks”. He insisted these areas were vital open-air reserves for locals to walk dogs or take children and he urged residents to petition council and rally for their preservation.

Pick argues that experience doesn’t necessarily equal wisdom. “I’ve encountered people in power who are a lot older than me and have a lot more experience but they didn’t have wisdom. Experience sometimes makes for disenchanted, angry, resentful people who haven’t actually learnt from their mistakes. The wise ones are those who have reflected on success and failure and taken something from it. They are the ones I listen to and learn from.”

There is a maturity about Pick in his bearing and his philosophy that comes from having lost a bit of skin and gained a few insights during his political apprenticeship. Wyatt Roy is seven years younger and the age gap shows in his short, sharp answers, bereft of anecdote or personal experience to illustrate a point of view.

Roy tells me that he almost joined the air force when he finished school. “There was a group of us interested in the defence force, but then I started to become more involved in politics.” One of his mates has served in Afghanistan and got out of the army on his return home. Roy didn’t speak in the parliamentary debate on the war because he hadn’t yet delivered his maiden speech.

When I ask him his opinion of the conflict, he says: “Naturally it’s important we support our troops and contribute to building democratic processes and institutions, and that our commitment is determined by outcomes and not any date set by parliament.” He’s readier to promote local issues such as the need for a new bridge to Bribie Island.
At his first joint party meeting, the television cameras caught the freakish pairing of fresh-faced Roy beside the elder statesman Philip Ruddock, 67, who entered parliament in 1973 when Gough Whitlam was PM. Ruddock has lived through the dramas of the postwar 20th century – the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, Perestroika, the fall of the Berlin Wall – events that Roy might have studied in books. But the 20-year-old tells me: “I’m not a big reader. I like to learn by experience.”