Why does our political landscape so often resemble open mic night at the local comedy club?

Politicians, regardless of where they come from, are supposed to be professional. We pay them heaps of money to think carefully about the problems facing their country, to propose workable solutions, to debate the merits of various proposals, and to implement their ideas if we let them. They may come from all kinds of backgrounds, but once they are in positions of influence we pay them like professionals so we expect them to act like professionals.

We also pay even more money for those politicians to have other highly paid staffers help them do this as smoothly as possible.

In New Zealand, we pay tens of millions to politicians and their staff and their parties. Worldwide, it is well into the billions.

What do we get in return?

We get this guy wandering around making statements about weed that, for all their substantive interestingness, are strategically quite completely inane and lead to some ugly political in-fights. Watch this clip for open threats from “Don’s friend for 30 years.”

We get this other guy declaring, as if by fiat, that a renewed global economic crisis, set to engulf two of the world’s largest economies, won’t affect his budgetary plans. At all. Despite the widely agreed fact that global growth has an enormous impact on New Zealand growth, and New Zealand growth has an awful lot to do with his Budget. How stupid does he think we all are?

We get these people over here and these other people over here and probably more completely ignoring the clear rules about what you are allowed to do when you ask for votes. Some even appear to be congratulating themselves for it.

None of these folk are first time offenders. Imagine how many entries this post would have if it documented every instance of bald hypocrisy (e.g. “dead baby's identity”), ridiculous fibs (“97% of the net tax”), outrageous incompetence (Chris Carter), and other nonsense that has invaded our political consciousness, all since the last election.

I wonder if we counted up all the words in our main newspapers about politicians’ actual ideas, and then added up all the words about other political sideshows, which would win? My money is on the sideshows.

It is tempting for politicians to blame the media and public for this, saying that these kinds of stories are what they demand. But for demand to be met, you also need supply.   

And it isn't just us. Outside of New Zealand:

We get this guy making himself a bizarre campaign ad originally intended for Tim Pawlenty / "The Day After Tomorrow: Redux." Click for cool bananas transcript.

We get this Head of State calling this other Head of State an “unf*ckable lard-arse” while talking to his pimp and a hidden microphone. Yes, really.

We get this lady declaring that her conversation with Some Lady Over There convinced her that some vaccine causes health problems, despite every person who actually knows something about this stuff declaring otherwise.

And, as with New Zealand, those are just the tip of the iceberg.

Politicians: How hard can it be to avoid this crap? Any of it. Politics is a simple game. You have the idea; you debate the idea; you carry out the idea.

The rest is all bullshit.

Comments (21)

by Andin on September 27, 2011
Andin

"You have the idea; you debate the idea; you carry out the idea."

The middle one seems to be all that is going on, and those ideas kinda suck...

by Mr Magoo on September 27, 2011
Mr Magoo

"In a democracy, people get the government they deserve"

There is no other explanation necessary.

by Iain Butler on September 27, 2011
Iain Butler

Politics is a simple game. You have the idea; you debate the idea; you carry out the idea.

Except - and I can't believe I'm standing up for the guy - this is what Don Brash did with the decriminalisation of marijuana "musings", and instead of getting praise or even patronising respect, the likes of John Campbell beat him around the head with it, precisely because he had an idea, and said it alound, rather than sticking to pandering to voters in Epsom.

So, if we want consistent, principled politicians, how about consistent, principled attacks on their failings.

Says the guy who wrote this

by Rob Salmond on September 27, 2011
Rob Salmond

@Andin: We don't seem to be debating "ideas" much. Instead, we're debating who read the advertising election rules, how / why Don Drash decided not to get two ducks in a row (two!) before opening his mouth, etc. That is all process crap.

@Mr Magoo: I don't think we asked for it to be quite this crappy, did we?

