No.17

In politics, the balance favours more work and less life

Stone the crows! You would think we were French. What, with the way everybody is outraged by the length of the political working week, which generally is a lot more than the 35 hour week that used to apply in Paris where not so long ago it was illegal for managers to work many more hours.

At the end of last week the media was full of yarns about the way the PM and his ministers push people too hard, demonstrated by high staff turnover.

It made a change from all those stories about the way Tony Abbott can run the show from a bicycle seat, or what a super-fit slacker he is (depending on where you get your news).

But it also demonstrated a great deal about how little we know about politics and how little we value work.

Of course, minders and mandarins buckle and burn out while working for cabinet ministers. The hours are endless, the expected effort intense and pay-off pathetic. No one ever got rich as a ministerial adviser; only the most assiduous of self-promoters parlay posts into lucrative private sector spots.

The mad do it because they delude themselves into thinking they are running the country. The sad do it because they are being paid off for a factional deal of some kind and for the dangerous it is part of their plan to win pre-selection.

But the vast majority of staffers flog themselves for a couple of years because they love the policy game and think that if they work harder than everybody else they might even make a difference.

Mostly they don’t – and when they realise they can’t, the idealists give it away. But, until the idealism erodes, the best ones work very hard indeed.

And despite all the HR experts explaining how the attrition rate reflects what poor people managers ministers (in reality their chiefs-of-staff) are, the fact is that this is how it should be.

Senior staffers help run the country and there is simply no room for people who think they have better things to do on a Sunday morning than prepare a speech, review a brief or work out ways to save the boss in case of unexpected disaster. Ministers without such dedicated staff are inevitably in trouble, failing because of poor support as much as their own idiocy.

People involved at the interface of politics and policy also work hard because of the corollary to Parkinson’s Law; work on interesting issues expands to occupy the time available for its completion. Imagine the fascination the ETS offered for environmentalists interested in economics and the challenge of designing tax reforms that are politically saleable.

The pleasure of working on major policy is undoubtedly dulled if ideas are ignored but there is a great deal to be proud of in creating intellectually coherent programs.

People who feel threatened by individuals who are obsessed by their work understand none of this. Participants in an online newspaper poll overwhelmingly criticised ministers for pushing staff too hard and denying them “work-life balance” – a synonym for doing less than a job requires.

It also reflects the idea that work is not especially fulfilling – even if you are lucky enough to have a fascinating job.

But while such ideas are the Australian norm, they do not apply to politics, which is a vocation, not just a job. Part of the price of operating at the pinnacle of politics is that your life’s work has to be, well, work.

Stephen4@hotkey.net.au

In politics, the balance favours more work and less life

Stone the crows! You would think we were French. What, with the way everybody is outraged by the length of the political working week, which generally is a lot more than the 35 hour week that used to apply in Paris where not so long ago it was illegal for managers to work many more hours.

At the end of last week the media was full of yarns about the way the PM and his ministers push people too hard, demonstrated by high staff turnover.

It made a change from all those stories about the way Tony Abbott can run the show from a bicycle seat, or what a super-fit slacker he is (depending on where you get your news).

But it also demonstrated a great deal about how little we know about politics and how little we value work.

Of course, minders and mandarins buckle and burn out while working for cabinet ministers. The hours are endless, the expected effort intense and pay-off pathetic. No one ever got rich as a ministerial adviser; only the most assiduous of self-promoters parlay posts into lucrative private sector spots.

The mad do it because they delude themselves into thinking they are running the country. The sad do it because they are being paid off for a factional deal of some kind and for the dangerous it is part of their plan to win pre-selection.

But the vast majority of staffers flog themselves for a couple of years because they love the policy game and think that if they work harder than everybody else they might even make a difference.

Mostly they don’t – and when they realise they can’t, the idealists give it away. But, until the idealism erodes, the best ones work very hard indeed.

And despite all the HR experts explaining how the attrition rate reflects what poor people managers ministers (in reality their chiefs-of-staff) are, the fact is that this is how it should be.

Senior staffers help run the country and there is simply no room for people who think they have better things to do on a Sunday morning than prepare a speech, review a brief or work out ways to save the boss in case of unexpected disaster. Ministers without such dedicated staff are inevitably in trouble, failing because of poor support as much as their own idiocy.

People involved at the interface of politics and policy also work hard because of the corollary to Parkinson’s Law; work on interesting issues expands to occupy the time available for its completion. Imagine the fascination the ETS offered for environmentalists interested in economics and the challenge of designing tax reforms that are politically saleable.

The pleasure of working on major policy is undoubtedly dulled if ideas are ignored but there is a great deal to be proud of in creating intellectually coherent programs.

People who feel threatened by individuals who are obsessed by their work understand none of this. Participants in an online newspaper poll overwhelmingly criticised ministers for pushing staff too hard and denying them “work-life balance” – a synonym for doing less than a job requires.

It also reflects the idea that work is not especially fulfilling – even if you are lucky enough to have a fascinating job.

But while such ideas are the Australian norm, they do not apply to politics, which is a vocation, not just a job. Part of the price of operating at the pinnacle of politics is that your life’s work has to be, well, work.

Stephen4@hotkey.net.au

'2012