Monday, March 19, 2007

Why Politics? I

Last Friday, I gave a short talk at the start of our State Election Forum. Here is the first half of the talk. Second half tomorrow.


A politician wanted a special postage stamp issued with his picture on it. So, he instructed his people, stressing that it should be of international quality. The stamps were duly released and he was pleased. But within a few days of release of the stamp, he began hearing complaints that the stamp was not sticking properly, and he became furious. He called the people responsible and ordered them to investigate the matter. They checked the matter out at several post offices, and then reported the problem to the politician. The report said, "There is nothing wrong with the quality of the stamp. The problem is people are spitting on the wrong side."

Politician: "Election time has come again! The air will be full of my campaign speeches!"
Cynical voter: "And vice versa!"

Why politics? Why bother?

Traditionally, we Australians are often cynical about those in power. The media loves to run stories of politicians’ failures and indiscretions. And they love to run them, because we love to hear them. Perhaps it adds some drama to our lives. Perhaps it gives us someone to blame for our society’s failings.

Yet the fact that we keep being shocked also reveals that somewhere, we expect more of our leaders than the lies and indiscretions that all-too-often make the headlines.

Our members of parliament are called public servants, and the leader of our nation is its prime minister, or first servant. Somewhere, embedded deep within our language, we know that our leaders ought not do what is best for themselves, or those like them, or even just for those who elected them, but they are to serve the public good. Even our nation is the Commonwealth of Australia, a nation set up on the ideal of the common weal, the common good.

It doesn’t help that many of us think about elections as times to vote for those who will best serve our interests - or perhaps more accurately, best serve our interest rates. With bumper stickers proclaiming, ‘I fish and I vote’, ‘I drive a 4WD and I vote’, ‘I practice origami and I vote’, our attitude is to threaten to vote for someone else unless our desires are met. We organise ourselves into political pressure groups to get our voice heard, to put our issue forward, to demand my rights and those of people like me. In doing so, we lose sight of the common good, and instead imagine that it is each interest group for itself, grabbing as much of the cake as possible. In this way, our attitudes swing between cynicism and pragmatic selfishness.

UPDATE: Please see comments for relevant discussion of the language of "public servants" and "ministers". My post is not an accurate reflection of the connotation of these words, but I will leave it as is so that the discussion below makes sense. You can read the second half of this talk here.


Mister Tim said...

Actually, I don't think our politicans are often called public servants (unlike we who serve the Government of the day). And the 'Minister' in Prime Minister doesn't mean servant as much as advisor. In the English tradition (which we follow), Ministers were advisors to the crown and administered, or advised on, a portflio. The Prime Minister was (is) the Monarch's chief advisor. In fact, in the UK, the office of Prime Minister didn't really have the powers, etc that it does until around WWI - the PM didn't even get to vote in Parliament - they were literally just the chief advisor. I've even heard some Goverrnment Ministers in radio interviews denying that their title meant that they served the public.

Mind you, this doesn't change your overall argument.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your talk

Anthony Douglas said...

Sorry Tim, Byron's right. You've got to push further back than English tradition for the meaning of minister - Latin - and you'll find that modern dictionaries still define it in terms of service.

Yes, there was a time when offering advice was an act of service!

That doesn't mean that politicians are aware of dictionary meanings of words. cf. 'oversight'...

Mister Tim said...

Anthony - I understand the origin of the word Minister, particularly in relation to the way we use it in the church - i.e. our pastors minister to the congregation, or serve the congregation (and God, of course).
My point was that despite the origin of the word, that's not how our political system understands the term 'Minister': it understands it in the context of administering, or managing, a portfolio. Historically, the English tradition didn't have a government that served the public at large, even if they should have acted in the public interest. And Ministers probably wouldn't have been seen as public servants, per se - at best you might say that they served the Monarch.

Of course today we expect our politicians to act for the common good or public interest (although how you define these is another issue altogether) - and our politicians would understand that as their role. I don't disagree with Byron's argument - all I'm saying is that you can't draw an automatic line from the etymology of the word to the role and goal of our politicians.

byron smith said...

Tim - yes, fair enough, I took a short-cut and perpetuated the etymological fallacy. Apologies. Thanks for the correction.

Mister Tim said...

I don't think you need to apologise, least of all to me. I'm just trying to be helpful. Cheers