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Wednesday 22 January 2020
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Politics and misguided self-interest

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So, the local elections came and went, with more or less the expected results – the small parties did not get a look in and the level of disinterest was manifest in the very low voter turnout. The political parties will be interrogating the whys and wherefores but nothing will change until it needs to. For the rest of us we should think deeply about where our democracy is going. Do we want top down centralised government or do we want bottom up, people centred government?

We, in general, don’t seem to care about such important matters because either we don’t grasp their importance or we don’t think we can wrap our heads around the question, preferring to just pass the buck. Thomas Jefferson said famously that the government you elect is the government you deserve. For me, that means you approve the system and take no responsibility for what happens next. It means, too, that you have to live with the consequences.

Martin Niemöller was a German anti-communist Lutheran pastor and theologian, who in the aftermath of the WWII Holocaust issued a confession about the responsibility everyone had for Hitler’s killing of the Jews and millions of others. This is it paraphrased: When they came for the communists I said nothing because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I said nothing because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I said nothing because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. I recall the well-known confession not only because it speaks to our own intellectual laziness in not trying to understand that we can play an active role in shaping our lives and our society, but also because it clearly explains why we must care about what happens around us and sometimes make a stand. Maybe we should view the vast majority of people not voting as them making a stand. But maybe that stand is not a big enough gesture. You have to make a big splash to cause a ripple effect.

We complain constantly about how corruption is eroding our society but I am reliably informed that in last week’s local election the two main parties were buying votes with bottles of vodka, $200 handouts and water tanks. I don’t want to believe it and the details might have changed but I know the practice to be common, from past discussions with those who accepted money to vote in a particular way in opposition parties’ safe seats. Yet, we fail to make the connection between that and the deterioration in standards of human behaviour that has led to the sickness that infects us all and for which a cure is ever more elusive.

In the north western region where I live, it would seem that people voted purely along ethnic lines, but someone from another region commented that contrary to how it seemed here, in some rural areas voters were crossing party lines to ensure the councillor who improved their lot, regardless of ethnicity, got their vote. On the one hand, it is encouraging to know that people reject religion and phenotype as social dividers (after all, we all carry multiple identities within us), and that they realise what local government is about, i.e., the power to make a difference at a local level. But having said that, I am not an advocate for personal authority and power. We should all shy away from demigods. Instead we should be promoting the development of well functioning impersonal institutions that follow procedures and produce consensus. Far better to preserve the elements of democracy, which depend on the experience, knowledge and technical expertise of collective bodies for decision-making and not rely on an individual who may be effective but have a personal agenda, even if it suits you or me personally.

I suppose some of what I advocate is hard to achieve in a country with deep inequality, where real poverty exists and too many young men expect to live only to age 25 and don’t know how to change their life trajectory because of the paucity of opportunity and the static nature of the economy. For many, elections are merely about how to get a food. It should worry politicians. This deepening trench of difference between sectors of our society is happening despite the fact that the spoils of the energy golden goose have provided free education at all levels and free health care for donkey’s years – something almost unknown in other liberal democratic countries; the most relaxed tax regime in the world, probably; subsidised petrol, air travel and housing; pensions and several other state benefits.

Clearly, this largesse is not working. We need a new politics that can scramble what we have and go back to the drawing board. If we don’t do it ourselves we may not like who emerges to do it for us.

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