Three Generations of Pretend Politicians

We’re suffering from an epidemic of misgovernment, too. For three generations our leaders haven’t had to engage in real politics with real historical consequences. Now that our pretend politicians are facing the real deal, we can see they’re not up to it.

One of the benefits of living in a mature, prosperous democracy is that basic political questions appear to be settled once and for all. Previous generations did all the hard work of identifying principles and designing institutions, coping with political violence, then fighting resistant authorities to establish a principled polity.

The unfortunate downside is that in later societies, so long as citizens stay “fat and happy”, politicians – and all the orbiting thinktankers, columnists and opportunists – never have to fight over truly fundamental political issues with real, and really dangerous, effects.

Instead, political conflict becomes superficial, and politicos only see it as a pathway to the true business of democratic politics: acquiring status and influence, and monetising both.

Pretend Political Conflict

Political conflict becomes pretend. The policies, the projects, the values, the concern – all pretend. Spending money is an announceable achievement in the absence of doing anything real. Communications trumps not just policy, but action-to-results of any kind. Optics rules.

Elections are a necessary evil, a cover charge to enter the game of status and influence. Policy is merely a communication tool to help jump the hurdle of election.

Wannabe politicians learn to simulate political principle, policy interest and competence, administrative competence, and interest in voters’ concerns, without possessing any of them. Trust me, a few talking points, a good memory and a slick manner is all you need.

ALP leaders fake proletarian concern, then join Macquarie Bank or KPMG. Liberal leaders talk about freedom and small business, then pass “health” policy benefiting biggest businesses while shuttering the small. A good news item, and a Minister takes credit after a five minute briefing; a bad one, and it’s a bureaucrat-wot-done it. A dozen TV comedies tell this story better than I can.

Where the views of political tribes differ, they do so either to win elections or benefit tribal allies, not to implement what they’re saying because it’s right. All contemporary political tribes share the same basic business model: lie to the people, get ahead, pay off your mates, and it doesn’t really matter because the fundamental system is OK, and you’ll be out of it before it collapses anyway.

Real Conflict is A Risk to Political Business

Real political conflict over fundamentals, or where a major interest group is affected, is a huge risk. Real political conflict threatens the core business of status, influence, cronyism, lobbying, regulatory capture and career opportunism.

That’s why leaders value a “safe pair of hands” rather than a policy activist. Look at the total absence of meaningful education reform over the past 30 years. The hot topics of immigration, or overseas outsourcing, wage stasis, the hollowing of middle class opportunity, and similar are completely ignored, though vitally important.

Shifting Hard Decisions

This political business model requires politicians to minimise the risks of hard policy decisions.

You can’t get busted for decisions you don’t make and actions you don’t take. Don’t risk the gravy train no matter how important the issue…don’t do anything that will risk our business model.

A good Minister is one who isn’t noticed.

Shifting decisions to experts, bureaucrats, or industry is a certain way to avoid responsibility for hard decisions. It’s been commonplace for years. And even before politicians decide anything, governments outsource policy to the private sector and politicised lobbyists and consultants.

Return of the Real Reveals All Pretence

All this has resulted in generations of politicians unable to deal with complex, hard decisions of historical importance. Too many of them see politics as networking, fundraising, lobbying, screwing young activists and parachuting into a lobbying client or regulated company.

Remember when NSW Premier Mike Baird had to deal with one gunman taking hostages at Lindt Café in the centre of Sydney? He walked to a press conference like a rabbit in a spotlight, completely out of his depth. That moment was the epitome of this issue.

Our politicians have spent decades completely undisciplined by the real. They operate in a pretend world with pretend results but real failures.

But their pretence will always be shown up the return of the real.

That’s where we are now.

Ill-equipped Gladys Berejiklian, Dan Andrews, Anastasia Palaszczuk, Mark McGowan have all followed the pretender’s script – outsource the hard decisions and avoid the stink of mistakes.

So we have monomaniacal health bureaucrats driving decisions despite being unable to identify trade-offs or consider political, economic, or social effects. We have equally monomaniacal police commissioners deciding public order policies and responses to political, social, and medical dissent without understanding the most basic of political principles, principles of policing, or a single lesson from history.

It’s a bigger topic, but the responsibility of political leaders is to assess in the broad and decide based on multiple trade-offs. Trade-offs that extend beyond the next news cycle.

But politicians don’t even consider doing that. Nor are they capable of it. After all, it’s bad for business.

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