@Iain: I agree that Brash had an idea. His problem is that he was so inept at saying it that now we're talking about all the other stuff I mentioned above instead of his idea. I appreciate your bravery in defending him, and I'll go there with you: David Farrar is on the money with this stuff this morning.

 

by MikeM on September 27, 2011
MikeM

"Politicians, regardless of where they come from, are supposed to be professional."

Is this written down somewhere?

I can understand professionalism completely with public servants, not to mention virtually any other job, for which the appointment process actually involves assessment of competence and integrity, even if that falls short on occasion.

Given that getting appointed to represent in a typical democracy is all about popularity, marketing and manipultion, I guess that attracts a certain kind of person and repels a variety of other kinds of people.  Apart from occasional outliers, why should we expect anything other than vacuous flamboyance once these people reach their elected roles?  Better to fix the system so as to make sure their straightjackets are working properly once they're in office representing people, if anything I think.  Sadly I can't see how to do this when sitting MPs have so much influence on the design and implementation of that system in the first place.

Thanks for the venting space.

by Mr Magoo on September 27, 2011
Mr Magoo

@ROB

Yes we did? "We" voted for tax cuts, smiles and believed pathetic right wing spin.

We are getting (and most likely will get more of in a year) what we deserve.

I find it hard to consider myself part of the we of course. Not only did I not vote for them my current plan is to be overseas in the next year or two - rats and sinking ships and all that.

by Bruce Thorpe on September 27, 2011
Bruce Thorpe

Whatever sweeping put down you want to lay on our politicians, you live in a political system where not only are they not professionals, but the people who elect them are mostly uninformed on the job they are asking them to do.

Getting large numbers of society to agree to a more lr less coherent policy or programme depends on widespread dialogue by informed participants, and even then most of the human race will opt for what they see as a personal advantage.

And then of course there are those people who stay on the sideline and just rubbish those who make an effort.

 

by Rob Salmond on September 28, 2011
Rob Salmond

@Bruce: Of course, your reply is a good one, if only to a post I did not write. I am not lamenting the politics of personal advantage, nor the politics of rationally uninformed voters. I am lamenting the sometimes gross incompetence of a bunch of people who we pay large sums of money (that is kind of the definition of being a professional, by the way) to be competent.

by Deborah Coddington on September 28, 2011
Deborah Coddington

Rob, neither Brash nor Banks are paid by the taxpayers at the moment. Brash might think he's in Parliament by the way he spoke in the interview in the DomPost about his eating habits ("when I was in Parliament previously" "sometimes I meet with other MPs") but actually, he's not.

You sound very bitter and twisted about the current democratic system. It is a House of Representatives - that is - it represents the voting public. What do you suggest we replace it with?

Did you see Sue Kedgley's valedictory? What did you think of her suggestions?

Maybe we should have more coverage of select committee hearings so the public could get to see more of MPs actually working together in a more constructive manner, and see that it does happen, but then again, maybe the public only wish to see bloodsports?

I don't know. What do the public want in their political news? The latest pratfall from a politician? Or words of wisdom?

Newspapers have to sell, after all, to keep reporters in jobs and I just don't accept the common cry that all NZ political commentary/opinion is crap. What about Audrey Young, John Armstrong, Jane Clifton, Andrea Vance, Nick Ventner, Colin James, Guyon Espiner (N & S column), our own Tim Watkin, Vernon Small, Tracy Watkins. Phew, that's just print.

by on September 28, 2011
Anonymous

We get this lady declaring that her conversation with Some Lady Over There convinced her that some vaccine causes health problems, despite every person who actually knows something about this stuff declaring otherwise.

There are examples of this closer to home.

by Rob Salmond on September 28, 2011
Rob Salmond

@Deborah: You also seem to have a powerful response to a post I did not write. Going point-by-point:

1. It is true that Mssrs Brash and Banks are not currently on the public payroll, but they sure have a lot of experience of that behind them, in very high positions, and part of their pitch is about their experience and sure-footed competence. The point of my post is that they talk the competence talk but they sure don't seem to walk the walk. Neither do altogether too many other politicians.

