Thursday, October 20, 2011

Technicians and true politicians

A theme in Frank Sartor's new book The Fog on the Hill is the relationship between policy and politics. Sartor propounds the view that too many in the NSW ALP were putting politics before policy; they wanted to say what the public wanted to hear, not work out what they wanted to say and then figure out how to present it.

Ultimately, it is a false dichotomy. Good policy is good politics. It is much easier to present an idea that you actually believe in than to present an idea just because it is what you think the audience wants to hear. And ultimately the problem is that simple pursuit of what is popular ultimately leads to a blind alley. The US is a particular example - more services is popular, less taxes is popular ... but continual deficit budgets are unsustainable.

Fred Chaney recently addressed the Accountability Roundtable at Melbourne Uni's Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies. After reflecting on his own dissafection at the last election he said;

Rather than collecting the many expressions of dissatisfaction it may be more constructive to look at what are the foundations of purposeful politics directed to the national interest and in particular the longer term interest of Australia.

What are the sea anchors in a system, stabilising factors which enable the electorate to discern the direction of travel, to put individual decisions whether popular or unpopular into an understandable context? Where is the story to come from which enables single issues to be seen as part of an overall program which can be judged within a context rather than a freestanding publication to be judged in isolation on the basis of who loses?

There are a number of factors which in isolation or together can clarify what a government stands for, a number of ways in which politicians may demonstrate with some clarity how they will judge where their duty lies and we can see integrity in their actions.

The answers he provided were -
1. purposeful leadership,
2. adherence to a coherent and declared ideology,
3. broad-based political parties with large numbers of members exercising real authority over policy and candidate selections

On the last point he said;

The professionalisation of politics and the party system is the opposite of a sea anchor. The political technicians have taken over from the policy makers. The increased skills now available to read the public mood, to determine what the public will accept today and what words can be heard today without rejection has led to reversal of the rule laid down for me by my friend and colleague Jim Carlton, himself for a time a party professional.

When we worked together on economic issues during the 1980s he made the point that the first task is to find the right answer, the second task is to work out how to sell it. This is the antithesis of an approach based on finding out what you can sell today to provide the answer for tomorrow.

This last sentiment brought to mind again the observations made about the marketing skills of Steve Jobs. He relentlessly pursued developing the products to met the needs of people, despite the fact that those people could not describe their needs. To do so he created a relentless organisation.

That I think encompasses the troika identified by Fred Chaney. Put simply the troika is - leadership, policy (or philosophy) and organisation - the three themes I wrote about in my piece for the Southern Highlands Branch Newsletter.

The thing is that achieving just one of these doesn't improve things. The good news is that between them they should form a virtuous circle, improving each makes improving the others more achievable.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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