I am fed up, completely fed up.
Too many times have I listened patiently while people with strongly-held but not-critically-examined opinions explain that the trouble with politicians these days is that most of them have never held a ‘real job’ (see list of examples of media whinges at the end of this article).
I am generally too polite to make the obvious retort: ‘Oh, I didn’t know that some jobs were real and some were pretend. Which ones are the real ones then?’
A favourite here in Australia is to hold up the example of Ben Chifley, who worked for the railways for a few years. Ironically, those for whom he is a poster child eulogise him for ‘having worked as a train driver’, little knowing that train driver was – at the time Chifley did it around 1912 – a very prestigious position – the pinnacle of the railway industry. Hardly the sweat-of-the-brow, in-touch-with-the-common-man position that people dream it was. Chifley did work at lowly, manual jobs in the railway trade, including shovelling coal, but that was in order to work his way up to the lofty (some might say ‘ivory tower’) position of train driver.
When the criticism is made, it usually includes union organiser among the ranks of ‘pretend jobs’. I find that criticism astonishing. A good union organiser is a combination of human rights barrister, public relations consultant, aid worker, counsellor, logistics engineer and CEO. The job sounds so hard to me that I can’t imagine any amount of money being enough to induce me to take it on. They have to persuade people to join unions, negotiate with powerful business interests, chair union meetings to try to get workable decisions from groups of employees that may have quite disparate aims, organise strike funds, conduct legal battles against laws aimed at removing any remaining negotiating power of employees against their big business employers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Given the skill set needed to be a successful union organiser, I imagine any business looking for a new head of HR, finance or operations would be happy to take them on – as long as they promise not to organise any strikes.
Yet, somehow, all that activity is not regarded as being a ‘real job’. I have nothing against real estate agents, pathologists, car vendors, fast-food checkout operators or NHS statistics processors, but I cannot see what life experience or exposure to the ‘real world’ those jobs provide that being a union organiser does not.
Another apparently ‘pretend job’ is being a political aide. I don’t know much about political aides but, from the outside, it seems such a job would be a combination of super-PA and media advisor. They have to make sure the MP or candidate they advise gets to all their engagements in time and is briefed on the issues they need to know about, as well as being properly dressed, fed, rested and toileted. Hardly a walk in the park. And hardly a low-skill profession.
But is it something else rather than a lack of skill that is being insinuated about political and union jobs? If so, what exactly is it? Does the job have to be strenuously manual and involve almost no brain work in order to be ‘real’? Then a brickies’ labourer has a real job but someone gutting fish in a cannery does not? That makes no sense to me. And why does there have to be no brain work? Is that just the current anti-intellectual fashion playing out? Are people with clever minds required not to use them in order not to stand out from the crowd and seem elitist? Could it not just be possible that if somebody has a clever mind it would be better employed trying to find ways to raise the wages of the working class or make sure that our politicians are actually well-informed on the issues they are deciding, than in digging a ditch? The good book itself tells us (No, not the HitchHikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. The other one), in the Parable of the Talents, that it is a sin not to use the talents you’ve been given.
Often the accusation of politicians ‘never having held a real job’ is equivocated with the accusation of ‘never having experienced real life’. This is as nonsensical as the other lines of attack. The challenges of real life are things like trying to find a home to rent, save up money and maybe eventually borrow to buy a home. They are going through the joys and pangs of love found and lost and maybe searching for a life partner. They are trying to carve out a sense of purpose in a world that is a babble of noise, shallowness and competing interests. They are trying to find communities to which one can belong, to gain acceptance in them and then work to benefit the community and to help it achieve its goals.
I think most of these are experienced by everybody, and all of them are experienced by most people, regardless of their chosen occupation. The occupations that are least exposed to these challenges are those that are tremendously well-paid – investment banker, business tycoon or senior barrister. Yet somehow those are regarded as ‘real jobs’ while being a lowly-paid political aide or union organiser is not.
