Imagine a world where our politicians suffered real consequences when they mislead the public with a lie. A world where politicians had to work together like civil adults – instead of tearing each other apart like badly behaved toddlers. In other words – imagine a world where politicians had to live by the same standards that we do.
For too long we’ve accepted politicians’ lies and childlike behaviour as normal. For too long we’ve accepted that our politicians are untouchable – protected by law and power from having to change.
“That’s what elections are for” our politicians argue.
The problem with that argument is that the issue is systemic. The way our pollies behave is built into the laws, conventions and traditions that govern them – many of which have been in place for hundreds of years. This is why changing ‘who’ is in parliament at election time seems to have very little impact on ‘what’ politicians the world over do – leaving us feeling frustrated, helpless and disillusioned about those we choose to govern us.
Well I’ve got some good news. It turns out – for those of us in functioning democracies at least – we’re not as powerless as we’ve been led to believe. The tide has turned a little this century and we – the average punter – have much more power to make change happen, right from the comfort of our living rooms.
Here’s why we need to. And more importantly – how…..
As a species, we’ve made huge leaps forward in the last 150 years…
If you think back over the last 150 years – mankind has progressed on so many fronts. We’ve harnessed electricity to power our homes. We’ve gone to the moon. We’ve cured diseases that once wiped out hundreds of thousands. We’ve run the four minute mile. We’ve learned how to share knowledge and connect with each other through devices we carry around on our person. Our human rights record has even improved – albeit slowly.
But there’s one front where mankind has made little progress…
Despite all this progress on a physical and intellectual level, there’s one aspect of mankind that has hung doggedly onto the traditions of the past – and that’s our political culture, the way those who lead us, our politicians, behave.
Stop and think about it for two seconds. If there’s one thing we can pretty much all agree on, regardless of your political orientation or whether you have any interest in politics whatsoever – it’s that our politicians’ behaviour leaves a lot to be desired. All over the world you can easily find examples of politicians behaving, well like toddlers. Ok – worse than toddlers:
If they’re not fighting physically – our politicians are calling each other names, heckling each other and generally looking at how they can make anyone not from their own political faction look bad. Here’s comedian Shaun Micallef with some examples from last year in the Australian parliament:
And it’s not just the fighting – it’s the lies. Politicians can literally lie with impunity. Unlike the rest of us, they are specifically excluded from having to be truthful in their advertising. Nor are they subject to the same defamation laws the rest of us are. They can legally get up in parliament and say pretty much whatever they like without fear of fine, civil lawsuit or imprisonment. And because we’re so used to it now, most of us don’t even blink an eye. In the words of one Australian Political Commentator:
“Pretty much everyone assumes that once they see a politicians lips move, that means you’re not necessarily going to hear the truth” (Niki Savva, Insiders, 2015)
It’s easy to shrug this off – many people do. Many people feel that they can do nothing about this, that their vote doesn’t count – that politicians are untouchable – so they just accept it.
But politicians are our leaders – the ones in charge. They are the people we elect to represent us, to determine the future of mankind on this planet. We should have people in charge of our countries who represent and are examples of the best of humanity – not the worst.
Our politicians are still living by rules from the Middle ages
Our Prime Minister speaks of innovation – it’s the new buzz word in politics. But our politicians are still living out political traditions from the Middle Ages – literally. In fact, according to Maurice Bond, OBE, FSA – who wrote the book on British parliamentary procedure:
Elizabeth I reigned over Britain in the late 16th century. And yet the rules of British parliamentary debate – which have formed the basis of the rules used by many current democracies around the world (including Australia) – have not changed. The same is true in other areas of parliamentary behaviour.
Imagine if we behaved the way our politicians do…
To grasp exactly how absurd politicians’ behaviour is – how out of touch it is with current standards – let’s imagine what life would be like if companies today operated the way parliament does:
Imagine you are a shareholder in a company of 100 employees who build widgets. Now imagine that rather than all 100 employees working together to build widgets, only 60 of them are actually involved in widget production. We’ll call them ‘the Controllers’.
The job of the remaining 40 employees – who we will call ‘the Opposers’ – is to sit around and heckle the Controllers and occasionally call press conferences to tell shareholders what a bad job the Controllers are doing running the company.
In our imaginary world, when the Controllers and Opposers get together at company meetings, they do very little company business. Instead they shout at each other, call each other names and accuse each other of various atrocities.
