Jocks not nerds: Why dumb politicians may be better.

The era of the warrior king was awe-inspiring. The leader that rode his troops into battle, survived arrow puncture wounds and chopped off a dozen enemy heads really earned the right to sit on that throne.

Richard iii shortly before his reign ended, at the Battle of Bosworth
Richard III – shortly before his reign ended – at the Battle of Bosworth

But over time, it became clear that the two skill-sets – sagacious governing and vigorous neck-hacking – were rarely found in the same individual.

We saw specialisation and gains from trade.

Kings paid knights to do their warring for them while Knights benefited from having a bookish type on the throne – someone inclined to spend hours contemplating the merits of the laws, rather than lifting heavy rocks.

So we come to modern politicians. There’s a lot of complaints that these people are  “too dumb”.

But is that fair? Since when did we expect the parliament to do the heavy thinking to come up with new policies?

That’s why we have the public service, the think tanks, the vast commentariat. There is no shortage of good ideas in Australian politics. Take today’s call for the end of negative gearing, for example. That idea doesn’t need to be invented, just implemented.

What we need in parliament is people who can make parliament work.

We need coalition-builders. We need people other people are happy to follow. We need people who can bolt together a coalition of interested parties to make something happen. We need leaders.

If your community is chock-full of bookish types, then they may be delighted to be led by a former university professor.

But will that inspire and delight the community at large?

PUPS

Recent evidence says no.

I’m not saying the level should be brought down that low, mind you. The politicians still need to be able to tell a good idea from a bad one.

The Dunning Kruger effect, wherein a person may be too stupid to tell they are stupid, is an ever-present risk among candidates for parliament. Many of them self-select, thinking they are the first person who ever wanted to take “common sense to Canberra”.

The structure of the political system also influences who you should vote for. If one person will rule, you want a sensible centrist. But where there’s lots of negotiation, you’re better off sending a hardline crazy person. (This may explain the Senate.)

There’s a roughly translated quote from Plato:

“Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”

That may have been true once. But these days we are barely governed at all. Years pass without any real reform, while reams of sensible but bold recommendations printed on glossy A4 blow emptily round the inner-city streets of Canberra.

So don’t be afraid to vote for a Jock. Someone who seems smiley and friendly and very popular, if a little bit dim. Someone whose electoral success is not explained by a dazzling academic CV. They might be the the exact politician we need.

Politicians – peddlers of pain. Why not make it plain?

Change that doesn’t involve pain is not political. It is administrative change.

Politics without pain is not politics at all. Change without pain requires no hard choices, no leadership, and no leaders.

Dress up administration as leadership, people will disrespect you. Pretend reform produces only winners and you’ll be unable to be true to your word. Say “this won’t hurt a bit” and people will soon learn to not trust you.

Politicians who aspire to be more than mere administrators must not flinch in the face of pain. They must be conversant in it. They must know that being a leader means being a dealer of pain.

Does the surgeon tremble when he picks up the scalpel? Does the coach worry that the players must be tired? Does the kindergarten teacher flinch at using the naughty corner?

Not if they know their job. So politicians too must be prepared to make scars, see sweat, deal with temper-tantrums.

Perceptions of injustice, angry placards, people weeping for a way of life lost and letters to the editor. These are the products of good leadership.

And I’m not talking about hurting foreigners. Asylum seekers and would-have-been aid recipients. That’s fish in a barrel stuff. Rookie stuff. Leadership means a willingness to rile your own.

Being willing to deal in political pain requires seeing over the horizon even when the voters can’t. Lead well enough for long enough, and the balance will show through.

Here are some examples of politicians being afraid to dish out hurt – beneficial hurt – to their constituents and stakeholders.

  • The absence of congestion charges and user-charges on the road system.
  • The lack of GST on education and health.
  • The failure to increase the tax on the abundant profits of the mining sector as ore prices rose.
  • The loopholes in the taxation system that allow trusts to operate and remove billions from within the ATO’s reach.
  • Urban planning rules that preserve certain suburbs in sepia tone.

Politicians need to step back and understand their job. Rather than trying to make changes that don’t hurt, or making changes that do hurt but pretending they don’t, they ought to make pain their friend. They are pain-makers.

When you lie about the way reform hurts, you undermine the case for reform. A simple headline that says “pensioners to be worse off” can end your reform.  But if you introduce a reform by emphasising that it hurts, that headline doesn’t have the same effect.

I’m not advocating pain for pain’s sake. I just want good policy to be able to be discussed openly. Pain and all.

If we know politicians are pain-makers, we will be more respectful and careful in selecting them. Fewer flighty weirdos. More hard-thinking, fair-minded squares.

Because a good politician, like a good coach, is one that makes us want pain. A communicator that fills each billowing twinge with the reason for it.

In other fields of endeavour we love and respect hard-liners who remind us nothing good comes cheaply. Why do we elect politicians that pledge to coddle?

Politics is ripe for cracking open, ripe for genuine innovation. The homogeny of ideas and approaches is stifling. The acceptance of the limits placed on politicians is stifling. But this stifling period in democracy will end.

When it does, it could be via a politician that does not shy from pain. I’d like the next Prime Minister to also adopt the title Minister for Pain. PM-MP. Put the issue front and centre. Make it clear that this is a government that won’t lie about the connection between hurt and improvement.