When I was at secondary school I was given a book by one of my teachers entitled “If you don’t know where you are going you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”
For some reason the title alone resonated with me and it has always played a part in my strategic thinking and planning. Having it in the back of my mind always prompts the question about what is the end goal of any particular action I undertake. When that is clear it is relatively easy to work back to identify the steps necessary to attain that goal.
However, that type of goal setting and planning isn’t enough. It answers the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ questions but doesn’t address the ‘why’.
And the ‘why’ question seems more important than ever in politics.
The goal for many who enter political life is simply to be a politician. They chart their course from university activist, through the ranks of political staffer, developing the local branch all the while waiting for the endorsement opportunity to arise. If it doesn’t magically emerge, they precipitate the demise of another by launching a preselection contest when the numbers are in place to assure victory.
Now I know that doesn’t always produce the most well-rounded set of candidates but the process is consistent with any other goal-oriented process. Once elected, the goal changes to ascend the treacherous political ladder as fast and as high as they possibly can.
Seldom however, do they ask themselves ‘Why’?
For what greater purpose are they willing to suspend their moral compass, be away from their families and enter one of the most brutal work environments imaginable?
If you ask, the most likely response is ‘to make a difference’ but the respondent is rarely able to say exactly what difference they want to make. Some may be more specific like ‘to lower taxes’ or to ‘deregulate the economy’. These are both admirable objectives but, in my experience, most of the people who say these things go on to regularly vote for more taxes or more regulation.
Of course there is always nuance and compromise in the world of politics but very few are prepared to limit their career advancement by standing on their principles. It’s much easier to find an excuse why you can’t buck the system.
I can recall many examples but one memory remains firmly in my mind. It arose after some particularly inflammatory and hateful comments from an Australian Islamic preacher. I had been (and remain) a long-term vocal critic of the Islamic problem within our midst, copping the opprobrium of many in the political and media class for my troubles.
The latest outburst from the irate imam prompted one colleague to call me to say ‘we have to do something about this’. I agreed with him and said “I have been on to this for years so what are you going to do about it?”
A moment’s silence was followed by “Oh I can’t because…. (please insert whatever excuse you care to).”
To which I responded with “by ‘we’, then you really mean I should do it?”
It went downhill from there as I received a long explanation of how his career was just beginning and he didn’t want to upset anyone and on and on it went. It didn’t matter about the merit or virtue of the action that was necessary. Rather it was far more important that his self-esteem and career prospects were kept intact.
And that’s the essential problem with politics today. Too many of your elected representatives are more concerned with good outcomes for themselves rather than with good outcomes for the country. Perhaps I am being naïve when I say I didn’t think it was always thus.
So while ambition and aspiration are admirable qualities in any political figure, perhaps the most important question is ‘why?’
I think you’d be surprised by how few can provide a decent answer.