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Political idol: why TV offers more creative answers than politicians

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 28 April 2010
http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/political-idol-why-tv-offers-more-creative-answers-than-politicians-20100427-tps2.html

In this day and age, the big questions are answered on television. How do you prepare the best risotto? Tune in to MasterChef for some recipe ideas. How do you best shed these extra kilos? Watch The Biggest Loser to help motivate your own diet. How do you learn business skills? Ask the contestants on The Apprentice.

You can spend a whole week of prime-time television watching other people reinvent dancing (So You Think You Can Dance), singing (Australian Idol) or fashion (Project Runway). It’s not always great entertainment, but at least the shows remind us of one thing: it’s good to have a competition of new ideas, talent and creativity.

If only we had a bit more of that same spirit in the political arena.

This is not to argue Channel Nine should broadcast a Australia Has Political Talent or Ten ought to produce a new series called Australia’s Next Prime Minister. Similar shows have already been tried in Canada and Germany – with limited success. What we could really do with, though, is policy-making that leaves the well-trodden paths and tries new, quirky solutions.

Politicians and their voters have developed Pavlovian reflexes. Just as Ivan Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, we too have become trained to react to news stories. When food poisoning occurs in some dodgy greasy spoon, we call for tougher licensing laws for all restaurants. When there are problems in the states’ public services, we question federalism. When the road toll rises on public holiday weekends, we consider increasing the demerit points. Triple points? Quadruple points? Will anyone offer more?

The game of politics has become predictable. If interest rates rise, the opposition blames the government. If interest rates are lowered, the opposition warns of a weakening economy. It does not matter which party is in government. Our political blame games have become so ritualised, you could easily swap government and opposition without noticing the difference. How often have we observed politicians once elevated to the government continue the same policies they criticised when in opposition?

Out of such stale debates, really creative and path-breaking policies seldom emerge. Unsurprisingly, politicians write their best books years after they have left office. Freed from the constraints of party politics, their tight schedules and the continuing pressure from the 24-hour world of news, some (not all) of them actually develop into insightful thinkers whose ideas are well worth reading. It’s a pity this only happens at a stage in their lives when their political careers lie far behind them.

When the former British prime minister John Major was asked about regrets, he said he had some of his most valuable experiences after leaving 10 Downing Street. Ever since, Major has spent many months each year abroad, talking to a wide range of people, and apparently this made him see the world with different eyes. Major said he sometimes wished life could be the other way around as these experiences would have helped him in government.

Sadly, time machines have yet to be invented to fulfil Major’s wish. So where else could creative ideas originate? Perhaps the easiest way of uncovering them is to look abroad and then not to be afraid to try something radical or new. There’s a wealth of political experimentation out there, waiting to be discovered.

One such experiment happened in the Netherlands. After a fatal traffic accident in the Dutch village of Oudehaske in which two children were killed, the public demanded traffic-calming measures. In all likelihood, new speed bumps, road signs and refuge islands would have been installed – had the council not been out of cash. Necessity being the mother of invention, the traffic planners chose a radically different approach: They ripped out all the traffic signs.

What happened afterwards was a small miracle. Drivers felt they could no longer rely on road signs, so they slowed down. Seeking eye contact with other motorists and pedestrians, the streets of Oudehaske became a much safer traffic environment than ordinary road signs could have ever created. The inventor of the scheme, the late engineer Hans Monderman, went on to successfully export his idea of the ”naked street” to other cities in the Netherlands and abroad.

Would such a scheme be considered by Australian politicians? Probably not, and definitely not with less than a year to the state election. Our reflex would be to give the RTA more power, put up a few more signs, install more traffic cameras and increase random breath tests. We would never imagine that we could have achieved much more with less.

Australia needs more political creativity. We shouldn’t have to wait for our politicians to retire until they present us with new and unusual ideas. The time to get creative is now.

Oliver Marc Hartwich is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and contributor to the essay compilation released this week, What If?

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