The phrase ‘out of touch with real people’ is another popular one to throw around. Again one wonders what one needs to do to be a ‘real person’. How can I tell if I am one? Wouldn’t it be terrible if, after years of thinking you were a real person, you suddenly discovered you were a fake? Could you demand a refund? From whom, I wonder?
I think what they mean is just ‘has regular contact with people that don’t work in unions or politics’. Well that criticism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. Most of a politician’s day seems to be spent meeting people, and only part of that is with other politicians. As an MP they have to meet whatever constituents ask for a meeting, within reason, and my understanding is that they do plenty of that. If you have a grievance, make an appointment to go talk to your local MP about it, rather than sitting at home whinging!
Now senior ministers don’t do much meeting with constituents, because the other demands on their time are so great. But the only people that get to be a senior minister without serving their time as a backbencher – with all the time ‘meeting real people’ that that entails – are those that come straight into parliament at a senior level, typically from a career in either business or law, two professions that are mystifyingly regarded as ‘real jobs’ even though the average big businessman or senior lawyer meets far fewer working class people per week than just about any politician. Those that have to work their way up as a backbencher before becoming a minister will have had plenty of exposure to ‘real people’. Are we then going to complain that, once they are Treasurer or PM, they should set aside a large proportion of their precious time for yarning with locals at the pub, rather than spending that time studying and reflecting on the pros and cons of an important decision that will affect the lives of millions of citizens? If we want to make that criticism, why do we not also make it of the senior people of any organisation, be it a business, a church, a charity or a sport federation? Why should politics be the only profession in which one is expected not to devote one’s efforts to making the best decisions possible, and achieving the best possible outcomes.
Now I’m not suggesting that all politicians do spend all their time studying and agonising over policy. If they did, the policy would never be enacted. In business, selling a product is as important as designing and manufacturing it. A business that devotes all its efforts to the latter and none to the former will soon be a dead business, and the same applies in politics. If politicians have a policy they believe is worth selling, they need to put their utmost into selling it and, because of the adversarial nature of our political system, that will always be a difficult job. Selling it means speeches, private negotiations, cajoling, counting numbers, nurturing votes from fence-sitters, and so on. It’s a really hard task, and not one I’d have the stomach for. But it has to be done. Otherwise somebody else with less benevolent motives – a Putin or Trump – is likely to get up and sell their alternative, and we’ll all be worse off.
A good policy needs effort to sell it, and that effort is worthwhile. Where I get cross at politicians is when they cook up useless or even harmful policies solely in order to sell themselves, ie to increase their popularity and thereby the likelihood that they will retain power. They may be selling themselves to the public, as is the case with politicians that flirt with the xenophobia that can always be found in any population under a moderate amount of stress. Or they may be selling themselves to a king-making power group within their party or to powerful financial backers. The current Australian PM seems to have sold off so much of himself to those groups that he is now indistinguishable from his reactionary, climate-change-denying, Muslim-hating, would-be-theocratic predecessor, with the sole exception that the predecessor at least had the virtue of being true to his own values.
Politics, including being a political aide or a union organiser, is a tough job. You have to work really hard, for pay that is much lower than you would get if you were working that hard, and with that level of skill, in private industry. You have to endure public hatred, mockery, accusation and vilification. You are always at work – none of your time is your own. You are regularly confronted by failure and heartbreak, when you lose an election or maybe just fail to get approval of the policies you believe in. You are always on the move, often living out of hotel rooms rather than in the comfort of your own home.
The way I see it, a job in politics is as tough and as real as it gets and, as long as they are not using their position to corruptly enrich themselves (which, mercifully, is fairly rare in my country, and in most other OECD countries) politicians deserve our respect for that, even if we vehemently disagree with their policy proposals. Someone who has always worked in politics has always had a tough job, more so than somebody that spent their first ten years after uni at Wernham Hogg, playing office pranks like putting their co-worker’s stapler in jelly (not that I have anything against office workers. I’m sure they can be good citizens and lovely sons or daughters-in-law too).
So let’s all stop whinging about our politicians’ backgrounds and start engaging with them about their policies.
