Political realities

Going for a coffee this morning, we had to wait while for a table to become available. Whatever the economy is doing, good cafes seem to proliferate and boom regardless. While we stood outside, a group of people came towards us, one man making earnest efforts to get the ear of a tall good-looking guy who seemed to be the centre of attraction. I belatedly recognised him as the Leader of the Opposition in our State Parliament, who inherited the job a few months ago when the previous leader and Premier lost the election. He is seen as a star of the new generation of Labor Party leaders; one to watch. He certainly looks and sounds very impressive so far, although trying to get much of the conservative media’s attention, when they are absorbed in an orgy of mutual back-slapping with the new Premier, seems set to be a long and unrewarding haul.

Watching this little piece of street politics, on a Sunday morning, reminded me yet again of the reasons I have never been remotely tempted to run for public office. The closest I ever came was to join a party a couple of years ago, when I was about to retire. Most of my roles in both the government and non-government sectors have made any obvious political leaning unwise. A few times, colleagues who chose differently have been shown the door, the day after an election result that didn’t favour their friends. In some of my jobs there were plenty of risks of me getting the sack, even without me being silly enough to make my politics an additional problem. So I kept my views on the stormy matters of the day to myself most of the time, even though I know conservative governments generally view people in human services executive positions (other than ones they have appointed recently) as left-leaning. ‘A vipers’ nest of chardonnay socialists’ was how one political apparatchik described us to me in private. So I trod very carefully, and I think I’m right in saying it never became an issue for my career. Both sides gave me good jobs, and both sides sacked me for other reasons.

Anyway, back to why being a politician doesn’t appeal. Most of my positions brought me into close contact with political staffers and their bosses, so I think I’m reasonably well-informed when I say that apart from lazy back-bench time servers, most politicians, and certainly most front-bench ones, work ridiculous hours, under unrelenting pressure to always say the right thing, and so lose most of the freedoms that I hold dear. Dinner at home with guests—a chance to relax? Only if you’re absolutely sure no-one will report to your political enemies every word you say. Somebody on your staff needs to be brought into line? If they find fault with your handling of the matter, or just plain dislike you for telling them off, who will they complain to? The political class live this way all the time, and if they are not very, very good at these games, they will always be in danger—if not of complete banishment, at least of losing any chance of getting to the top.

The pressure to be available to just about anyone who wants to speak with them is constant. Although political staff have proliferated in the last decade or two, and they do deflect a lot of the petitioners and seekers of special treatment, there are still more people to talk to than I could possibly attend to properly—and they must always do it carefully, politely and with all their radar on full alert for possible advantages and dangers. One chief-of-staff told me I was the 200th person the Minister had spoken to one-on-one in her office so far that month. This was in the context of why I shouldn’t get my hopes up too much on my topic de jouer, but what struck me was the sheer volume of it—I thought I was busy if I met one-on-one with a few people every day. And I often saw evidence that the leading political lights could remember each of those 200, what their issue was, and at least make up some lines that suggested they had been mulling it over ever since. Staggering really. And I know I couldn’t do it.

Many of the people who make it to these tete-a-tetes with the decision-makers are well-paid professional lobbyists, as was I, I suppose, uncomfortable as that feels to admit. As a class we are well resourced to prepare our positions, which are designed to make it obvious to the Minister or whoever that this is a risk-free, affordable and elegant solution that will benefit the deserving, while reflecting well on the politician with the insight to bring it up with their leaders. Occasionally this may all be true, but the experienced politician will treat all of it with the careful restraint it demands.

I remember one Minister (I am still putting a capital letter on Minister, even in retirement. Go figure.) who asked me to sit in with him, as a group of very senior professionals put a case to him that a particular government policy had gone too far, and it was time to slow down for a year or two before more people were hurt. After hearing them out, and asking several questions politely, he bade them farewell, but asked me to stay. When he was sure they were out of hearing, he turned to me and said ‘David, was that the shrill cacophony of professional self-interest or the clarion voice of the actual end-user?’ I said it was mainly the former, and he replied ‘I thought as much, but I wanted to hear another opinion’. That was a top politician at work, doing business like that many times a day, every day. No thanks.

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