Go On, Mate, Get Out There And Make A Difference

When politicians suddenly quit halfway through their term, they’ve usually done something naughty, or stupid, or are so awful at their job that they’ve worked out the electorate can’t stand them any longer.

But if the only reason state Labor MP Evan Thornley has resigned his seat is so he can re-enter the private sector, then, well, that’s fantastic. In 2009, we’re going to want every business person on the ground working overtime to create jobs. The last thing we need is talented entrepreneurs spending their lives stuck in the world of petty rivalries and disproportionate egos that is Australian politics.

Anyway, we have a more than sufficient number of politicians trying to engineer political solutions to what is an economic crisis. Thornley founded a company that, at its height, was worth just shy of $1billion. His commercial acumen and skills could be far more useful building the economy than regulating it.

The position that Premier Brumby was reportedly going to offer Thornley – minister for industry, trade and industrial relations – is one that could easily have a few responsibilities shaved off it. A general consensus among economists is that the best trade policy is to have no trade policy at all. Industry policy has a long and venerable history of comprehensive failure. And Victoria has ceded the vast majority of its industrial relations responsibility to the Commonwealth.

It must be strange for someone who has spent his life adding value to the economy to be offered one of the ministries most dedicated to taking value out of it.

It is a widespread delusion that the best way for a person to serve others is to enter politics; that politics is a noble profession of public service. But there’s just something far nobler about working in private industry or in the not-for-profit sector – individuals who spend their whole careers trying to figure out just what sort of products or services consumers want, or trying to understand social problems and how to resolve them. If the idea of service to others has any validity, surely social and commercial entrepreneurs are worthier than the politicians who seek, above all else, the highest level of political power.

And while many people dismiss success in business as little more than the greedy pursuit of fortune, how does that compare to politics? The business of the politician is, essentially, the pursuit of power over others. The top politicians may be paid a lot less than the top CEOs but, while a CEO can at most control their corporation, many politicians seem to believe they can move everybody’s private resources around like chess pieces.

Far from being noble, politics is a profession that rewards expediency and even deception. Political decisions are guided mostly by polling data and a desire to hurt the other team. Legislation is the result of manic horse-trading that seeks not to find the best way to do something, but to mollify as many interest groups as possible and please the bizarre preferences of the independents that often hold the balance of power.

So it is no surprise that so many laws and government programs are ill-defined, have no clear goal, and provide no method of assessing whether they are actually working. But politicians find it’s a lot easier to start a government program than to close an old one. Bureaucracies, commissions, departments, boards, committees and taskforces pile up upon each other, each insisting on a slice of the annual budget. They say that laws are like sausages: it’s better not to see them being made. But do we really have to be forced to eat so many?

Many in the private sector are now being sadly reminded that jobs that are underutilised or unnecessary have a habit of being eliminated. This does not occur in Parliament. Inefficient or just plain disinterested backbenchers need little more than a lock on their preselection and a safe seat to feel relaxed and comfortable. Even if they underperform by every possible measure, they can remain employed for decades.

As the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter once wrote: “Politicians are like bad horsemen who are so preoccupied with keeping in the saddle that they can’t bother about where they go.” The private sector is much less forgiving of people who spend most of their working day preparing for the next round of job interviews.

Indeed, there’s a lot to be said for the private sector. No hairdresser or bank manager can cut your hair or take your money unless you specifically ask them to do so. Politicians have no such limit – laws that impact on everybody are enacted with only the barest of consent from what constitutes a democratic majority.

While Thornley’s political colleagues might be furious at his resignation, hopefully he is able to show them that only the private sector can create the jobs that Australia will need next year.