Caesar meets his end

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.

Australian House of Representatives

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.

Australian Senate

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?

Parliament House

p.s. if anyone has any other serious career suggestions for me, please let me know

11 Comments on Realpolitik

  1. I don’t mean to be racist, but you probably should run; at the least, you’ve gained a valuable insight into the process(es) involved, and at the most, you could effect change.

  2. Close of nominations is this Thursday (29th). I don’t think nominating yourself this time around is a good idea; it is fairly impossible to run a campaign as an unknown in 28 days.

  3. Well, to cut a long story short: if you’re planning to swim in the future, you might as well get your feet wet now.

    But since I’m a bit of a windbag, I’ll elaborate:

    If I follow the gist of your article correctly, you want to make a change in the world, but your not sure if going into politics is the right way to go about accomplishing it. Other than that, if you do choose to dabble in politics, you fear that you might become the very type of political person that you loath.

    Given the first dilemma, I might have advised you to go into science. You could change the world by providing it with cheap renewable energy, sustainable crops, cures for disease and so on. But since you’ve invested so much of your scholarly effort into political science, it’s a bit to late for that.

    We’ve only met briefly during the speedskating world championships, but from that impression, and especially today, after following your online musings – I can safely say that you’re the kind of guy that I would like to see in government.
    I’m sure you’ll end up “getting your hands dirty” – but I’d rather have a Daniel Yeow reluctantly trudging through the mud in order to achieve a higher goal, than a Steve Fielding, who loves wallowing in the made for the sake of wallowing.

    So go on – get your hands dirty, but don’t forget what your doing it for…

    • Hey Boaz, yeah you’re pretty much spot-on with the gist of it all.

      I do have a bit of a scientific background. One of my undergrad majors was pure math, and my MA is in climate science. It pains me to hear politicians talking about climate change as if there really was a debate – these guys have access to some of the best minds in the country yet… yeah, anyway, don’t get me started.

      I probably will eventually have to get my hands dirty, if not here, maybe in the strange world of working in the UN, which I’ve heard can also be very disheartening and frustrating.

      But thanks for the encouragement. Maybe I’ll see you around… somewhere in the world…

  4. Hmm, this is a tough one. In my cynical fashion I’d be disinclined to run were I in your shoes, for the following reasons. Firstly, it’s kind of rare that an independent can do anything, unless they start off with a public profile of some kind (either they’re famous, or are an incumbent who is no longer in their old party for some reason), so I think your chances of getting elected are zilch this time around, and so close to zilch as to make no difference next time around.

    Secondly, your politics is (I think) already fairly well represented, particularly in your (and my new!!) electorate. Fielding to some degree was able to differentiate himself from other right wing parties, since he was somewhere between the Liberals and the flat out crazies. You, I’d think, would have fairly similar ideas to the Greens, and to the Tanner-ite Labor types, which means that people wouldn’t be inclined to vote for you ahead of those attached to a political party.

    Of course, one solution to that would be join a political party (I’m guessing it would be the Greens). While that’s probably a good idea in and of itself, it seems to me that it’s a fair way from there to Parliament, and a fair way from Parliament to any real power. Also, of course, the Realpolitik (particularly if I’m wrong about the Greens, and you’re a Labor man!).

    All in all, my thoughts, particularly given you mentioned Gareth (Gareth-)Evans (sorry, I always loved that joke) would be that you would be ideally suited to some form of diplomatic career – either through the UN, or through something like DFAT. Of course, if you’re talking Realpolitik, and doing nasty things For The Greater Good, then obviously diplomatic stuff would drive you right into conflict with that. But I’d still think it would give you the most realistic opportunity to make some sort of difference to things. Feel free to ignore my ill-thought-through, hastily-scribbled, procrastinatory ramblings.

    Having said all this, if you run, then I’d vote for you in a flash (and I can, now that I’m in the correct electorate). Also, we should catch up for a beer or something, it has been many a year.

