Sep 2013

Politics – it’s a dirty job

Written by Tom McGuire

According to opinion polls, politicians are one of the least trusted professions. However, this does not stop New Zealand Members of Parliament from being paid around $140,000 per annum (which is three and a half times the average income) plus a salubrious package of perks. The most alluring perk of all is power. Although many enter the field believing that they can make the world a better place, power has always been the predominant raison d’etre of politicians throughout the ages.

However disliked they may be, though, no one is in a hurry to get rid of politicians. Hobbes, whose views are discussed in this issue of Café Philosophy among other political philosophers, seemed to think that any government is better than no government at all. The state often does things we don’t like or may actively oppose, but very few people seriously advocate a stateless society. In fact, the very word anarchy, which denotes the absence of a central authority, is widely associated with the thought of chaos and bloodshed. Most people see government as necessary, even if it is a necessary evil. Hobbes saw the greatest evil as a struggle of all against all that he thought would ensue without a strong, even tyrannical, state to keep these forces in check. Times have changed, but the Hobbesian perspective remains very influential. You can recognise it when you hear comments like ‘that Putin, he rules with an iron fist but the Russians would be in disarray without him’ or ‘look what a can of worms got opened when they overthrew Mubarak. He may have been ruthless, but at least he kept Egypt stable’.

Here in peaceful New Zealand, we have neither Leviathan State nor street battles to keep us running scared. Like other Western democracies our system is influenced by the radical idea that government comes “from the consent of the governed”, as the US Declaration of Independence puts it. This idea of consent, unlike Hobbes’ social contract which you are bound by whether you like it or not, implies that governments can lose their mandate to govern and must fear the people, not the other way around. In a democracy those vying for political power must persuade rather than dictate. But here lies a problem: a population which lacks awareness or interest regarding the important facts and issues facing their society, can be persuaded to make decisions (or delegate crucial decision-making power) to the detriment of their own welfare.

A local example illustrates one aspect of the problem. The commentary on David Shearer’s resignation as leader of the New Zealand Labour Party is both fascinating and frightening in what it reveals about modern politics. It shows that what matters is not the attributes of the person, but their skill as a media performer. Regardless of one’s political views, there are well-known contrasts between Shearer and his opponent John Key. One is a former Wall Street banker and millionaire, the other an international diplomat and humanitarian worker. One has been repeatedly described as a “man of integrity”, the other as a “smiling assassin”. One is brilliant in front of a camera, the other is not. This latter contrast was the downfall for Mr Shearer who failed to shine in the limelight, or have the right slogan for every occasion. For in today’s world electioneering is about soundbites, slick delivery, and branding over substance. Truth? Promises? Integrity? Lost beneath the roar of the media circus.

In a system where the people choose, getting into power means controlling the perceptions of the people. No institution does this as successfully as the media. In order to make the decisions that are most beneficial, the public must be properly informed. The media cannot necessarily be relied upon for this task because it likes a good show – or ‘horse race’ as they commonly put it. Politics is becoming another form of entertainment for the masses, like WWF wrestling. More complex issues requiring sustained reflection, discussion or research are avoided as they get in the way of the sensationalism that sells papers, gets ratings or generates hits.

With elections looming on both sides of the Tasman, now is a good time to get informed on issues that matter. Western democracies are experiencing the phenomenon of voter apathy, the unwillingness of large sections of the electorate to bother supporting any of the competing factions at all during an election. However, failure to vote does not mean that one is removed from the consequences of political decision-making. Both the supporter, opponent and non-participant are equally bound by the laws originated from the ruling party.

Voting is only one of many ways that a citizen can actively participate in democracy. Speaking or writing to your local Member of Parliament, coordinating protests or public information campaigns, and submissions to the Parliamentary Select Committee which reviews legislation before it is passed, are all ways to get involved. There are many others. Democracy means ‘the people rule’ – taken seriously, this imposes a heavy burden on citizens requiring far more input than simply casting a ballot once every three or four years. By refusing to be informed and engaged with important issues that affect them, the people (that means you and I) are abdicating the duties of citizenship. Unfortunately, such a people will eventually end up with the government they deserve.