WHEN you begin musing about political systems, as I have done in a couple of recent articles, you invariably come up against one unavoidable factor and that is the quality of the politicians.
It is a sensitive issue. On the one hand you don’t want to exclude particular people from the political process but on the other you need to have effective and morally upright representatives.
And that is even before we consider the equally sensitive issue of gender equality, not that I think womanhood or manhood has any bearing on effectiveness and honesty.
There was a time, not so long ago, in both Australia and Papua New Guinea, when politicians came mainly from occupations that had little to do with politics.
In my home state of South Australia in the 1950s and 1960s there was a premier, Tom Playford, who was an orchardist. He grew apples, pears and cherries on the rich loamy flats of the Torrens River.
In Papua New Guinea, Michael Somare’s first parliament was made up of educated ex-public servants sprinkled amongst a majority of subsistence farmers, many of whom couldn’t speak English or read and write.
In both cases, these people got things done.
Tom Playford’s government turned South Australia from a cereal growing state into one with a mixed economy that included manufacturing. The last of those great initiatives, the General Motors Holden vehicle plants, will shut down forever next year.
Michael Somare’s government successfully guided Papua New Guinea through a peaceful transition to independence and set up effective political and economic frameworks for the future.
Things have changed dramatically since those halcyon days in both places.
A typical Liberal Party trajectory is university – political agent – politician.
A typical Labor Party trajectory is university – union organiser – politician.
We call this “the political class”.
In Papua New Guinea, there are still a small number of bushies in parliament but the largest membership comes from the business sector.
Businessmen and women are not necessarily bright. Bank balance and brainpower don’t always equate. Shrewdness and being able to count are vital ingredients.
Many of these business-based politicians are crafty, manipulative, cunning and greedy. Very often you’re pushing it to find signs of intelligent life among even the educated ones.
I’ve got relatives who are business people. They are the sort of characters who see nothing wrong with adding to the world’s environmental woes so they can buy a new BMW.
Even birds don’t crap in their own nests.
Whenever we visit them, my wife demands I keep my mouth shut. These days I do that anyway. Reasoning with them is pointless and a waste of time and I’m not fluent in Econospeak anyway.
There are exceptions of course but they are few and far between. There are people who made their fortunes inadvertently while they were doing something else, like Bill Gates and JK Rowling perhaps.
In both Australia and Papua New Guinea we have gradually narrowed our options for decent parliamentary representation. This has been to our great detriment. We seem to be ruled by a wealthy elite who have little grasp of life’s realities.
In Australia we have in charge a multi-millionaire merchant banker who lives in one of the swankiest suburbs in Sydney. I doubt whether he would have any idea how someone lives on welfare payments in one of that city’s rust belt suburbs.
In Papua New Guinea we have a multi-millionaire accountant in charge. He probably has a better idea of how subsistence farmers live in the rural areas but he doesn’t seem to care.
As I recall there was considerable debate in Papua New Guinea in the run-up to self-government and independence about the desirable educational levels of prospective members of parliament.
Should a specified educational standard be required to enter parliament? In the end it was deemed that such a rule would be discriminatory.
There was also debate about whether incoming parliamentarians should be put through some sort of training course. This never gained traction.
One thing that strikes me about both the Australian and Papua New Guinean parliaments is the lack of ethical and moral standards. The sort of behaviour that was once taught in Papua New Guinean and Australian schools but has been abandoned.
So what to do about it?
I don’t really know. We are the silly buggers who vote for them so maybe it’s our fault. But then again, the array of candidates we must choose from often leaves much to be desired.
It’s a problem facing the people of the United States next month. It has a choice between the worst possible candidate and the second worst possible candidate. Most Americans prefer neither of them.
We have compulsory voting in Australia, or at least we have to have our names ticked off the electoral roll when we reluctantly turn up to vote.
The Americans don’t have that constraint. I suspect that many will not bother to vote.
Maybe that’s a solution?