“Your representative owes you, not his industry only but his judgment, and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Those famous words were spoken in 1774 by the Conservative British statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in a speech to the electors of Bristol after he was elected as its member in the House of Commons. That in shorthand means a member of parliament should be a representative, not a delegate.

So, what is the relevance of that to modern Australian federal politics? The answer I give is to refer readers to an earlier article of mine on this website. It was titled “Why I admire Bob the Builder” and was posted on Monday 11 April 2016. I explained this at the beginning of the article: “Towards the tail end of each federal parliamentary term I work out my favourite politician of that term”.

Therefore, today I announce that my favourite politician of the 45th Parliament is Russell Broadbent, the Liberal member for McMillan in Victoria. He will be the member for Monash in the 46th Parliament as a consequence of the Electoral Commission changing names of some electoral divisions as they change the boundaries. Therefore, I would say he has been the member for West Gippsland continuously since 2004.

My reasoning for this nomination is that, of all the 150 members of the House of Representatives, Broadbent is the one coming closest to fulfilling Burke’s principled view of the role of a member of parliament.

Before becoming a politician, Broadbent (born in 1950) was a retailer at Koo-wee-rup and Pakenham selling men’s wear and ladies wear clothing. That background made him very sympathetic to small business throughout his career. He joined the Liberal Party in 1980 and unsuccessfully contested the then federal seat of Streeton in 1984 and 1987.

In 1989, the Victorian federal redistribution of seats created a new seat in outer south-east Melbourne (but also including Koo-wee-rup) called “Corinella” (an Aboriginal word meaning “falling water”, also a local town name) and Broadbent became its first member, elected in 1990 but defeated in 1993. Then in 1996 he was elected for McMillan but defeated in 1998. Elected again for McMillan in 2004, 2007, 2010, 2013 and 2016 his personal following plus good boundary changes made it a safe seat for him. In 2019, Monash (the new name) is one of only four Victorian seats generally thought to be safe for the Liberal Party, the others being Goldstein, Kooyong and Wannon.

Being a champion of small business, Broadbent was exceptionally strong in his promotion of Work Choices at the 2007 election. It led to a widespread view that he would be defeated at that election, which saw the demise of the Howard government. Instead of the predicted defeat, he increased his majority!

Although commonly thought to be on the left of the Liberal Party, Broadbent told me recently that he is now far more anti-Labor than he was in 2016. The reason for that is his view that Bill Shorten’s Labor has adopted industrial relations policies, which reverse the Hawke-Keating government’s economic achievements. Labor’s proposed legislation to reverse the Fair Work Commission’s decision on Sunday penalty rates excites his exceptional hostility.

He belongs to the sensible centre of his party and refuses to engage in culture wars. An example of his position is that, in every leadership ballot in his party he has voted for the incumbent leader. Consequently, in 2015 he voted to keep Tony Abbott as Prime Minister but also voted to keep Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister in 2018.

I asked him to give me a signed copy of the best speech he ever made. It was on Wednesday 9 August 2006 on the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006. That was the first of two occasions (the second being in December 2017) when he implemented Edmund Burke’s principles conspicuously. Taking a position very much contrary to that of the majority of his McMillan electors he famously said: “If I am to die politically because of my stance on this bill, it is better to die on my feet than to live on my knees”. That is what generated the expectation of his defeat in 2007. It shows that taking a principled position on a controversial subject is often actually good politics. 

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)