About 20 years ago, when I was in Form 6 at St Mary’s College, I had an interesting Economics teacher. The goodly gentleman’s name was Mr. Da Silva. In discussing the concept of ‘utility,’ he explained that everyone seeks to maximize their own interest. He seemed to have an interest in politics and was fond of saying that the desire for power drives a politician, and once in power, he/she is driven by the desire to retain it.
More recently, I was chatting with a friend, and at the end of the discussion, we had agreed that often one must choose between loyalty on one side and competence on the other. The nature of our politics means that loyalty is held to a greater value than is competence. To me, this helps explain so much of what we observe on an almost daily basis. I give two examples.
First, there are Special Purpose State Enterprises (SPSEs). Arguably, many appointed Chairpersons, Board Members, and appointed CEOs are not well suited to carrying out the great responsibilities that fall upon them. In my opinion, it has nothing to do with party affiliation, as that is almost irrelevant. Rather, from their behavior reported in the media, it is abundantly clear that they genuinely lack the hard and soft skills needed to perform at the level they have been parachuted. This is made more unfortunate because the elected government depends on these SPSEs to implement policy.
Second, there is the Senate. On the Parliamentary channel, we sometimes find ourselves subject to terrible grammar and an apparent inability to analyze, conceptualize, and effectively articulate ideas. Hold on. Do not get me wrong. I am no snob, and those who know me can attest to my appreciation of our local dialect’s beauty, the humor of our picong, and our love of ‘ole talk.’ At the same time, there is a time and place for everything, and I sometimes wonder about some of our Parliamentarians’ abilities. This is made more unfortunate because these are the citizens chosen to shape the legislation upon which our society is being built.
Having said all this, I am a realist. Given that politicians in power seek to retain it, politicians must incentivize and reward the foot-soldiers and financiers for attaining and retaining this power. Should they fail to reward these important supporters appropriately, they risk that these foot-soldiers / financiers would throw their support behind another political party. After all, these supporters are also seeking their own best interests. One of my favorite writers has said that for this reason, all governments, regardless of how they begin, will always become elitist. Some speculate that this switch by key foot-soldiers / financiers helps explain the régime change in May 2010.
Clearly, it isn’t easy to take our nation to the next level, given this situation. This is a situation that occurs regardless of which party is in power. There was once a time when I advocated campaign finance reform as a panacea, but today I am not convinced that the impact would be as far-reaching as some imagine. The reason lies in the sentiment of the average citizen. Too often, it seems as if the rhetoric around the budget as an example is more focused on ‘who got what’ as opposed to whether the budget was ‘part of a viable strategy to help us survive the economic storm’ that threatens the wider global economy.
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Perhaps together with campaign finance reform, we would also benefit from constitutional reform that reconsiders how Senators are appointed as well as opens up the appointment of Chairs of SPSEs and other positions of national importance (such as Service Commissions, the Integrity Commission etc.) to the negative resolution of the Parliament. When one party dominates the Legislature, this becomes a formality but at least it would open up such appointments to greater scrutiny and debate. It may lend itself to a transparency that could prevent many of the present issues.
A former Minister once told me that any politician who says that they seek office to serve is a liar. It is always about a lust for power. I am in no position to say whether this assessment is right or wrong. What I have observed is that Gandhi seems to have purposely avoided any political office as India moved into independence, and Nelson Mandela got out of political office at the first opportunity.
My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country. Despite today’s challenges, I have the audacity of hope in a brighter tomorrow.
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