Friday, 14 August 2009

Are you being served?

Edmund Burke: His "Address to the Electors of Bristol", delivered on 3 November 1774, still stands as one of the greatest statements of the Member of Parliament's civic, and moral, responsibilities.

BILL ENGLISH may have decided to pay back the extra $12,000 he arranged for himself to be paid since becoming the Minister of Finance, but who, in all honesty, can blame him for extracting every possible advantage from the arcane system of calculating ministerial allowances? He is still a relatively young man, has a large family, and is in a volatile and uncertain occupation. An opportunity presented itself. He took it. Wouldn’t we all?

And doesn’t the same apply – mutatis mutandis – to every other Member of Parliament?

Throughout this furore over parliamentary and ministerial allowances, haven’t we all been looking in the wrong place, at the wrong things? Instead of encouraging us to focus on MPs with their "snouts in the trough", why wasn’t the news media demanding to know: "Is being a Member of Parliament a ‘job’ (with all the benefits and allowances associated with a modern employment "package") or is it, a ‘civic vocation’ – undertaken not for the money, but for the people.

If politics is a vocation, then the expression "political career" should only be used in retrospect – after a politician has retired. On the other hand, if a "political career" is something ambitious citizens can aspire to; prepare for; and, having acquired the requisite skills, join as a fully-qualified practitioner, then being an MP is just a job – no different from medicine, law or accountancy.

But, if that’s true, then we should simply shut-up about the rights and wrongs of the various allowances available to parliamentarians. They are no more our business than the allowances and per diems employers pay other workers for out-of-town work.

And, before you object that "we" are the politicians’ employers, I’d advise you to think again. Because the venerable notion that an MP is beholden to his or her constituents is one which belongs alongside the equally old-fashioned idea that representing one’s fellow citizens is a not "just a job"– but a civic vocation.

The idea of representation being an honourable calling dates back to the time when the purpose of a parliament, or, as the French wrote it, parlement – a place where people talk – was to convey the thoughts (and usually the money) of the people to the King. When it pleased His Majesty to consult his subjects, the cities and towns of the realm elected an accomplished and articulate citizen to speak on their behalf. (Under no circumstances should these representatives of the "commons" be confused with the King’s "peers", his fellow aristocrats, who, much like our own Business Roundtable, enjoyed more direct access to the King’s ear.)

Representing one’s fellow citizens was a solemn civic responsibility – not to be undertaken lightly. In his justly celebrated "Address to the Electors of Bristol", the 18th Century English political philosopher and parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, set forth the duties of a parliamentary representative with considerable eloquence:

"Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

What resemblance (if any) does the contemporary New Zealand MP bear to this splendid Georgian character?

The most obvious similarity is their equal eagerness to give reassurance that the electors’ interests are in a safe pair of hands. The most obvious difference goes directly to the heart of the current controversy. Burke, unlike his Kiwi equivalent, clearly conceives of himself as a free agent – one whose "unbiassed opinion", "mature judgement" and "enlightened conscience" will never be sacrificed to that all-powerful "set of men" – the political party.

It is the political party – that restless "spirit of faction" so derided by the political thinkers of the 18th Century – that has insinuated itself between the contemporary New Zealand MP and his constituents. And it is to the political party – the body which selects him as its candidate, positions him on its List, and at whose "pleasure" he rises or falls – that the New Zealand MP gives his true allegiance. The party’s interests, "above all, ever, and in all cases", will be preferred to his own, and except on those rare occasions when a "conscience vote" is permitted, his judgement will be sacrificed unhesitatingly to his party’s opinion.

The original justification for the formation of political parties: the need to advance, roll back, or protect some great and fundamental revision of society’s rules; no longer strictly applies to the dominant parties of the 21st Century English-speaking world.

The original party stand-off: Whigs versus Tories, traced its origins to the political divisions thrown up during the English Revolution of the 17th Century.

In the 19th and 20th Centuries the stand-off between the promoters of socialism and the defenders of capitalism laid the foundations of (in our case) the Labour and National parties.

But, in the 21st Century, at Francis Fukuyama’s "end of history", our party system has been reduced to facilitating, in the rather deflating words of Wellington political scientist, Jon Johansson: "the peaceful circulation of elites".

In other words: "just a job".

Sir Geoffrey Palmer set the scene for this transformation back in the 1980s when, as Justice Minister, he transformed the tradition-encrusted Member of Parliament into a thoroughly up-to-date and hard-working "legislator". MPs were provided with state-funded electorate-offices and secretarial staff. The sitting times of Parliament were regularised. Party Whips became the Chamber’s effective and efficient "middle managers".

Not only had the job of "legislator" become a viable career choice, it was now an increasingly well-remunerated one.

The big question to be asked of today’s democratic polity, therefore, is not: "What do our representatives get?" but "Who do they serve?"

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 13 August 2009.


Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Always a pleasure to read, Mr Trotter.

I thought for just a moment, a very tiny one, that you were going to come out in sympathy (a very cloth cap tradition) with Bill English and suggest he is considerably under-remunerated. Of course, he is but that's of no interest to the media or the shouters of left AND right blogs.

Joseph said...

Grrrr! Doctor T! You imperialist running dog you!

The picture above is the statue of a young Edmund that stands outside Trinity College, Dublin. And much as it loathes me to claim him as one of my own, being as he was the Founding Father of British Conservatism and deeply reactionary to the French Revolution, yes, it is true..

Edmund Burke was an Irishman.

Having said that, so too was the hornourable Arthur Wellesley AKA the 1st Duke of Wellington. Merrion Square in Dublin was his place of brith, I believe. When this Commmander of the British Army in Chief was questioned by a peer about his ethnic origins, he replied "Sir, Just because Jesus was born in a stable, did not make him a donkey."