WHEN the decisions of our current batch of elected leaders sometimes leave us befuddled, embittered, and wondering "why", then maybe the thoughts of the old philosophers can help to salve our ruffled minds. If it's true that all of our western ideas are just a footnote to the Greeks, and if in fact everything worthwhile has been said before, then it’s worth having a look back at some ancient ideas on how “good government” should be done.
Philosopher Plato held the view that "philosopher-kings" should rule Athens, the world's leading city a couple of millenia ago. These guys didn’t even have a light rail, a container terminal, or a city revitalisation strategy, but they were formidable innovators. For them, just an amphora of wine and a roam around the town, idly chatting, constituted a good evening out, probably chatting about the constitution. We know Athenians had a bit to do with the establishment of democracy, but Plato was no democrat. He thought the ordinary people might really make a right mess of it, so he proposed government by experts. It's an idea we hear echoed by contemporary critics – if it's the economy in a mess, choose an economist to lead us, if it's war that's the priority, then draft a soldier, and so on.
Problem is, many of our best leaders would have done very poor job applications. By almost universal agreement, Curtin was a great war-time leader, but he was a pre-war footballer and journalist, and even campaigned against our involvement in WWI. His successor, Ben Chifley, acknowledged by even his political foe Menzies as a great national leader, was a train driver. So, it seems prior experience is not necessarily a good predictor of leadership success. Then there was monarchy, where absolute power is inherited, with no prerequisite skills. History’s pages are spattered with bloody examples of kings behaving badly.
Post-Renaissance, the social compact, supported by well-known English philosophers like John Locke, stated that government was purposely created by humans because they realised there was something missing to protect them and ensure their way of life. According to Locke, people willingly gave up part of their freedom and independence, knowing it was in return for stability and security. It was a radical (at the time) notion giving ordinary people free will in choosing the type of government.
Emerging from this swirl of ideas, the French and British notion of a noble, independent civil service, people well-versed in good government, experienced in legislation, but removed from the political process. The idea was that they provided democratically-elected ministers with behind-the-scenes, impartial advice, just as Sir Humphrey Appleby did, including cautions about “courageous” policy moves which ran counter to common sense.
Ideally, this model combines both elected and expert, both enthusiasm and ideology, both energy for reform and experience. And this is where we find ourselves now. But the problem is that this system is under siege, with political appointments into senior roles, like town clerk, made by politicians, and even major policy decisions made by appointees who are not answerable to the general public through the electoral process.
So the question becomes: Do we want policy determined and announced by people we elect, or by our employees? When the early thinkers set out lines of accountability in government, did they ever imagine a contracted employee deciding to move the Parthenon west of Athens?
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