Friday, October 22, 2010

Trusting Politicians

The age old question. Can we really trust politicians?

It's a role which is high profile. They're in public view all the time. They're people. Just like us. Or are they?

I was watching "Back Benches" - the pub politics show that's on TVNZ 7. Great show - they film in a pub in front of a live audience. Each week they have four politicians on as guests. The other week they were talking about mental health. They asked the audience, who here has suffered from some depression in their lives?

The results were in. All but two people put their hands up. Who hasn't felt down? Perhaps been lethargic for no apparent reason. Perhaps even been a little self destructive as you've procrastinated around doing something that you really should be doing (by doing things like starting a blog for example).

The politicians talked about the importance of getting the issue out there and how the only way through is to talk about it.

Later in the show, they asked each of the politicians who happened to be guests whether they've ever gone through a bout of depression. Each and everyone of them answered no.

Let's have a look at the math:

Say there are 25 people in the audience (there's probably a little more but let's use conservative figures). 23 of those 25 admitted to experiencing some depression some time in their lives. That's 92% of a sample size of 25.

And the politicians? 0 out of 4 admitted to feeling some sensation of depression - a full 0%.

So one of two things is happening here.
  1. The very nature of the sort of people who go into politics are those who don't suffer depression at any point in their lives.
  2. The politicians are lying for whatever reason.
So let's assume that politicians are normal people. They suffer the same problems that the rest of us do. They have family and concerns and days where they just can't explain why they're feeling the way that they're feeling. So if we assume they're lying...

Why would they lie?

I'm reminded of a "documentary" called "The Yes Men Fix The World". It's a brilliant watch - I encourage everyone to watch it. In fact, you can download for free here.

They direct attention to the Bhopal disaster (more information here.) They impersonated representatives of DOW Chemical, the now owners of Union Carbide, the company responsible for the disaster, and claimed on BBC News that DOW Chemical were intending to liquidate Union Carbide and use the resulting funds to compensate those affected, clean up the area where this happened, fund medical research, and fund the research into the potential hazardous effects of other products by DOW Chemical.

Basically, do the right thing. This should be a cause for celebration right? It turns out that money has no morality (surprise surprise). The stock market responded right away. By the time DOW Chemical were able to make a press release about the hoax, DOW's stock had declined by $2 billion.

This brings up all sorts of questions around the nature of corporations and the role morality plays and the perspective of morality - yet more blog posts.

How does this apply to politicians? Well this post is yet another post on the problems with our media. If a politician were to admit to suffering some effects of mental health problems, how would the media react?

We've seen how the media can take something that isn't really news and blow it well out of proportion.

A great example was the whole credit card fiasco. The news reported on ministers spending up large on their ministerial credit cards.

Okay, so valid point. A lot of the charges had been found to be extreme. They perhaps weren't in the public's best interest. There's some suggestion that some of those charges have been fiddled with.

But then the media went on to talk about specifics.

On the day the story broke, we were told about Shane Jones spending a certain amount on in room movies. The news wasn't sure whether those movies were of a pornographic nature or no. By that evening, it had been confirmed that they were movies of a pornographic nature.

Chris Carter was raked over the coals over $80 worth of flowers for his partner (note: formally one of New Zealand's openly gay MP's - he's no longer an MP) and also a dinner worth $639.21 in which his partner was present (as well as Jonathan Hunt and British Lord, Chris Smith - Britain's first open gay MP). His other charges are things that might on the face of it be taken for "feminine" items - fruit for the office or spa treatments etc.

Was the media reporting on spurious charges on ministerial credit cards?

In a move to sensationalise the story, they dug deeper into whether the charges on Shane Jones' credit card were on movies of a pornographic nature. Had it just been about the public interests, then we could have stopped at in room movies. X minister spend Y amount on in room movies. Should we be upset that tax payer's money is going on movies or that they were pornographic in nature? Is there anything morally wrong with watching pornography? It might have been different if it was pornographic material of a more sinister nature - child pornography for example - but it wasn't. It was an adult choosing what material he wanted to watch.

They did the same to Chris Carter - was his charges of a gay nature and how much can this be emphasised? Oh my! He spent an amount of money on his partner!

You have to wonder, how many other politicians sent their partner's flowers on their credit cards but which wasn't reported as part of this "scandal"? To sensationalise it all the better, there was the chasing of Chris Carter around the halls of parliament.

And then, if you were to ask yourself, given that politicians have these huge responsibilities and we have great expectations on them, are we really all that upset about a few extra charges? A lot of the charges really weren't all that big really. This carries on to a wider discussion on the best way of getting politicians and also the places where tax payers money are being wasted.

You have to wonder how xenophobic New Zealanders really are and how much of it is a result of our media's portrayal of events?

So, would we really chatise our politicians for showing a bit of humanity? If we wouldn't, would the media?

I know, this really doesn't answer the question as to whether we can trust politicians. So I'll throw another piece of wood on the fire. CERRA (Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act).

No politician voted against it despite it being obviously flawed. The post found here has Labour's response as to why it didn't at least put up a token objection to the bill. The problem for me though is that in the post, it states that "they didn't have the numbers". That's no excuse not to vote against something if you know it to be not in the public's best interests in my view.

Would the media have chatised them? Probably. Looking at the party's best interests, would standing up for the New Zealand public have been a hell of a differentiating point for X party? It would have for me. What this seems to reveal to me though, is just how much of public perception has been handed over the media.

However, I'm left with this great big choice ahead of me for the next election. Is there any politician, never mind party, that we can trust? If politician's make decisions based on what the media might do, who can I trust? This also leads to the more foil hat wearing question of "Who really runs this country?"

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