If there’s a more enchanted time than those (long, long) weeks that herald a federal election, then it really must unfold inside JK Rowling’s head. Oh, the magic of leaders who make-believe that stupidly simple slogans can solve enormously complex problems! Oh, the reminder that “democracy” has come to mean for us the choice between bending a bit, or bending all the way until we’re dead! Oh, the hi-vis vests!
In recent days, many have cynically remarked on this tendency of leaders to be photographed in vests, coveralls and other working attire. And, of course, with a range of tools, fruits and vegetables.
Not to get all “I hated this before you did” hipster about it, but, ahem, I have given a good part of my professional life to hostile scrutiny of political posing. I have been hating this "I’m just one of the people" habit for so long that I’ve taken it to the next hate-level.
As such, I now invite you to enrol in my advanced graduate program of hate. Stay with me, scholars, for this brief introduction.
As you know, politicians, whether in or out of hi-vis vests, are rarely One of Us. Even if they are, just for a few pre-election moments, credibly average, they soon become members of the policy class. And, to be honest, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Yes, politicians immediately become unusual citizens whose everyday work is generally nothing like ours. Yes, in our system of government, they tend to live a life of data rather than one of experience. But, when you’re making policy for the lives of millions, data will often provide a better guide than a real life personal experience of poverty. The problem is, a lot of them are so busy posing in their hi-vis vests, they don’t look at the data.
Politicians, whether in or out of hi-vis vests, are rarely One of Us.
To illustrate this point – and, I promise, well get to the full-blown hate in a minute – compare the economic policies of Joe Hockey, who came up tough in a shop, to those of Malcolm Turnbull, who was once a finance sector la-di-da.
The problem with Malcolm Turnbull, whose policies serve the nation’s wealthiest corporations, is not that he lives in a mansion or has only ever worn a hi-vis vest as working class cosplay. The problem with Malcolm Turnbull – if you do agree that there is a problem with Malcolm Turnbull – is identical to the problem with Joe Hockey, who may lay more claim to having actually worn a hi-vis vest. There is a great deal that separates the life experience of these two men. There is no notable difference between their economic policies. Yet, we seem to keep demanding a sort of high-vis authenticity from our leaders to the degree that we point it out when we see it’s not there.
Meantime, what we don’t see is their policy. All we see is how convincing they look in a hi-vis vest.
We want our politicians to be understanding. We say that the problem with politicians is that they don’t know what real life is like. What we tend to forget when demanding these things of people, who are, in any case, required to spend much of their time in low-vis suits, is that their authentic personalities and stories of childhood heartbreak are no guarantee that they’ll do what we see as the right thing.
I have no need for a politician to understand me. For a start, I don’t even understand me, and it seems unreasonable to expect anyone else to do so. What I need is a politician who will see me represented as data. If a politician wants to consider me a number, that’s not only fine with me, it’s actually preferable.
I have no need for a politician to understand me. For a start, I don’t even understand me, and it seems unreasonable to expect anyone else to do so.
I want politicians to see us all as numbers. I want them to do the sums. Which is to say, I would like us all to see politicians as calculators, and not as people who look good or unconvincing in hi-vis vests.
There is so much talk in this moment about the need, from all sectors of society, for compassionate understanding. My Facebook feed tells me all the time that everyone, especially politicians, “need more compassion”. If only people understood others in an emotional way, say traditional and social media. If only people were nice.
Oh, bugger that. This makes about as much mass political sense as saying “if only they looked really nice in a hi-vis vest”.
We don’t need to wish for politicians, or for anyone of influence, to be lovely. We just need them to know how to do some lovely sums. Sums of the sort that would deliver more to the many and less to the unnecessarily wealthy few. I was never very good at maths, but I can’t imagine this is a particularly tricky arithmetic.
But nor can I imagine a time quite soon where we will care less for the high-visibility character of policy makers and more for their actual policy. We’re just too dazzled by the vest.
And, we’re too dazzled by our personal hatred. When you graduate from my school of loathing, you might agree: don’t h8 the player, h8 the game.