There is an Australian election coming up on the 21st of August, which is exactly four weeks away. I am considering becoming involved in some way. You see, I’m not very happy with the way the world is, nor am I happy with the direction in which it is going. I would like to make some kind of contribution towards changing that direction for the better, and in many ways that is at the heart of the dilemma I’ve been facing since retiring from speed skating; how would I best accomplish this?
Regular readers of my website will know that this is something that I think about often. In fact, my whole stint in New York, doing the MA at Columbia University was pretty much undertaken with the intent to contribute to my “quest for world peace”. Of course, it isn’t ALL about world peace. It is also about long-term sustainability, reduction of poverty, and some kind of application of social justice. These are all lofty and difficult goals to achieve, and nobody seems to write a how-to manual for people such as myself who are out there to accomplish these things. I’m not even sure that there exists anyone in the world who would even be able to write that manual, or even a single chapter of it. The goals themselves seem to change over time, as we slowly understand ourselves better, and readers of the various philosophical rants that I often go off on know that I spend a lot of time simply grappling with the definitions and parameters of the problems I face. It’s just something that well-meaning people seem to muddle through all their lives, and if they’re lucky, they can affect a small, positive change on some small part of the world.
Being a statesman seems like an obvious choice for the career of someone who wants to change the world for the better. Although any recent observations of current politicians might make you think twice about that. It certainly makes me think twice. Being a statesman these days seems more like the cross between a sick joke and an elaborate board game, than a job. Perhaps part of the reason I perceive things in this way is because I don’t ordinarily think of jobs as things in which people’s lives are adversely affected. Obviously, sometimes there are unintended consequences, but that is very different. In politics, it is well known that one will often take actions which will intentionally violate Pareto optimality – in laymans terms, the job will sometimes necessarily involve screwing people over, and this is accepted.
Take for example the recent replacement of the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard. Rudd was not doing a bad job, but he made a small political misstep with regards to the mining industry. The mining industry, being very wealthy and (therefore, in the age of capitalism) powerful, began a smear campaign against the Labor government. I found out about this when I got a letter from Rio Tinto to shareholders which contained information which wasn’t technically untrue, but which I knew to be a misrepresentation of the facts. Of course, not everyone is as well-informed as I am about the misbehaviours of corporate PR campaigns, so this smear campaign began to undermine the legitimacy of the government. The higher-ups in the party (apparently, there are people higher up than the Prime minister) decided to sacrifice Rudd and replace him with a new PM, his deputy Gillard and change their policy with regard to the mining tax. Poor Kevin Rudd, fluent speaker of Mandarin, signer of the Kyoto Protocol, and sayer of the world “Sorry” to our indigenous population was a pawn in this game, and the controversy surrounding this abrupt replacement has probably done our international reputation no favours.
What’s the take-home lesson here? It is dangerous to be Prime Minister of Australia? The mining industry in Australia is far too politically powerful? Perhaps, but the real point I was trying to make is that politics is a dirty business, and that single politicians are often not particularly powerful. Why would I want to get into politics then? Well, I once had a conversation with a fellow by the name of Gareth [Gareth] Evans at the UN while attending a conference and was basically asking him this question. His response was simply that if people like me didn’t get into politics, then less-competent, less-qualified, and likely less-well-intentioned people would. The name of Steve Fielding immediately came to mind.
Steve Fielding, to put it briefly, is the bane of the Australian political scene. He is the perfect example of the damage that can be inflicted when an idiotic, ignorant, unintelligent, yet well-meaning person gets into a position of power. He is an Australian senator for a party called Family First, which is a front for a Christian, Evangelical, Pentecostalist political party. He is incapable of answering a question directly (a plus in the world of politics, I’m told) and he believes the world is less than 5000 years old. I have no doubt at all that he has good intentions, however he is the worst kind of ignoramus in that he understands nothing, yet believes that he understands everything. The problem is that for the last six years, he has held the deciding vote in the Australian Senate.
During this time, while John Howard’s Liberal (in Australia, that means “Conservative”) government were in power, he helped pass Voluntary Student Unionism, a bill which effectively killed any feeling of a shared community in Australian Universities. More recently, when Labor came to power under Kevin Rudd, he held up the Emissions Trading Scheme bill for long enough for the Liberals to implode and destroy any chance of it being passed. He doesn’t believe in climate change – not just the bit about it being man-made, but he doesn’t believe it at all. He even went on a “fact finding mission” to the US to learn about climate change – by going to a conference of climate change skeptics, run by the heartland institute, a libertarian think tank (I use the word “think” very loosely here) which is funded by oil companies. It is difficult for me to communicate just how idiotic this guy is. (For Americans who are reading this, just imagine if Sarah Palin had been elected to the Senate and held the crucial 60th filibuster-breaking vote.)