2. I don't suggest we replace the House of Representatives. Where did you get that idea? I just think the people on our House should get better at doing their jobs properly, or if they can't then we should find some other, more competent representatives. Do you really believe that this is as good as it can get?

3. I am not a fan of soporific political coverage. In fact, my own academic research shows that prominent coverage of very raucous debate at Question Time is good for public engagement with democracy. But there is a difference between covering raucous debate and covering politicians being idiots. I think if politicians were idiots less of the time, there would be a lower supply of "politicians are idiots" stories. That would also be good for democracy, not because of the change in coverage per se, but because of the change in how well politicians are actually doing their jobs.

4. In my post I specifically rejected the "blame the media for it all" argument. Yet you seem to accuse me of peddling it anyway. What is with that?

@Troubl: Oh dear. Yes, there are.

by MikeM on September 28, 2011
MikeM

Maybe we should have more coverage of select committee hearings so the public could get to see more of MPs actually working together in a more constructive manner, and see that it does happen

On this tangent, I think I'd enjoy having some kind of Parliament TV or radio equivalent that follows select committees. I'm sure it'd show a whole other side of the process.

by on September 29, 2011
Anonymous

'We pay [politicians] heaps of money to think carefully about the problems facing their country, to propose workable solutions, to debate the merits of various proposals, and to implement their ideas if we let them.'

This sounds to me more the job of policy advisors and researchers. In a representative democracy, politicians are paid principally to represent our interests and values (or at least the interests and values of their voters). That is why for centuries people have worried about democracy as a form of governance, because a representative democracy will only be as virtuous as the masses who vote them in. When the principal responsibility of politicians is to find optimal solutions to practical problems, then it is a technocracy.

by Andin on September 29, 2011
Andin

" Instead, we're debating who read the advertising election rules"

Thats even sadder. Squabbling over who is allowed to say what! Nero would be proud, even tho' he wasnt fiddling as the city burned, just gilding his palaces.

by Bruce Thorpe on September 29, 2011
Bruce Thorpe

" I am lamenting the sometimes gross incompetence of a bunch of people who we pay large sums of money (that is kind of the definition of being a professional, by the way) to be competent"

Even if I accepted that definition I cannot agree that parliamentarians in general are paid large sums of money.

One could easily argue "we" also over reward investment advisiors, bankers, real estate agents, academics school princpals and journalists but I do not see any of these categories as scoring particularly well on omnipotence  and refusing to play to the gallery.

By the way, just what was the incompetence you perceive in Chris Carter's behaviour that singled him out for comment.

I have no particular brief for this man, but I did have dealings with him as a cabinet minister and he did not strike me as being particularly incompetent.  

by MikeM on September 29, 2011
MikeM

David said: (or at least the interests and values of their voters)

Small aside, but I do think it's absolutely necessary to expect that MPs should represent everyone one way or another, and to take all views into account, irrespective of whether those people voted for them or not.

An election is a mechanism of deciding who's most preferred to represent the electorate.  It's not a competition to decide which 52% of the population get represented and which 48% of losers get trounced and ignored in opposition.  Or, in the case of FPP, which 30% get represented versus 70% being ignored.

by on September 30, 2011
Anonymous

Hi MikeM, I don't disagree, but that's a normative claim about the way democratic politics ought to be run. In reality, representative politics slides somewhere along a spectrum between impartial considerations for the good of everyone (although usually subjectively defined) and more blatant appeals to the values of their voters. Most politics is a strategic mixture of both; and minority parties (or intra-party 'sects' like the Tea Party) are perhaps by their very nature forced to steer toward the latter.

by Andin on September 30, 2011
Andin

"In reality, representative politics slides somewhere along a spectrum between impartial considerations for the good of everyone (although usually subjectively defined) and more blatant appeals to the values of their voters. "

Therein lies the problem.

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