It’s all just so silly. If we were to apply the same standard to other professions as we do to politics we’d have job interviews containing lines like:
‘The university is very impressed by this thing you’ve invented called Gravity, Mr Newton, but what we really need to know before we consider employing you as a research fellow, is whether you have had any experience as a blacksmith’.
Bondi Junction, March 2018
In searching the internet for examples of this opinion I have been railing against, I came across a couple of reasonable-sounding defences of the view. While they do give pause for thought, I am not persuaded by them. Here they are.
Argument 1 – Requiring a previous career screens out the young
This argument says that, if a starting-out politician has already had a career in another profession, they are likely to be at least middle-aged, with the wisdom and life experience that people generally expect to come with age. It is undeniable that life experience accrues with age, and most people would agree that wisdom generally increases with age for most people, at least until dementia sets in. But very few people would argue that we should therefore only allow people aged over forty to enter politics. That would be a very different, and highly controversial argument, and while it may have some points in its favour, I would not be inclined to back it. Furthermore, it would be an argument about age, not prior profession, and would exclude people who had worked in bakeries, hair salons, at building sites and at law firms as much as it would those who had worked in unions or political offices. So I don’t see this argument as providing any support to the ‘must have worked at a proper job’ case.
Argument 2 – Having a fall-back career allows greater integrity
This argument says that, if somebody has worked successfully in another occupation, they have the option of returning to that occupation if their political career doesn’t work out. Hence, the argument goes, they can tell the party’s Chief Whip to get stuffed when she demands that the new MP vote along party lines for a bill with which the MP does not agree. Somebody who does not have a fall-back career may follow the Whip’s orders because they fear that if they do not, they will lose party pre-selection and hence lose their job at the next election.
I don’t find this convincing either. Somebody that has worked as a unionist or a political staffer will have developed skills and experience that enable them to return to working in that capacity just as easily as one can return to working in an office or a hospital.
Secondly, if we pursue the logic of this argument, we should favour politicians that are rich, because they don’t need the salary and hence will presumably have greater integrity. Experience shows again and again that that is not the case. It is the lure of power, not money, that makes many rich people still desperate to retain their political appointments. Australia’s current PM is enormously wealthy, wealth gained from working so-called ‘real jobs’ (ie lawyer and investment banker), and yet has comprehensively sold his integrity to the reactionary right of his party – an influential group that opposes every value that the PM used to stand for – just so that he can hang on to his position as party leader, and hence PM.
Thirdly, it is not a tautology that a system in which MPs vote according to their individual views, without any sanction for departing from the party line, leads to better, more democratic, outcomes. Sure it sounds good, the idea that our representatives follow their conscience. But in practice in can generate some very unsavoury results. Party discipline may be oppressive but it also provides a defence against manipulation by powerful lobby groups. Nowhere is this more evident than in the US Congress, where the NRA targets individual MPs in non-safe seats, threatening them with a targeted hostile campaign at the next election unless they vote against gun control bills, even if their own party is promoting those bills. The reason the NRA can do that is because party discipline is so weak that it easily outbalanced by the NRA’s threats. If party discipline were such that voting against the party line would mean losing pre-selection, and hence losing the seat anyway, the threats of groups like the NRA would be futile. It is certainly arguable that one reason US politics is so much hostage to certain sectional interests is the ability of those interests to target individual MPs, something that cannot happen in countries with tighter party discipline like the UK or Australia.
I am still not entirely sure whether the benefits of party discipline outweigh its disadvantages (although given the recent terrible gun tragedies in the US, it’s hard not to lean that way), but regardless of one’s view, it is certainly far from self-evident that making it easy for MPs to vote against their party’s policy would be a good thing.
Roads in English towns and cities seem so much safer to me than their equivalents in Australia. They also have less deep kerbs, as a result of which cars can easily park with two wheels on the footpath (sidewalk) and two on the road, an opportunity they often make us of on roads that are too narrow to accommodate normal parallel parking.
Yet I feel safe.