Keep going with this – and imagine that widget production is way down on expected targets and so are widget sales. (Hardly surprising – given that only 60% of staff are actually building widgets and that the remaining 40% of staff spend their time talking about how bad the company’s widgets are.)
However, rather than trying to fix the actual problem, the Controllers embark on an advertising campaign. They run an ad saying their widgets are half the price of any other widget on the market, and that there are serious health risks with their competitor’s widgets which will likely lead to the early death of anyone who purchases them. (Not true of course – in fact the company’s widgets are the most expensive on the market, and their competitors’ widgets are perfectly safe – but in our imaginary world, the company can behave like politicians, so truth in advertising is not a requirement.)
Now imagine that you and the other shareholders are becoming concerned about the way things are going. You’ve heard the press releases from the Opposers saying the company’s widgets are really bad. You’ve seen the ads which you know are not true. You go to the Shareholder meeting hoping to get some answers, but every time anyone asks a question, the Controllers either don’t answer the question, tell you something which is demonstrably untrue or say it’s not their fault anyway – that it was the Opposers who did it.
Finding it hard to imagine?
That’s not surprising. Because if the rest of us behaved like our politicians do – we’d be fired, fined a lot of money and/or locked up in jail. And the widget company would go out of business pretty quickly. After all, who would buy something from a company whose own employees hold press conferences spelling out what a bad job they are doing? And what company would think it a good idea to pay 40% of its employees to heckle the remaining 60%.
In the real world, real people learn to compromise – to work with people they don’t always agree with. The good ones even recognise that working with people who have different opinions to themselves can be a strength as they provide a different perspective.
In the real world, if a company or an individual misrepresents themselves to the public for financial gain, or lies to their boss or shareholders – it’s called fraud – and they can be heavily fined, sued for their lies and sometimes even jailed.
So, if we lie to the government, it is a felony. But if they lie to us, it is politics “Bill Murray”
We’re all pretty much agreed that the politicians that we – the people – employ to run our country are, on the whole, doing a pretty poor job of it. So what needs to change?
For a start – politicians need to start playing by the same rules that we do.
It’s time. It’s time that our politicians stepped out of their medieval ivory towers and moved into the 21st century, and lived by the same rules that we do.
While many politicians like to act as though they are our rulers, in a democracy their job is to represent and serve us. Ministers swear an oath when they take office in Australia, promising to ‘serve the people‘. They are our servants. We hire them. We pay their salary. And once every few years we decide which servants still have a job.
It’s time we demand our servants – our politicians – change. Let’s get them to start with two basic small steps:
Step One: Stop lying and stick to the facts
It’s time our politicians were required to work with facts rather than political spin. It’s time to eliminate the laws that allow politicians to lie to us or ‘misrepresent’ the truth. If a company lies in an advertisement, they can be prosecuted and fined by the ACCC. If you or I lie in an advertisement to sell a car, the person who bought the car could sue us. If a company director lies, they can go to jail.
It’s time these same standards applied to politicians – not just in advertisements, but in any representations they make to us, particularly at election time. And if they don’t tell us the truth – then they should be prosecuted, fined and/or lose their jobs.
Along the same lines, we should remove laws that protect politicians from defamation – again, they should be bound by the same rules as the rest of us.
Step Two: Behave like adults (and not children)
Here’s three fairly simple steps that the rest of us all have to live by in our workplaces:
- No heckling, fighting and name-calling:
Politicians are hired to run the country, not to heckle each other and point-score. And every single person sitting in that parliament has been voted in by us, the people who pay those politicians’ salaries. When politicians disrespect each other they are disrespecting us – since we voted them in.
- Learn to compromise and work together:
It’s ridiculous that we pay people to heckle and that only the ‘majority’ get to ‘govern’. Ok – it’s not quite that simple – but that is a big part of their job. We pay all our politicians to govern us – they should work out how to come together and do the job we pay them to do. In the real world we all learn to work together. It’s time that ALL elected representatives in parliament get real input and a real say, and that parliament is a real place of debate and discussion – not just a place where laws that have already been decided upon behind the closed doors of cabinet meetings are rubber-stamped.
- Live within our means – Politicians keep telling us we have to do this. And yet their expense claims are beyond ridiculous. They’re our servants, not our masters – and yet they live better than we do. Enough’s enough.
