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Politicians are the after-dinner mints of society

By Keith Suter - posted Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Politicians are the "after-dinner mints" of society. After-dinner mints are a pleasant addition to a meal but not an essential component of it. Similarly, politicians have become more and more marginal to the running of a modern western society.

Electors are voting more but enjoying it less. Australian disenchantment with politics is part of a global trend. US presidential candidates usually receive less than 50 per cent of the votes because many electors do not bother to vote: the poorer you are, the less likely you are to vote because voting is seen as irrelevant to many poor Americans. Even in the newer democracies in Eastern Europe, there is already voter fatigue and disillusionment with politicians.

Australia has compulsory voting and so the voter turnout remains high. But about 40 per cent 18-year olds do not bother to register to vote. The younger you are, the less likely you are to want to vote. Politics seems irrelevant and boring.


Perhaps developed countries are moving into a "post-democratic" era. It may be that voters have instinctively decided that governments cannot solve many of their countries' problems. So much else in the voters' lives has been changed in recent years, not least by globalisation, that they have decided the political process has also been changed and it is largely a waste of time.

It is fashionable to talk about the "post-ideological" era of party politics. In other words, it is claimed by political scientists that there are no longer any major differences between the parties.

But there is a massive split in politics. It is not on the main political party lines. Instead, it is between the mainstream political parties (the "political class") on the one hand, and the alienated masses on the other, who have contempt for politicians.

Recent scandals concerning Australian politicians (at state and federal levels) have contributed to the view many people have of politicians - persons desiring personal gain. Indeed, in Australia, at any one time there seems to be at least one politician under investigation, or on trial or in prison.

Politicians may have idealistic motivations at the beginning of their careers but they quickly realise that they will get little credit from the public for those motivations and so they become bitter, cynical and greedy.

The struggle for democracy over the centuries was driven by the masses seeking to use the political system to improve their living conditions, such as the labour movements' creation of labour parties. Another example comes from a pioneer of the suffragette movement, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which argued that women should be able to vote and stand for parliament because female politicians would take a stronger line against alcohol than males.


But now there is scepticism about the role of government and the ability of any political party to bring about change. In particular, there has not been enough attention given to what economic globalization means for the future of the democratic system.

Here are some basic questions that need to be examined. First, at a time when so many careers now require training and accreditation, politics is one of the few activities where there are no prerequisites for candidates. They are a country's last set of amateurs. What needs to be done to make them more expert?

All other trades and professions require some training and even formal qualifications. Politicians just seem to limp along, picking up the political trade as they lurch from one crisis to the next. Their real skill (if they have any) is in winning elections – and not governing (for which there is no formal training). Politicians in office seem to be just empty vessels into which information from civil servants is poured.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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