Fitness for public service? – 1

An important part of parliamentary democracy is the communication made, from time to time, by elected representatives, to their electors, the people who have elected them to office. Such communications may be in the form of reports or even of public statements that are needed to keep faith with their electoral promises and to gain support for new policies as new situations arise.

Of course, this kind of communication is made at election time in terms of a stated legislative intention: “Should we be elected we will… “. But it is also often necessary, during a parliamentary term, for public statements to be made by ministers and other elected members, to clarify the way in which policy has developed in cross-party negotiations, or to explain how one proposes to vote on new legislation that is being tabled.

Of themselves, such communication is indicative of a politician’s awareness that they have been elected and remain accountable to electors. New political debates arise that had not previously been anticipated and hence some clarification is needed; a representative will explain what has been done in parliament on behalf of the electorate, on behalf of all in the electorate, those who voted for this representative and also those who voted for this successful representative’s political opponents.

Of course, as with all public communication, wisdom is needed. How much does a politician make public about delicate intra-parliamentary negotiations about difficult compromises that need to be made so that proposed legislation gets the necessary support? An elected parliamentarian is a person who has not only committed her/himself to certain policies, or a particular platform, but also to ongoing communication with electors. And that is also why political parties are a necessary part of our system of government. Political parties are in the business of ongoing communication, or should be, assisting party members and all electors as they seek to understand what is being proposed with new legislation. Political parties should be a key part of open and transparent public governance.

What I have penned above may, to some readers, bear little resemblance to what we experience these days with political life. My aim here is not to concoct an ideal picture of what accountable political representation might look like under ideal circumstances, but to indicate an important normative dimension of our political life, a dimension that relates to the difficult but necessary task of ongoing political education.

This is what I wish to reflect upon in writing this series of posts. This will be Nurturing Justice’s contribution to this important part of political life: political education. Strangely, but necessarily, we begin by trying to get ourselves educated about political education! In this series we take a few steps to better understand our current problems in this crucial dimension of our political responsibility for the shape of parliamentary representation. And so, we want to reflect upon the difficulties we have in being properly educated about, and therefore properly accountable for, our own contribution to political life.

There is an important aspect of this “being properly educated” that we should emphasise straight away. It involves us in asking ourselves the question that heads this post – are we fit for public service? I am not simply asking whether we are capable of standing for election or being appointed to a position in the public service. More importantly I am referring to our own citizenship. This post seeks to explore the question how we make ourselves fit to serve as citizens. Citizenship is an office. And it is something we need to reflect upon. Are we indeed fit to perform this God-given office in the way that God intends us to perform in it? This is a question we need to ask of ourselves in an ongoing way.

It may indeed be true that political parties in this country (as in other polities as well), have become little more than public relations firms geared to ensuring that their “side” of politics receives a greater proportion of MPs at the next election. And to the degree that that is so this means that political parties have headed down a political path that has ongoing political consequences. One of the political consequences of this shift, I am suggesting, is that the citizenry have not only been poorly educated, they have been miseducated. We need to begin our attempt to be politically responsible with asking whether we have lost touch with the true grounds for our political accountability.

For their part, the political parties, by persistently shifting their focus to that of the public relations firm, they have become so dedicated to the re-election of a presumed elite set of elected parliamentarians, they have succeeded displacing their view of government from the centre of their concern. In the process they have made themselves more powerful, and seemingly indispensable for what has emerged as our populist political process. But then we face a serious question concerning the fitness of these associations for the public service of political education. One only has to consider the rubbish propaganda that fills letter-boxes at election time – paid for with tax-payer’s money! – to notice that there is little concern with argument about the various alternative public policies. The propaganda barrage assumes an electorate basically ignorant of public policy issues. An autonomic knee-jerk reaction is sought, But this is not political education which, normatively speaking, is the true responsibility of any political party in our kind of parliamentary democracy.

Consider:

When, over the last ten years, has any political candidate sought the electorate’s approval for his or her party in terms of that party’s effective view of itself as a vote harvesting combine harvester? When were these public relations firms given a mandate to promote that view of political parties? The answer is: they haven’t such a mandate! For them to continue down this path is to court political disaster and unless there is a turn-around (and how that will be achieved is not immediately obvious) disaster will come, sooner or later.

When did we hear from these major parties concerning their view of the positive role they have in fomenting genuine open government and the participation of citizens in public governance? When did we hear their view of what a citizen is?

Think of how successive Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition Governments (include the Greens and other minor parties too) have  fared. Think about how they have certainly confirmed deep scepticism in the electorate about public governance per se, let alone about the place and contribution of political parties.

And in this context there are ongoing attempts in the electorate to set up new parties. Why is that? Where will it lead?

So, in this series of posts Nurturing Justice is going to keep on posting political comment about the important office of citizenship, the necessary coinciding responsibility that is indispensable for public governance. When we understand citizenship as an office given to us to contribute to state-crafting and to promote public justice for all, then we see our lives incorporating our political responsibility as inherent in our lives. Political responsibility is one of our tasks as the image bearers of our Lord. The creator and redeemer of heaven and earth, Jesus Christ, calls us to serve Him as members of our political community. This work too is, ultimately, the work of His Kingdom.

A Christian political option is going to have to rediscover citizenship, the fully complex responsibility that God has given to His male and female image-bearers. A Christian political option may well involve sustained political work that will one day results in a viable political party. We seek to develop a political movement across the south-west pacific region but for such an initiative to maintain its Biblical wisdom and freshness it will require us to rediscover, on a day-by-day basis, a Christian way of life in all our complex and variegated God-given responsibilities.

BCW

30.1.16

Postscript 30.1.16 Don’t become absorbed with reaction to the futile attempt to change marriage by parliamentary decree; it is a gigantic diversion from the long-term political task which eventually is going to have us figuring out how to do justice to the marriage institution, how marriage law will have to be reformed to reassert its genuine male-female character, that is as the life-long exclusive love-relationship of a man to a woman from which families arise. The challenge will not only be to mount a case to explain “noe!” in any plebiscite but to engage in a truly international political effort to persuade many polities that they have made a serious legal error based upon what is in actual fact, an empirical mistake. Such a comprehensive political contribution will also have to deepen understanding of all the kinds and types of human relationships, friendships and associations and propose just policies for all aspects and structures of our social responsibility. 

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