The need has never been greater
Right now the world is facing problems which need global solutions – which need our leaders to work together. Problems like:
- 70 million displaced people who have no safe place on this planet to put their feet; and
- Global warming, which is going to increase the number of displaced people globally and potentially threaten our food supplies.
These are not problems that any one nation can solve on its own. These problems have to be solved at a global level – with global solutions. But how on earth are our leaders going to solve these problems, when they are still playing by rules that were created in the Middle Ages – back in a time when duels and wars were considered an honorable way to solve a dispute.
Today, the rest of us have mostly learned to solve our disputes with logic, with reason – it’s time our politicians did too. It’s time we demanded that our pollies live by the same rules we do.
It’s time. But how?
Democratic revolutions are fought and won with voices, not with guns
It’s actually not that hard to make change happen. Oh sure – politicians will whinge and complain and push back – after all, they’re experts at that. But at the end of the day, they work for us. And if the majority of us want change, it will happen – not with fighting and guns, but by us all simply using our voices.
That’s the way it’s always happened.
Real change at a political level has pretty much always come from the people – not from our leaders. It’s come about when someone has an idea and shares it with others, who in turn share it with others. In the past – before democracy – those who wanted change often needed guns to make their ideas reality. But in a democratic society, ideas are our weapons and we take up arms when we voice our opinion, not just when we vote, but every day.
Women didn’t get the vote early last century because politicians came up with the idea and sold it to the people. They got the vote because citizens started talking about it, because they stood up and made their voices heard, because they talked about the issue until the tide of public opinion changed. Only then did a majority of politicians have to get on board.
Changes to racial discrimination laws weren’t initiated by politicians. They came about because civil rights activists started talking about the issues, started questioning whether the status quo was right. They stood up and made their voices heard and eventually a majority of politicians had to get on board.
It’s always been that way. Revolutions have always started with ideas. With real everyday people like you and me using their voices to share those ideas – and with those ideas catching on and gaining support.
That’s what democracy is all about – at least in theory – us all deciding which ideas we want to adopt. That’s what makes a democracy different to any other form of government – it allows the free discussion and vote on ideas. It’s what makes us different to countries like China or North Korea – where access to ideas on the internet is tightly controlled. Why? Because their leaders recognise that ideas, that the voices of its people are the greatest threat to their continued rule of those countries. It’s the reason governments like Nauru shut down access to social media – to stop the spread of ideas, to stop people using their voices.
Those of us in functioning democracies have it easy today – we don’t even have to meet together physically to share our thoughts and ideas. With the internet and social media, each of us can share our ideas with hundreds, even thousands of others from the comfort of our living room. Today, thanks to technology, we the people have never been more powerful, because our voices have never been more able to be heard.
Sit down for what you believe in
And so, my fellow democratic citizens – if you think it’s time our politicians moved out of the middle ages and started living by the same standards as the rest of us, all you need to do is spread this idea. Talk about it at the dinner table. Share this article. Or write your own. Start your own hash tag – or use #ItsTime.
As I’ve written before – Kevin Bacon was right. We are all only separated by six degrees of separation. If you were to talk to everyone you know about this, and they in turn talked to everyone they knew – it would really only take six layers of conversations for everyone to be on the same page. In no time, we could technically all agree that change needed to happen. Of course it’s never entirely that simple – it’s rare for everyone to agree. But in a democracy, everyone doesn’t have to agree – just the majority.
And once a majority of us agree, and keep saying it’s important to us, in the end our politicians will have to come on board – or a new mob of politicians who are on board with the idea will take their place. That’s how democracy works.
Our Pollies have lived in the middle ages for too long. Whether they like it or not – change is coming. There is a ground swell globally of people who are sick of politicians. Sick of being lied to. Sick of politicians creating greater inequality instead of greater equality. The answer isn’t voting in people like Donald Trump – who pretend that they are different from those currently in power. It’s in demanding higher standards of our pollies.
You can be a part of creating a positive model for us to move forward with – by just using your voice, by standing up – actually better still, sitting down – for what you believe in. To make it really clear that:
It’s time our politicians lived like us (#ItsTime)
This isn’t a silver bullet. It won’t magically fix our governments. But requiring our politicians to move into this century – to work in the realm of facts and not spin, to learn to work together – it has to be an improvement on their medieval practices of today.
Originally published on 24 May 2016 by Kate M in the Progressive Conversation