Why do not I, as a pedestrian, feel threatened by having a more permeable barrier between the cars and the pedestrians than I am used to? Why doesn’t it make me feel less safe on an english footpath than on an Australian one?
Perhaps it is this: barriers work in both directions – they prevent things coming in but also prevent them going out. Skin protects infectious agents from getting at one’s innards (which is why cuts in the skin often lead to infection), but it also prevents the innards from losing moisture and other precious bodily fluids – from dessicating. And it is as important for prison walls to keep people out – who may be carrying phones, drugs, weapons or escape tools – as it is for them to keep inmates in.
So what does the kerb, as a barrier, prevent from going which way? The obvious answer is that it deters cars from going onto the footpath. A secondary answer is that it makes pedestrians think twice before stepping onto the road. But on an emotional level, it also acts as a barrier between the peace of the footpath and the violence of the cars on the road.
Because cars are violent. Moving a ton and a half of metal at speeds of 60-100 kilometres per hour is a violent activity. One does not notice this so much when one is sitting inside the hunk of metal. They are specially designed to mask the violence, to provide an illusion of serenity. They do this by sound-proofing, vibration-damping and engine-quietening. That’s why ads for luxury cars are often shot from the perspective of inside the cabin, to a soundtrack of blissful classical music: “See, there’s no violence here. It’s all beauty and grace”.
But the illusion is shattered when the car whooshes past a pedestrian or cyclist too closely or worse, when it collides with them, or with something else. The classical music appropriate to that is not so much Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (which, for the non-classical music lovers, was considered so shockingly violent when it premiered that the audience rioted in protest).
Indeed, the fast movement of heavy objects is unavoidably violent.
A brief digression: a visceral demonstration of this violence can be obtained by getting off a train in Europe at a station which high-speed intercity expresses pass through but do not stop. One has to take a non-express train to get there (or a bus, or walk or cycle) but it’s worth the effort. The express trains come past at speeds between 200 and 300 kilometres per hour, and the experience of having those thousands of tons of people and metal rush past only a metre or two away is unforgettable. Although they are not supersonic, one does not get much of an audible warning before they are upon you. Then there is a slam into a scanty few seconds of thunderous rush as the long line of carriages zooms by. The tail zaps by, you then dare to peek out over the track after it and there it is, already far away, dwindling into the distance at an amazing rate. The thought of what such a juggernaut would do if it struck something doesn’t bear thinking about.
Cars are neither as big nor as fast as express trains. But they still make an awful mess of a human body when they collide with one at any speed over about 30 km/h. The road is indeed, relative to the footpath, a place of great violence.
Back then to the barrier between peace and violence. In England, the barrier is less than in Australia, so why do I feel less afraid? I think it is because, rather than the violence of the road invading the pavement, the peace of the pavement starts to permeate the road! This is not an airy-fairy, metaphysical sensation. It can be measured objectively in car speeds and driver behaviour. The cars rarely drive faster than 30 km/h, are generally cautious and alert for, and respectful of, pedestrians and cyclists, and rarely use their horns. One just feels fairly safe, walking down an English street, including when one crosses the road. It is as if having only a flimsy barrier between pedestrians and motorists makes the motorists more aware of the violence of which they are capable, and influences them to be more cautious and respectful than they would be if the barrier were greater. In contrast, Australian drivers tend to accelerate to 60 km/h at every opportunity, regardless of whether that is a safe speed or even of whether it would shorten the expected journey length.
I am not suggesting that the flimsy barrier is the sole reason for the difference. I expect cultural norms built up over many decades, perhaps aided by laws that place greater responsibility for safety on motorists, contribute as well. But what is undeniable is that the urban terrorism of Australian motorists just doesn’t seem exist in the England, and maybe not even in most of Europe.
It makes walking or riding around town just so much more pleasant. I suspect maybe it makes driving more pleasant too. It is sometimes nice to feel one is not in a war zone.
Bondi Junction, March 2018
PS The featured image for this essay is a shot from the 1974 Australian horror comedy movie ‘The Cars That Ate Paris‘. Get hold of a copy if you can and watch it. It sounds brilliant!