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Loyalty vs competence in Govt
Posted: Wednesday, November 2, 2011

By Derren Joseph
November 02, 2011

About 20 years ago, when I was in Form 6 at St Mary's College, I had an interesting economics teacher. The goodly gentleman's name was Mr Da Silva. In discussing the concept of "utility," he explained that everyone seeks to maximise their own interest. He seemed to have an interest in politics and was fond of saying that a politician is driven by the desire for power, and once in power, he/she is driven by the desire to retain it. More recently, I was chatting with a friend and at the end of the discussion we had agreed that often, leaders must choose between loyalty on one side and competence on the other. The nature of our politics means that loyalty is held to a greater value than is competence. To me, this helps explain so much of what we observe on an almost daily basis. I give two examples.

First, there are Special Purpose State Enterprises (SPSEs). It is arguable that many of the appointed chairmen, board members and appointed CEOs are not well suited to carrying out the great responsibilities that fall upon them. In my opinion, it has nothing to do with party affiliation as that is almost irrelevant. Rather, from their behaviour reported in the media, it is abundantly clear that they genuinely lack the hard and soft skills needed to perform at the level into which they have been parachuted. This is made more unfortunate by the fact that the elected government depend on these SPSEs to implement policy.

Second, there is the Senate. On the Parliament channel, we sometimes find ourselves subject to not just terrible grammar but an apparent inability to analyse, conceptualise and effectively articulate ideas. Hold on. Do not get me wrong; I am no snob and those who know me can attest to my appreciation of the beauty of our local dialect, the humour of our picong and our love of "ole talk." At the same time, there is a time and place for everything and I sometimes wonder about the abilities of some of our parliamentarians. This is made more unfortunate by the fact that these are the citizens chosen to shape the legislation upon which our society is being built. Having said all this, I am a realist. Given that politicians in power seek to retain it, politicians must incentivise and reward the foot-soldiers and financiers that help them to attain and retain this power.

Should they fail to appropriately reward these important supporters, there is the risk that these foot-solders/financiers would throw their support behind another political party. After all, these supporters are also seeking their own best interest. One of my favourite writers has said that for this reason, all governments, regardless of how they begin, will always become elitist. Some speculate that this switch by key foot-soldiers/financiers help explain the regime change that took place in May 2010. Clearly, it is exceedingly difficult to take our nation to the next level given this situation. This is a situation that occurs regardless of which party is in power.

There was once a time when I advocated campaign finance reform as a panacea, but today I am not convinced that the impact would be as far reaching as some would imagine. The reason lies in the sentiment of the average citizen. Too often it seems as if the rhetoric around the budget as an example, is more focused on "who got what" as opposed to whether the budget was "part of a viable strategy to help us survive the economic storm" that threatens the wider global economy. Perhaps together with campaign finance reform, we would also benefit from constitutional reform that reconsiders how senators are appointed as well as opens up the appointment of chairs of SPSEs and other positions of national importance (such as Service Commissions, the Integrity Commission etc) to the negative resolution of the Parliament.

When one party dominates the legislature, this becomes a formality but at least it would open up such appointments to greater scrutiny and debate. It may lend itself to a transparency that could prevent many of the present issues. A former minister once told me that any politician who says that they seek office to serve is a liar. It is always about a lust for power. I am in no position to say whether this assessment is right or wrong. What I have observed is that Gandhi seems to have purposely avoided any political office as India moved into independence, and Nelson Mandela got out of political office at the first opportunity. My name is Derren Joseph and I love my country. Despite today's challenges, I have the audacity of hope in a brighter tomorrow.

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