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Forget politicians - be a dictator for a day and get the job done

Mussolini made the trains run on time. But having a strong leader is risky. Flickr/Galaxy FM

“If I Ruled The World” was a tune made famous decades ago by English comedian and singer Harry Secombe who sang of making every day the first day of spring as well as other miraculous improvements. It was a romantic fantasy and many of us have similarly extemporised on what we would do if given half the chance to right the world.

Some have taken such make-believe more seriously and put their ideas into print, such as Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. In That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, they lay out a book’s worth of problems and remedies that they would match if dictators for a day but which are caught in the web of institutional paralysis called American politics.

In his more bleak moments contemplating global warming, Phillip Adams on Radio National has looked enviously at the capacity of the authoritarian Chinese state to deal with environmental problems.

Behind such arguments lay one or both of two old assumptions: (a) democracy falters when faced by a terrible crisis or (b) that squabbling self-interested politicians are not facing up to said crisis. Either way, the solution is seen to rest in a strong hand which will slap a few faces into realisation of the good of the nation.

Forget checks and balances

‘Super Mario’ has the weight of huge expectations on his shoulders after Silvio Berlusconi’s performance as PM. EPA/Maurizio Brambatti

Party politics and the checks and balances of power in a democracy can be seen as just so many petty encumbrances to decisive action to deal with the nation’s problems.

Many office discussions have been punctuated with the clarion call “What this country needs is a benign dictator!” and years ago one had to endure the denouement of “At least Mussolini made the trains run on time!” If that were the case I’d put him in charge of trains in Sydney, even if he has been dead for 66 years. He couldn’t do any worse.

Nevertheless, the case of Italy is particularly pertinent now that Silvio (“Where’s my Viagra? It’s bunga bunga night”) Berlusconi will no longer be rendering his services to comedy. Instead Mario Monti was appointed senator for life and then prime minster. He brings to the job his expertise as an economist and academic, European Commissioner and adviser to Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola.

So he is the latest of a long line of technocrats or more authoritarian types who are often seen as the only ones who can divine and enact the public interest over the heads of those creating the turmoil. His media nickname of “Super Mario” gives some idea of the expectations heaped on his shoulders.

Behind such arguments lay an old tradition of suspicion of democracy that originated with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato who despised democracy for putting in charge the ignorant common mobs which pushed his mate Socrates into downing a schooner of hemlock.

As one who believed in excellence and expertise, he thought justice would only reign over a political society when philosophers were made kings, when those elite men and women trained in philosophy ruled. They were motivated only by love of wisdom and disdained the baser human desires such as ambition and material greed, hence they had no desire to rule, which was the very attitude that best qualified them for political office, and only took it for the sake of the public good.

Monti is conceived in this mould of an expert who is motivated solely by the public good rather than selfish motives and who will bring their specialised training to bear, in this case of economics rather than philosophy.

Plato’s arguments were reprised as representative democracy advanced in the nineteenth century and did not die, revealing widespread ambivalences amongst populations about such a highly prized idea.

Merits of a strong leader

The growth of democracy was accelerated across the world by wars and revolutions but not at a uniform speed. Sometimes societies careered into economic and political swamps such as the Great Depression. Such tremulous times caused many to seek the false refuge of a “strong leader” to see them through, although it must be admitted such responses spanned a wide arc between the slightly authoritarian to the outright Nazi, that is from the more straightened democrat to the vicious anti-democrat. Nevertheless, the history books are splattered with the grotesqueries of the Hitlers and Mussolinis.

On a less hyperventilating level, most Australians have always firmly believed that their current lot of politicians is worse than all previous generations of politicians and should be tied in a bag and tossed off the heads. Anti-politician politics has always had appeal.

It is with such ideas in the back of their minds that some voters have sometimes turned to the anti-politician expert to run the country or state, such as Stanley Bruce in 1923, John Hewson in 1993, Nick Greiner in 1988 and John Elliott in the 1980s when he was chairman of Fosters and president of the Liberal Party toying with a political career.

The idea was that somebody who made themselves wealthy would know how to run the economy or in Greiner’s case would run the state like a business, NSW Inc as he called it, and dispense with all the pettiness of politics.

Fantasy federal politics

Let that idea take wing for a moment in federal politics with the appointment of business people and other technocrats to government. Certainly, that might be possible with a governor-general who was inclined to ignore conventions and take only what is written in the constitution.

After all, on paper, she is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and there is no mention of prime minister and cabinet in our constitution. So she could appoint without their election a council of ministers every three months and in that fashion draw in experts, as American presidents do to the admiration of some observers.

We could even draw up a fantasy list much like fantasy lists of world’s greatest football or cricket teams. There could be ex-head of the Treasury Ken Henry and his successor Martin Parkinson and Governor of the Reserve Bank Glenn Stevens. Peter Shergold started in academia, joined the public service, became Cabinet Secretary and Chief of Staff under John Howard, and then returned to academia. Sir Rod Eddington is a respected businessman and head of Infrastructure Australia.

Public service

Could Rod Eddington be a better policy maker than Kevin Rudd? AAP/Tim Dornim

We could name some others but it would be impossible to match the scale of appointments made by American presidents who fill 6,000 positions when they come into office. We don’t have that same tradition of easy transfer of openly partisan people between the public and privates spheres. Instead, we have a Westminster tradition of a wholly professional non-partisan public service working for the public good.

That is where Henry, Parkinson and Stevens made their reputations, dealing with the politics of bureaucracy but not with the appeals to and persuasions of the public and with judgements that must be explained.

Business people don’t have to worry about persuading public blocks of constituents, especially since boards are tied up by institutional investors and they have a coterie of advisers.

That talent is what politics is about and that is the expertise of politicians. Of course that talent varies and it can only be gained with experience, the more the better. Keating, Howard and Abbott have been able to run rings around opponents who are less experienced in politics and less practiced in the art of persuasion.

Powers of persuasion

A lack of such talents is the reason for the failure of Hewson, Bruce and Greiner and for the faltering of Rudd and Gillard who have only been in parliament since 1998. Such a lack of public experience is where Monti will fail. Moreover, do we really think corporate leaders, such as Monti, always get things right? Should we really trust a person from Goldman Sachs, a global investment bank that helped get us where we are today? There is a roll-call of businessmen who were slapped on the back by one and all only to be found out later to be not as good as everyone thought.

On that note of not giving into the moment, Anglo-Saxon countries have disdained politicians since the nineteenth century so they shouldn’t rush into dangerous solutions just because of a current sense of despair.

There is also nothing new in current arguments that are envious of the centralised Chinese state. Similar discussions were rampant in the 1950s when many Australian and American elites worried about the tremendous growth achieved by the authoritarian Russian state and feared the weakness of democracy. It took years for many to realise the tremendous failures of that communist system which led to its final collapse.

Let some time pass before judging the strength and efficacy of the Chinese state. It may well turn out to be a myth just like the one that Mussolini made the trains run on time. Until then we should let politicians get on with the job and keep our beady eyes on them.

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