Back in May I was elected to the County Council.
In amongst all the congratulations from friends, people from church and colleagues I sensed a curious cognitive dissonance that went something like this:
“You’re now a politician. All politicians are lying, power-grabbing such and suches in suits, but…well, we know you. You’re Jon with the shorts and skinny legs who I see every week. That doesn’t fit in my boxes.”
Now, I happen to think that not all politicians are power-grabbing such and suches, even if most of them do wear suits. However, I am aware that many good people go into politics and get their morals and vision blunted by the fights and the compromises and drip, drip of a distant corporatized world view. I am haunted by the fear that I will go the same way and am aware that I need to take very close care of myself to avoid the same fate.
Caring for my soul sounds super spiritual, but in fact staying true to yourself is very practical. Here’s my starting principles and how I’ve worked them out so far.
1) What you stand for has to be more important than winning.
Working hard and wanting to win is essential, but it can’t trump knowing what makes you passionate and sticking with it. I vocalised many times in the run up to election to friends and to myself ‘that I know what God’s called me to do and there’s lots of ways of doing that. Whether or not I get elected that won’t change.’
Most of the time I believed what I was saying!
Now I say ‘whether or not I’m liked, perceived as successful or re-elected’ doesn’t change what God’s called me to do.’
Winning should be a by-product of working on the issues that are important to you. If you can’t find a way of winning without keeping your integrity then it’s better to lose.
2) Know that you are beholden to your party…
You’ve got to be intentionally up front with everyone about who you are and what you think or otherwise people in your party will get upset when you act or decide differently to the way they would . Elections, quite rightly are a team effort and on being successful you are, in part, the party’s representative.
Before even being selected I talked to the core group of our local party about my faith and the possible public outworking of that. I sketched out possible scenarios where I thought we’d disagree – it’s so easy to gloss over these to keep everyone happy. I wanted the arguments out of the way up front. These were people who would put massive amounts of time, energy and emotion into seeing me get elected. I wanted them to know who they were getting so I had the freedom to be me after election day.
3) …and to the electorate
How you get power determines what you can do with it when you’ve got it.
There’s no point thinking ‘when I’m in power I’ll change this and that, but for now I’ll keep quiet’. It just won’t happen.
You gather a certain amount of political ‘space’ or ‘capital’ when you win an election. When Kevin Rudd campaigned for Prime minister in Australia a few years ago he prominently promised that he would sign the Kyoto protocol on C02 emissions. In victory he was able to do it straight away – he had won the argument. If he had kept quiet because he didn’t think it was a vote winner he’d have faced lobbyists and disagreements for years.
In addition, if you win an election staying safe and in the middle that’s how you’ll try and do it next time – it’s difficult to break the mould you set for yourself.
I won an election on local issues. I was the candidate who took practical local action, lived in the local area and promised more of the same if I won. If I were to get sucked into spending all my time on big picture Shire Hall policies and forget my local patch I’d rightly be in big trouble.
However, what we did as a party was to try and link our practical local action to our bigger principles. I wanted people that voted for me to know that, for me, caring for our community includes being passionate about social justice issues like a Living Wage. That organising a BBQ for new students painted a small picture of a better way to do community relations on a larger scale.
Doing this was riskier and more difficult than saying nothing of any wider substance. I’m not saying we got it all right, but hopefully people in my ward have some idea of my broader approach.
In many ways it’s early days and I’ll have to constantly need to check myself against these principles if I stay in politics, especially around election time.
There will be moments when there’s a direct and clear conflict between what’s right and what’s best for me or my colleagues politically in the short term. There will be many more times when it’s just not that obvious – those small occasions are the dangerous drip-drip of wanting power, comfort, acclaim or an easy life.
I expect to make mistakes, some of them costly, but hope and pray that I keep my soul in tact.