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Improving politicians' behaviour

By Valerie Yule - posted Wednesday, 5 December 2007


A politician has as much legal right as any other citizen to resign from his job at the drop of a hat or at the beckon of a lovelier position. But should there be a legal or moral obligation for a politician resigning from parliament, except for health or similarly serious reasons, to pay the costs of the resulting by-election, rather than taxpayers? These costs are likely to be over $200,000, not counting the costs of the campaigners who are contesting or re-contesting his vacant seat.

Current trends, almost reaching waves of resignations, indicate that large savings would be made.

Public consideration is also needed about payments of parliamentary pensions, first introduced to prevent post-political destitution. Should these be available for those politicians for whom they are merely cream on highly remunerative later positions, positions that were only made possible by the advantages of their political experiences and contacts? Could they waive pensions until they do need them, out of a sense of social responsibility?

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These Federal elections have seen several encouraging developments in how democracy works and is seen to work. Some of this has been in public behaviour, and one feature has been in politicians' behaviour.

These improvements must be recognised, and backed up by reforms in electoral processes such as proposed October 2007, for “How to Make Elections more Democratic”.

Two changes in voters’ behaviour observed in many polling booths have been the increase in numbers who actually read election material, and voters who returned How to Vote Cards for re-use to help reduce the present appalling waste of paper sacrificed on the altar of democracy.

Hopeful signs for improved politicians’ behaviour were seen in tally rooms and post-election speeches, where courtesy, good humour, dignity and sticking to the point showed that political debate in the House need no longer revert to sledging, bear-gardening and avoidance tactics.

However, recently politics has been notable for another trend - rapid and unexpected exits to take up more remunerative careers, available mainly because of the knowledge and skills that life in parliament has given them. The temptations are increasing. You could parody Hamlet:

For who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a political life,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a nice non-executive boardroom seat and/or consultancy?

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Elections are the time when politicians can make an honourable exit by not standing again. Resignations are also honourable when ill-health makes full service no longer possible.

Legally, no one can be forced to stay in any employment position. Even if there is a binding contract there can be ways out. These can include buying out - and this could be a politician’s solution by way of contributing to by-election costs from parliamentary pension income.

All secular organisations must always be prepared for the possibility of their best staff being head-hunted or finding other positions with better opportunities. It is the organisations that must bear the costs of making good whatever mayhem and unfinished work are left behind, and recruiting new officers or staff. In the past, white-collar positions were likely to be more permanent, with long-term loyalty and on-the-job experience valued highly in both business and the public service. This could be at the cost of stagnation. Now the opposite extreme may be too much transience and blow-ins at the cost of loss of organisational memory and coherence.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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