February 12, 2004 | Peter

Monkeys and Peanuts

Yes, it’s the old ‘Pay peanuts, get monkeys’ argument as certain pollies (like Peter Costello) defend the incredible benefits ex-pollies get, such as very generous superannuation. Well, my response is that right now we pay our pollies big bananas, and we mostly get monkeys anyway.
There is no way that it can be argued that our politicians represent the best this country has to offer. The harsh reality is that politics, especially at the national level, is so brutal that only certain kinds of people can stomach it. In particular, it is overly aggressive and adversarial. This is one of the main reasons why the gender imbalance continues.
A few smart, even sensitive people manage to make it through, and sometimes gain power, but the majority of politicians cannot boast much other than inordinate self-belief and tough hides.
And I always like the comparisons with private industry. Just because the private sector has managed to ramp up executive salaries to absurd heights does not mean the public’s representatives should join in at the trough. If the pollies who make this argument value the cash so much, let them go back into business.
So who are the best people Oz has? I meet them all the time, doing thankless jobs for real peanuts. They are teaching children, or helping the disadvantaged, or fighting for industrial rights or nursing the sick, or doing any one of the unglamorous jobs that keep our society running. They are mostly too busy, or eventually too burnt out, to get involved in politics. And if they do so, they are usually too appalled by the cynicism and opportunism they encounter to stay involved.
The clearest example of the problem is in relation to the young. For over a decade I watched the students come though the university I taught in, and noted the very few who became involved in party politics. Mostly they were the wrong ones. To generalise, they were too often ordinary students in academic terms who wanted personal power. So they got into student politics, then, having learned all the wrong lessons about politics (like vote rigging and deal making), they went into party politics. Over time I watched them become harder, more cynical and ever more narrow in their intellectual interests.
My best students – not always those with the best grades, but usually – are completely sceptical about party politics. If they do get involved it is usually the Greens who attract them, currently the most idealistic if inept political party.
I think we should have our best people in politics. Despite all the talk about the end of the nation-state, and by implication, formal politics, it is still the most important social process open to all. We do need new people involved, and we do need a new kind of politics. But rest assured, the best will not be impressed by an offer of big money – they will be impressed by the chance to make a difference in a nation and a world facing unprecedented challenges.

Posted by Peter at 12:55 pm | Comments Off on Monkeys and Peanuts |
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