  5. I would say go for the Senate and not the House of Representatives. Considering that most states most of the time split their senate seats 3-3 left-right, then if you can get into the Senate, you’re much more likely to be in a position at or near the balance of power where you can achieve something. Consider for example the positions of Messers Harradine, Fielding and Xenophon in recent years.

    The big question that affects your chances is whether you can get yourself a box above the line. Do you know how to do that?

    The first time running as a candidate has a good chance of being an exploratory campaign you run for the experience, which may be worthwhile in itself. If you’re not doing anything for the next month or so, and can afford the money, then go for it.

  6. I probably sent you this already, but I can’t emphasise the importance of having a plan enough. I would like to suggest something for you to read:

    One career that might suit you is communicator. I think we can see that we need a link between science and public. To do that we need to establish good communication. The problem with climate science so far is that scientist can’t communicate. The message so far is the message of fear. When people are afraid, they tend to lose hope. What the world need is to change the message to one of hope and one of opportunity. I don’t think that is being effectively. I think you can do that very well.

    As a reminder, Daniel, one thing that you want to ask yourself is: how long you want to be politics for? Because of where you are right now, I don’t think you can quickly get in and then get out. So, the question is really: how long would you willing to out up with it?

    On getting dirty, I don’t think you can avoid it. And I think people will forgive you for doing dirty things to get something overall good done.

    Oh, remember that you have to start somewhere small. Treat it like evolution, not revolution. Not many things good come out from revolution.

    Lastly, I will vote for you, if I can, and I am in you electorate.

  7. If your interest is influence, then there are ways outside of being an elected representative to wield influence.

    My vote is for you to do policy advice. You’ll avoid much of the ego and uncertainty of being an elected representative but still have an in to the decision making process.

  8. While I’m on the opposite side of the world from your electorate, I would strongly suggest that you run, at least as an exploratory campaign. You have a lot of “life experience” under your belt, as you say, so you’re not missing anything required for politics other than the optional sociopathic tendencies, utter dishonesty, and remarkable stupidity (but I digress). I definitely believe the Gandhi saying is a good way to live out your life, even in the arena of politics. More people like you need to run for office, so I’d say give it a go. Eventually others will follow suit. If you were able to somehow manage your way into politics at some point, although it would seem like a small victory, it would be a huge one for rational, thoughtful people around the world and making the world a better and more reasonable place.

  9. Daniel, are you pleased that the Greens won in Melbourne? I know you said you don’t mind either.

    • I don’t mind at all. Some people are cranky because now that Labor has fewer seats, there’s a real fear that Abbott may form Government now. This is a legitimate fear, but I don’t believe it is well-founded.

      I voted for the Greens for two reasons. First of all, I trust them more with climate change. Labor has shown that even though it would like to do something about it, the mining industry still holds a lot of sway (especially over the “faceless men of the Labor party who deposed Kev). Second of all, and importantly in terms of my decision to vote Green over Labor, is that the Greens have a humane refugee policy.

      The Greens polled very highly in many electorates, not just Melbourne. I suspect that most of the people who voted for the Greens did so for similar reasons to me. If this is the case, we can’t be entirely certain that these were all potential Labor voters. Most of them probably were, but there were probably also a few small “L” Liberals out there who are disgusted about their stance on climate change, and refugees. In a very small way, the Greens may have saved Labor (because of their preference deal).

      Maybe I’m naive (ok, I am) but I like the idea of a minority government. I don’t think the Libs can form one, because enough of the independents will categorically refuse to side with them. Who cares if Abbott is, for some inexplicable reason, given the choice to form government first? He won’t be able to come up with the numbers. Everyone is talking about “stability” (sounds like a scary road we might not want to go down? like we’ve been here before?) and considering what the senate is going to look like, a minority government formed by Labor looks a more viable option.

      In other news, I was appalled at how high the family first and one nation vote count was. I was also not surprised at the number of informal votes, although it was suspiciously high in a lot of places, and many of those places had a high migrant population.

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