09 July 2012

Politicians: Here, There and Everywhere

I have met many politicians in my life both in the U.S. and in Australia. In the U.S., I regularly dealt with local and state officials and met often with U.S. Representatives and Senators as part of an industry leadership group. In Australia, I have met many of the leaders of both parties through private meetings, lunches, and industry sponsored functions. Let me share a few observations.

Politicians everywhere seem to be generally gregarious, friendly, smiling, and often with a quip or funny story. They seem earnest and caring. They’re the kind of people everyone would like as next door neighbors.

However, politicians often do not seem to have much substantive knowledge. Ask as U.S. Representative a question, and he or she will give you a response. Ask a follow up question, and chances are you will receive the same response. Ask a third question, and, you guessed it, you get the same answer. It seems to me, U.S. politicians too often memorize one answer to each topical question without any substantive knowledge or understanding.

I was at a meeting one time with a prominent U.S. Senator, who is a leader of his party. He was asked a question and gave the first answer. He struggled to answer a follow up question and for the next 10 minutes referred every question on the topic to his 25 year old aide. This was depressing for any believers in free world democracy.

Australian politicians seem a bit less clever than their American cousins. They often don’t appear concerned about learning an answer to various question topics. Instead, they rant about the other party. I once asked the deputy leader in the Parliament a question about a widely reported proposed change in the tax rate for investment trusts. Her reply, “that’s the Labor party’s fault.” I guess it is easier to complain about the other party than have to learn stuff. Or maybe Australian elected officials just specialize more in one area of government because of ministerial responsibilities and are less concerned about broader issue topics.

One night I had dinner with a leader of one of the Federal parties and someone frequently discussed as a future PM candidate. I asked about the key role Australia was positioned to play in managing the transition in world power from U.S. dominance to the emergence of China. Australia is uniquely positioned to help facilitate a peaceful change, I suggested. His response, “So what do you think of our Superannuation system?” World transformation was not part of his portfolio.

I think there are ways to improve the quality level of our political leaders. In Australia (and in the U.S,), most professions require proof of competency before practitioners can obtain a license to work. Lawyers and accountants are certified. Tradesmen such as plumbers go through apprenticeship or training programs before they can fix your clogged sink. Even service workers like hairdressers must be trained before they can show up and cut your hair. So why are there no qualifications and certifications for a politician? Why is it more important to make sure a hairdresser or plumber is competent than our political leadership who are responsible for spending billions of taxpayer dollars?

Clearly we need a program to certify politicians as competent before they should be allowed to practice. Maybe they should take a test like students applying for University slots. Reach a certain score, you win a permit to run for office in NSW. If you’re not accepted in NSW and you want to be a politician, apply to Tassie. Have a bad test day, be a politician in The Northern Territory (which has 1 Parliament member for every 9,000 residents).

The other issue with politicians that seems universal, unfortunately, is the polarization of the parties. Whether it is Labor vs. Coalition in Australia or the Republicans vs. the Democrats in the U.S., politicians seem more focused on scoring media points than solving problems. Perhaps we need mandatory counseling or mediation when elected officials do not get along. At minimum, politicians should not be seated by party but should be mixed so they sit with the opposition and possibly make friends. If that does not work, we could try drugs like Ritalin to control and moderate errant political behavior.

Australia has lots of politicians for a country of only 22 million people. They have the same layers of government as the U.S.: Federal, State, and Local; but each layer serves relatively few people. California, for example, has 38 million residents compared to about 7 million in New South Wales. CA has 120 elected members in their legislature compared to 135 in the NSW parliament.

My favorite Government is the State of Texas in the U.S. Texas was admitted to the U.S. union in 1845, long after many other states had joined and now has about 26 million people. – more than all of Australia The founding fathers in Texas evidently learned from the states that preceded them and made some interesting provisions in the Texas State Constitution.

First, the Texas legislature is only permitted to meet for about 4 months every other year. The founders evidently felt when politicians meet, usually bad things happen. The best way to make sure the State functioned well was to make it illegal for politicians to meet. They did not seem to think which Party was in power mattered. All politicians were perceived to be the problem. This is a novel idea.

As a consequence, it is difficult to pass more laws or spend more money in Texas. It makes political lobbying more challenging; and politicians generally have to have gainful jobs outside of being professional politicians because they cannot survive on 4 months wages every other year.

If there is truly an emergency, the elected Governor can convene a special session of the Legislature to deal with the crisis. This is typically not a popular thing to do, however.

How is Texas faring under their restrictive politician laws? Texas enjoys the lowest taxes of any major U.S. State, the highest level of employment and job creation, and probably the most heterogeneous population mix. It offers superb universities, one of the biggest medical centers in the world, amongst the best cultural and art facilities, and one of the largest concentrations of technology companies outside the Silicon Valley.

All of this happened in spite of having virtually no natural amenities (mountains or oceans) and typically awful weather with high levels of heat and humidity in much of the State. Mossies are so common, one community (Clute) even erected a giant statute of a mosquito welcoming visitors.

In Australia, we spend considerable time debating which Party would be better in power. Maybe this is not the right question. Perhaps the issue is that the politicians are guaranteed to win regardless of party affiliation, and when politicians come together, we are all at risk. If the Texas experience is applicable, just think of how productive and prosperous Australia would be if there were fewer politicians from all parties.

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