Why Are We Surrounded by Underwhelming Politicians?

Is it just me, or are you also despairing at the dearth of political leadership across western democracies. I also wonder what is going wrong, when all America could come up with as choices for its next President is either Donald Trump or Joe Biden. And as much regard as I have for the two front men of Australian politics, Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese are hardly what I would call inspirational leaders.  And it may sound rude, but the recent race between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn felt like a cumbersome roll to the bottom of a hill.

I am certainly not an expert in politics, and in fact am best described as an ignorant observer. However, I can see two basic reasons why we are facing a drought of inspirational political leadership.

1.    People with vision and courage don’t get into politics in the first place

2.    People do enter politics with vision and courage but get thwarted (or kicked out) along the way.

Let’s explore each of these possible reasons.

People with vision and courage don’t get into politics in the first place

Here is an example of why some change-makers don’t get into politics. Uber first launched in Australia in 2012, with I am sure some time before this governments becoming aware of their intended actions. It took until 2016 (at least four years) for some of the state governments to finalise the legislation to legalise their operations. Four years to get something done to support societal change. I could understand then that anyone who was eager to make change would not bother trying to do this through politics. It appears so much more efficient and effective to be driving change in the private or even community sectors. 

Just look at how much time our politicians spend answering Dorothy-dixer[1] questions, cutting ribbons and doing interviews. The time, energy and money spent doing these things could have been used to just get things done – to actually deliver benefit rather than to talk about the benefit. There is a lot of stuff going on in government, but very little inspirational vision preceding it. Bold and courageous visions for the future are not appreciated much in politics these days. There is a risk the voters may not like it. So if you are a visionary, or you a person driven to make change happen, then government is not the best option to deliver on your dreams.

Also, why would people want to enter a profession that the community has such a lack of regard for? This time last year, the lack of trust in government hit an all-time low. In every four people, three expressed no confidence in their political leaders and institutions. Why would a person in their right minds put themselves in a position where their reputation was going to be tarnished? Why would they throw their years of hard work building credibility to have it tossed away by associating with politicians?

People do enter politics with vision and courage but get thwarted (or kicked out) along the way.

Ok, so say a politician comes in with a bold and brave vision and commitment to action. Say they have the patience to work through the bureaucracy to embed the change in legislation. They may also have the leadership needed to drive change through the incredibly inefficient machinery of government. What if one leader begins to bring the parties together for the common good. What if they were able to build consensus and bi-partisan agreement on a clear and compelling vision for the future? What if one politician was uniting parties and the nation to build true and sustainable prosperity?

Well, the cynic in me says they would either very slowly, or incredibly suddenly disappear. Why? Because politics is a divisive game. One side has to be seen to be ‘better’ than the other side if they are going to win the election. This is the ultimate goal – to win the election. So, in democracy then there is a winner and a loser. One side has to be the hero, and the other side has to be the villain. You can’t have anyone coming along destroying the rules of the game. The identities of the political parties would be lost. What would they stand for? How would they differentiate themselves if they were working ‘with’ instead of ‘against’ the other party?

Politics, just like every other area of our lives has become a brand game. It is just as materialistic and image-focused as everything else we see around us. So even if you came in with the best intentions, you have to fit the brand, or leave. This dilemma is recognised by Emeritus Professor Judith Brett when she states:

“the need for party brand differentiation is often a greater imperative than the achievement of durable policy outcomes”.

The Professor cites the example the second Australian Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin who, on his retirement, was criticised for his weak leadership. This was the insult given to someone who did not care for the party brand, but only in building consensus to deliver beneficial policy outcomes. He put the interests of the nation before the interests of the party, and for this he was criticised. 

It appears that the most important thing these days in politics is the party, and the leader is completely dispensable. It really does not matter anymore what the leader thinks is right for the country. It only matters how people perceive the leader. All that matters is whether the brand is winning. How many political leaders have been jettisoned by their own parties using the excuse of poor polling? Enough said.

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Photo by Junkee.com

In this regard, I don’t think the media are always helpful. They tend to thrive and fuel the division. The media likes to ask the questions to get politicians looking uncomfortable and uncertain. It gives them something to write about. I cannot ascertain whether the media is a cause or an effect of the divisive politics we see today, but I have no doubt that it plays some role in sustaining it.

The other reason I believe people get thwarted in their political visions is because of what I call the Messiah approach to leadership. We see it distinctly in the private sector – a new CEO is brought in to ‘fix’ everything and to deliver miracles. When they don’t within an impossible timeframe, they are obviously not the Messiah, and so a new one is sought. I am getting the sense that the same approach is being taken in politics. Parties want a leader that can deliver the impossible:

·      bring people together but keep their party identity intact

·      be a unique and charismatic individual but not outshine the importance of the party

·      bring about change but not disrupt the lives of the party faithful

·      to be strong and decisive but only if the decisions fit the brand.

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Photo by John Price on Unsplash

If the Messiah is unable to balance these dichotomies, then out they go. And the party appoints a new Saviour. The sad thing is that in Australia we are up to our sixth Prime Minister in a decade. This suggests that either Messiah’s don’t exist, or we are just not very good at picking them. In any case, the whole approach does appear to be flawed and disruptive. It is also understandable that voters don’t trust their governments when they are continually being sold false gods!

Perhaps I Am Expecting Too Much?

There is one final reason why I am distressed at the quality (or lack thereof) of politicians I see. Maybe I am just expecting too much? We are living in a materialistic world where image is everything. Why should our system of governments be any different? If social media can make people like the Kardashian family the worlds greatest influencers, then it suggests you don’t need much substance to get ahead these days. Instead of a family of six, Parliament has 227 egos battling it out for attention. It is just the nature of things that it is not the wisest voice in the room that gets heard, but the loudest. Perhaps or governments are just a reflection of the crazy world we are living in.

However, there are corporations across the globe that are larger and more diverse than government that are making a real and positive difference in the lives of individuals and communities. They can build a strong and compelling vision; they can unite people behind the vision and muster resources to make it happen. Why can’t our governments? Why is something like climate-change, which affects us all, being used as another weapon of division and hero politics rather than as an opportunity for nation-wide vision and connection?

Some people may call my views naïve and idealistic. But have you ever watched parliament question time? This picture is not too dissimilar to the way I see it unfolding.

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Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

I am continually disgusted by the behaviour of our leaders and the complete and utter waste of time I see. Shouldn’t our politicians be better than that? Shouldn’t we expect our politicians to be the role models of our nation? Shouldn’t we be able to demand that our politicians work together to secure a prosperous future for ourselves and our children? 

All I can say is that god help us if the role model we should be subscribing to is the mean, evasive and insulting behaviour we see in question time! It only reinforces my understanding of why some of the smartest people in the world decide not to become politicians.




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