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Breaking out of the political madhouse

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 23 July 2010

In case you missed the breaking news, the mayor of Hamburg resigned last Sunday. Not that it would matter to an Australian audience, especially when we are going through a turbulent political period ourselves.

Today’s politicians find themselves with less room to manoeuvre than previous generations. Driven by focus groups and opinion polls, constrained by tighter public finances, and subject to the 24-hour news cycle, they feel there is little they can still contribute beyond slogans and catchphrases.

However, the mayor’s resignation has some significance beyond this North German port city because it was the latest in a long series of shock resignations of German leading politicians. There were no scandals, no allegations of corruption, and no misdemeanours behind the many resignations of high-ranking politicians, all in their early 50s. The main reason was something completely different: tired of the political process, they longed to return to their private lives.

Most people who enter politics do so because they are driven by passion and ideas. Yet today’s political world is not one in which either can flourish easily. The political process is like a wind tunnel in which only the most streamlined characters survive.

It’s a worldwide phenomenon – as we can see in the Australian election campaign. Was it Julia Gillard promising tougher border protection and Tony Abbott a new taxpayer-funded paid parental leave scheme? Or was it the other way round? Why did the opposition leader feel the need not only to bury WorkChoices but also to cremate it afterwards, when any undertaker could have told him it was the other way round? Does the Prime Minister really feel comfortable repeating her campaign slogan every 30 seconds in all her speeches? And do politicians really like kissing all those babies?

To any ordinary human being, modern politics must be a nightmare. No longer does it seem to have the impact on a world that politicians want to change for the better. Instead, it has become an endless chore of news grabs, pseudo debates, and media posturing.

It takes a certain kind of character to thrive in the political amphitheatre. But the more important question is whether we want to be governed by people who enjoy this political madhouse.

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