Why would someone want to be a politician? No, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s a genuine question. What is it that drives some people to want to run for – and win – public office? Even more baffling: what is it, that after less than one term in office, makes you decide to run again?
A politician's hours are incredibly long; the days can be simultaneously busy and tedious, the pay is okay, but a long way below what a top executive would make…and there’s the inevitable intrusion into your personal life, little personal time, no privacy, regular travelling (and the only people who think that business travel is glamorous are those who don’t do it often) and a never-ending round of baby-kissing, ribbon-cutting, prize-presenting, sausage-sizzling, speechifying events to ensure that you never loose touch with The People.
There must be other drivers that attract people to the life of a politician. Al Gore’s former speechwriter Daniel Pink has some great ideas on what motivates people, and it knocks the old carrot-and-stick approach out of the picture. It’s a good thing that salary isn’t a great motivator, because smart, motivated people can earn a lot more in the private sector.
Daniel Pink has identified mastery as a key motivator, and explains that people want to do well. We want to be good at things. But we also need to have automony, and we need to have a purpose. These three facets of motivation could all be responsible for why people choose to be involved in politics.
The National Bureau of Economic Research has produced a working paper which disagrees, finding that there is a correlation between pay and performance, but that doesn't address why people would want to do it.
"Our main findings show that higher wages increases political competition and improves the quality of legislators, as measured by education, type of previous profession, and political experience in office. In addition to this positive selection, we find that wages also affect politicians’ performance, which is consistent with a behavioural response to a higher value of holding office."
It's a surprising result, and probably more relevant in the USA, given the financial status of some of our current politicians.
Malcolm Turnbull is worth a little under $200m, and Kevin Rudd is worth over $50m, primarily due to the business success of his wife, Therese Rein. Obviously, most politicians don't have that kind of money, and aren’t motivated my money…or at least, aren’t motivated by money alone. So what are the payoffs? What do politicians get from being elected?
- They are “True Believers” with a cause
- Instant Social and Professional Status; Respectability
- A desire to serve
- The belief that they can do better
For some, the political life starts early. Campbell Newman's parents were both federal politicians. Lunatic MP Bob Katter's father was a pollie, and now his son Robbie has joined the business, being elected to the Queensland Parliament in March. Simon Crean's father was Labor Minister Frank Crean in the Whitlam Government. For these members, politicking is the family business. For others, political life started at university.
Many of our current leaders were cutting their political teeth in the late 70s and early-mid 80s. Midnight Oil sang about The Power and the Passion and Australian Crawl sang about B'you Tefal Peebull. It was a time of political characters: Margaret Thatcher, Bob Hawke and Ronald Reagan in the last years of the Cold War and the first years of environmental politics.
Australia's political leaders were already building careers by the 80s. Tony Abbott's early adventures in politics, religion and thuggery at Sydney University are the subject of accusations and speculation this week, thanks to David Marr's Quarterly Essay. Julia Gillard was active in the Australian Union of Students. Joe Hockey was President of the Students Representative Council at Sydney University. Penny Wong lead the Adelaide University Labor Club, while Christopher Pyne lead the Liberal Club. Anna Bligh was Women's Vice President (there was a Women's Vice President?) at University of Queensland. Chris Evans was President of the University Labor Club at the University of Western Australia.
Traditionally, a large slab of the Labor Party comes from the Union movement, while Coalition members are often drawn from banking, finance and agriculture. But we still don't know what makes bankers, unionists, lawyers, farmers and business owners make the leap to public life.
Pauline Hanson is an example that mystifies many. Her platform in federal politics was pure mono-culturalism, anti-immigration, and yet she had been a local councillor, where matters of national identity are irrelevant. When she won her seat in federal Parliament, it was as a Liberal Party candidate who had been disendorsed prior to the election. Her maiden speech set the tone for what was to come.
After the demise of One Nation, Ms Hanson stood for election again in 2001 for the Senate, and in 2003 she moved to New South Wales and stood for the Upper House in the state election. She lost both, and retired from politics, only to return the next year to stand unsuccessfully as an Independent in the 2004 federal election and as a head of Pauline's United Australia Party in 2007. Next, she stood unsuccessfully for the Queensland seat of Beaudesert in 2009. Most recently, she's been hoping for an invitation back to the Liberal Party, but with five failed campaigns behind her, it seems unlikely.
And I haven't mentioned the years of naive policies, the legal battles, her time in prison, her near bankruptcy, her showbiz career on Dancing with the Stars, the faked underwear photos...Ms Hanson has been making consistently surprising headlines since her maiden speech in Canberra in 1996.
Could it be that Ms Hanson really believed that her purpose was to save Australia from evil multiculturalism? Or was it more self-serving than that? Her one and only victory tapped a rich and shameful xenophobic vein in Australian society. I suspect that back in the mid 90s, she saw politics as the express route to respectability, to fame, to power. Canberra and conservative suits is a long way from a deep fried fast food joint in Ipswich. Now, politics can only be a dirt track back to relevance.
In contrast, former Queensland State MP Steve Kilburn is working in the private sector for the first time in his life. After careers in the Navy and with the Queensland Fire Service, Steve was elected to serve Chatsworth, the most marginal seat in Queensland. His maiden speech is about service, not about fear, and this purpose has guided his professional life for 30 years.
Both Pauline Hanson and Steve Kilburn are Queensland-based one-term parliamentarians. Since losing her seat, Ms Hanson has fought a never-ending series of battles to stay in the spotlight. Mr Kilburn has slipped quietly into life outside politics, at least for now.
Then, there's Rob Oakeshott, a former Nationals MP who has learned the uncomfortable way about the importance of values. Mr Oakeshott has spent his entire career in and around politics, but has made his reputation as an Independent supporting a minority government. Purpose, autonomy and mastery converged at the 2010 federal election, where Mr Oakeshott's commitment to the Lyne electorate gave way to a larger purpose due to the hung parliament. His decision to support the minority ALP government disappointed many of his constituents, but satisfied his personal motivation.
Disregarding the issues and the constraints of being an elected official, it seems that most politicians get into the game because they believe in something. They have purpose. Their beliefs might coincide with those of a major party, or challenge the existing wisdom. Those beliefs might be in response to personal prejudices, or the result of a personal priority, a need to serve.
Choosing to enter politics is an enormous decision, and I choose to believe that most of our politicians make the decision to serve, and want to do it well. That's the drive for mastery. Autonomy is rare within the political party system; perhaps a less party-driven, more independent parliament would be more suitable for human behaviour.
Australia's leaders were formed during the shoulder-padded 80s when "Greed was good" and nukes were bad. The sixties were about social change, the eighties demanded action from those looking for a cause. Fast forward just one decade: what were the political motivators of the 90s?