On 22 June, 2021, Tim and I had a wide ranging and thoroughly engaging conversation with Barbara Pocock from the SA Greens for Blind Insights, which I will post once the episode is available to listen to. Barbara and I were discussing what prepares someone to be a good politician, and I made my normal argument that people should have life experience and a different career before they become a politician, and that I don’t think people should spend their lives preparing to be career politicians. Barbara pointed out that the Australian Greens and Democrats have both had some very capable young Senators, which gave me pause to reassess and develop my position.

Barbara Pocock – SA Greens:

greens.org.au/sa/person/barbara-pocock

My problem with the idea of career politicians stems from my concern that they spend too long within party structures that influence their beliefs and behaviour before they win a seat, and continue to impact on them once they are a sitting member. This situation is not unique to political parties, and is a characteristic of all institutions that select, train, and promote personnel in accordance with pre-existing ideology and institutional culture.

I have spent fifteen years researching and teaching Strategic Culture, and I am absolutely convinced that it is more important to understand how an institution selects, trains, and promotes personnel than it is to understand the specifics of any particular individual who represents an institution. We are all different to each other in important ways, but institutions shape people in surprisingly predictable ways. As Dan Ariely says, people are not very rational, but they are predictable.

Jack Snyder’s seminal work on Strategic Culture in the 1970s articulated how people are influenced by the institutions they work in, so that the institution can maintain professional and ideological consistency over time. It is certainly not the case that institutions do not change, but they change more slowly than most people expect, and they shape the people within them more than is generally assumed.

We all know people who have tried to fight the good fight within institutions. It is possible to get small wins over an extended period of time, but any individual will run out of time and energy before a resistant institution does. Institutions only change when a majority of people within them no longer want the institution to be what it was, and, instead, require it to be something new.

After reconsidering my position on career politicians, I still want people to have a different career and life experience before they enter politics, but I now think the most significant problem is the length of time people spend being shaped by political parties before they even get the chance to be a politician. Consequently, I think a good politician needs to transition from deciding to serve the community in a political role to being a sitting member as quickly as possible, so that they bring their unique experience to the party and the parliament, rather than the party shaping them for how it historically chooses to behave in the parliament.

I want a citizen to feel a compulsion to serve the community, and I want them to be able to represent us from their own perspective in conjunction with a party, rather than in accordance with the ideological and cultural continuity of a ponderous political institution.

Feel free to call me naïve and/or idealistic for writing this. I am in very good company with the brilliant Anarchist thinkers from the nineteenth century who believed that Humans should aspire to be the best versions of ourselves we can be, while also being focused on serving and being a part of a community of equals.

On reflection, whether you are young or old, I want you to be a politician if you feel compelled to serve the community and improve the world. If you are young, I want you to bring openness and active optimism to politics, and if you are old, I want you to bring expertise and a recognition that the world must change to politics.

In conclusion, I want you to change politics and the world, rather than to spend years changing yourself to suit politics as it was and currently is. For me, a good politician is someone who knows who they are, who has a good idea of where we should go, and who resists institutions’ desire to make them conform to institutional norms.

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