Why do I bring up the example of Steve Fielding? (it ain’t good for my blood pressure you know) Because I imagine that, had I been in the position that he had been in, I would have made better decisions and Australia would be a better place – simple. Sometimes one person really can make a big difference. It’s not only the decisions that they make, but how they carry themselves. These people get a lot of media exposure, and if kids watch these idiots running the country (into the ground) then they’re not going to want a part of it, and we’ll end up with even more drop-kicks in Australian Politics.
Yet I still have doubts. Would I be a good statesman? It seems that nearly everything I’ve done in my life up to this point has been geared in some way towards being able to answer “yes” to that question. I have an unusually diverse set of talents and have invested considerable time in developing them. My list of electives at Columbia speak as much – Contemporary Diplomacy, Game Theory, Economics of Information and Uncertainty, Human Rights and Development Policy, Introduction to International Development, Human Ecology and Sustainable Development. But not everything can be learned from books – I’ve volunteered with UNICEF, and with Amnesty International both in the US and Australia. I helped found the youth network in Australia, I was president of the Melbourne Uni group, I conceived of and ran a series of very large-scale comedy nights. Obviously doing all of that wasn’t enough pressure so I became a professional athlete for a while and tried to qualify for the Olympics, and failed. I’ve lived in four different cities, on four different continents, half of which didn’t have English as an official language. None of this is standard “work experience”, but I believe that it is the kind of “life experience” that many career politicians lack.
It’s strange; I seem to have become something that I always sort of avoided. When I was young, someone told me that to really make it in life, you need to be a good “people-person”. When I was young, I was also exposed to all manner of incompetent money-hungry types with more dollars than sense who would boast that they “got things done”. I think I wanted to avoid these labels because I felt, mostly because of the people who I associated with these labels, that they had to be good people-people or get-things-done because it was their way of compensating for not actually being good at anything (which was largely true in those early examples). I have since learned however, that those labels are often associated with me, which scares me.
It costs 500 Australian dollars and 50 signatures from voters in your electorate to run for the lower house in Australia as an independent. The lower house, or “house of representatives” is where government is formed, and MPs are elected based on geographical electorates. My electorate is “Melbourne” and the incumbent, Lindsay Tanner, of whom I’m a fan, is leaving politics, and thus leaving the race for Melbourne wide open. Curiously, this still won’t be an important seat in the election as far as I’m concerned because the battle will be between Labor and the Greens, and I don’t mind either. The real goal in this election is to ensure that the Liberals (conservatives, remember) don’t get elected.
Not all of my friends are left-leaning politically, and I sympathize. However, allow me to defend my current dislike for Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party. I receive regular emails from the Libs, because I once signed up for the Melbourne University Liberal Club as a joke. As it was, it was a pretty terrible joke, with members beginning sentences with “I don’t want to sound racist but…” During most of their time in opposition, the Liberals were lead by a guy named Malcom Turnbull, who, while I often disagreed with him, seemed a fairly respectable guy. However, recently the Liberal party leadership imploded and Turnbull was ousted. The matter over which the party divided was the Emissions Trading Scheme which I mentioned above. Basically, half of the party believed in climate change, and the other half did not. Abbott was on the side of the half that did not. He is either ignorant of the well-established science, which leads me to question his ability to listen to experts and come to good decisions, or he is aware of the truth yet pretends for whatever reason (although I’m just going throw it out there that oil company funding might have something to do with it), in which case I would question his ability to be a good person (although, to be honest, I’d already made up my mind about this aspect of Abbott).
p.s. if you’re still skeptical about climate change, please read these before bombarding me with nonsense.
What else? There’s the Senate. Running for the Senate costs 1000 Australian dollars (edit: also requires 50 signatures of electors) and, by my calculations, is even more difficult to get into. Senate ballot papers are notoriously complex things and a very small percentage of people (of which I am numbered) bother to number all their senators below the lines, most people opting to simply write a “1” next to a political party above the line. In order for me to have any chance in the Senate, I would have to strike some kind of preference exchange “deal” with at least a few better-known candidates or parties. As an independent, I’m simply not politically “famous” enough for anyone to want to give their preferences to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I harbour no expectation of actually getting into either the Senate or the House of Representatives. At least not this time. But it might be fun and somewhat educational to have a “trial run” at it this time around. And to all my friends who have emailed me saying “I’d vote for you”, thank you for the support, it means a lot to me. Who knows, maybe somewhere down the line I’ll find some kind of “career” that allows me to work towards my life goals, yet still allows me to avoid the mudslinging that is modern politics. You see, I think that’s one of the major obstacles that I would encounter – I’m just not that great at being nasty to people, I have this tendency to take responsibility for my own actions, and even to say sorry. If the current crop of politicians is anything to go by, I wouldn’t stand a chance.
But the world is what we make of it; Gandhi said “you must be the change you want to see in the world” so maybe I should just try being an honest and honourable politician? Now that would be something.
What do people think?
p.s. if anyone has any other serious career suggestions for me, please let me know