On political support

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. Today, a look at the idea of political support and the public expectations which accompany it: promoting and protecting the public interest. The relationship between these two requirements of public office can be a vexed one, however, for both politicians and the public.

On political support

By: Gareth van Onselen

4 September 2012

Public representatives, elected to office of the back of public support, are entrusted with two primary responsibilities: first, to promote the public interest and, second, to use their various attributes and abilities – on which basis, hopefully, they were elected – to protect the public interest.

Sometimes these two requirements contradict each other. Promoting a particular policy, despite its general appeal, might ultimately damage the public’s best interest rather than enhance it; and so one must seemingly work against the public’s wishes in order to protect them from some unseen or harmful consequence.

On these occasions – for the most part, the exception to the rule – it is a public representative’s duty to educate and, in convincing and compelling fashion, explain why a particular course of action is not necessarily the best one.

This is a counter-intuitive and brutal business and why politicians should be experts. The better equipped they are to demonstrate the trust placed in them was well-founded, the more likely it is to be strengthened. The worse they are at identifying threats or explaining them, the quicker that trust will be eroded away. The greater the public reserve of trust, the longer its depletion might take but, once a leak has sprung, it requires a disproportionate amount of effort to repair; let alone to replenish that which has been lost.

Of course, this balance between protecting and promoting the public interest lends itself to abuse. Once in power or, perhaps more accurately, once having enjoyed power’s affect, there is an inevitable temptation to assume public support a proxy for all decision-making – that it is one’s job not to promote the public interest but to determine what it is in its entirety.

It is a cruel irony that, the greater one’s political support, the more likely this attitude is to prevail; for political support is just as likely to bolster an ego as it is a sense of duty.

Importantly, this does not, however, excuse the public itself from any responsibility on their part. If they willingly surrender their own interests, out of apathy or indifference, or even blind faith, they surrender their right to have it protected in turn.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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