Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Playing to the gallery

Gallery: The general public - usually considered as exemplifying a lack of discrimination or sophistication. – from The Free Dictionary

It is well known and considered that in modern democracies, politicians often have to strike a balance between appeasing their constituents, so called playing to the gallery, whilst attempting to implement sound if unpopular policies.

Much ink has been spilt on the problems associated with striking this balance, particularly problems pertaining to ‘pandering to the masses’. When I took political science 101 as an elective back in university, I was introduced to the American term pork barrel politics for the first time. I remember being fascinated by the term; you mean politicians actually take flak for maneuvering in Congress for perks and advantages for their constituents? Admittedly, these perks come at the expense and waste of the Federal budget, but still, the idea that politicians actually proactively influence policy for the benefit of their constituents, if nothing but for the sake of retaining office…the idea was a breath of fresh air for a born and bred Singaporean like me, relatively speaking.

As my political awareness grew, I came to know of the overwhelming (and potentially corrosive) influence of K street lobbyists, their clients, and other special interest groups on United States lawmakers. The United States political system seemed to be like a giant mesh of corporate and other special interests, only sometimes incidentally benefiting American citizens.

If lawmakers have to cater to all their campaign contributors, all their lobbyists, all their concerned, unemployed/employed, rich/poor, liberal/conservative constituents, and have to make deals with other lawmakers, how can legislation ever be pushed out? More importantly, what kind of legislation does get passed? Frankenstein legislation that’s a compromise on everything, makes no one happy, and doesn’t get a thing done? Tax cuts and bail-outs that temporarily goose the economy and make Wall Street happy but ultimately worsen the current deficit and the health of the economy? Food and fuel subsidies that placate the populace but distort the market for essential goods? We have examples of all of those in today’s global context.

Wouldn’t it better if we just left legislation to capable men of government, the philosopher-kings to borrow a phrase from Plato, and relieve politicians of the need to play to the gallery? Indeed, one of my readers is (or was, since I don’t think he reads this blog anymore) precisely of that opinion.

Well, guess what. Singapore’s a perfect example of a government that doesn’t really feel the need to play to the gallery, since the ruling party has had a perfect record of returning to power at every election, at majorities unheard of elsewhere in other democracies. Pity about that rather bald outburst about 'fixing' [opposition party politicians] from the PM though.

Legislation is passed quickly and without fuss, and you could make a case that the ‘right’ legislation is selected all or most of the time. Feedback solicited after legislation has been decided on may be a token gesture, but hey, the right legislation was passed in the end.

But just like in any exam, especially a math exam, there are correct solutions and there are also good (elegant) solutions. They are not necessarily the same thing.

What kinds of solutions do you get when you have lawmakers that are paid a lot of money, are assured of re-election, and have a pliable media in a conciliatory rather than watchdog role? What happens when lawmakers aren’t forced to get creative or imaginative about solutions that address their constituents’ wishes while still remaining sound policies?

When things get tough for a politician striking a balance between sound policies and playing to the gallery, the politician sometimes caves and selects the most expedient solution: a compromised workaround that pleases no one.

But as it turns out, when lawmakers are free to work without interference from the gallery, they turn to expedient solutions too, just of a different kind. They reach for the most convenient, most conventional, most in-the-box solution. Make no mistake, these solutions do work. Raising the ERP does reduce road congestion, but for whatever reason, no lawmaker has been motivated enough to devise a solution that will address the underlying problem of a compromised public/private transportation infrastructure, which is the real problem. Gee, I wonder whether that has anything to do with the Transport Minister not fearing any repercussions on his career whatsoever.

Well, at least when government doesn’t have to play to the gallery, we are free from the pernicious influence of special interest groups, or so you might think.

If the “applause and thumping of seats” by Cabinet ministers in October 2007, or the appointment of Thio Li-ann as an NMP, are any indicators of the increasingly evangelical Christian character of the Cabinet, then there are special interests at play in our government, a la the Christian right, in a style similar to Focus on the Family and Concerned Women for America. It’s just not as obvious in Singapore as the multitude of lobbyists you see on K street in Washington D.C. And that makes it all the more insidious.

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