Mercenary, Missionary, Manager, Monarch

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Being an honest, ethical and competent MP isn’t something that a candidate can easily stump for. That’s mostly because it’s not easy to distinguish yourself from your pathologically dishonest opponent, who’s made a career of lying to everyone, even himself. It’s a rare politician indeed that doesn’t promise to be effective and to stand up for the principles of the people he’s speaking to at the moment, whatever they may be.

Despite innumerable past disappointments, honesty, ethical behaviour and competence should be assumed. They should be right there in the job description.

Should be.

In countries the world over, the political scene attracts the same kinds: There’s the Mercenary: charismatic, mercurial, willing to say or do anything as long as the price is right. There’s the single-minded Missionary: often blinded by the brilliance of his own vision. There’s the Manager, who finds herself organising others because if she didn’t nothing would ever get done. There’s the Monarch, for whom power is an end in itself, not a job but a state of being.

All of these are required in order for a government to operate, though each in its measure. Take any one away and things break down. Allow too many of a given kind… and things break down. The chemistry of government relies as much on manoeuvrability and opportunism as it does on organisation and direction.

It’s a strange thing to have to work against one’s better nature in order to achieve a greater goal. But the day inevitably comes when the Missionary is forced to accept half-measures, the Mercenary works on spec, the Monarch must justify his tenure and the Manager just stands by and lets the chips fall where they may.

There’s a fifth kind of politician, the kind we rarely get to vote for. This is the Alchemist, whose demeanour hides a keen student of human motivation. Occasionally guided by principle, the Alchemist is an eminence grise, the power behind the throne whose machinations are forever felt and seldom seen.

The Alchemist understands a few things that the others don’t. He knows that nothing is achieved whole hog, that everything arrives in pieces. He knows that politics is about balance, that those who worry about winning or losing will inevitably experience both.

The Alchemist is not always a person. Sometimes it’s an ethos, the spirit of tradition, an echo of the will of our forebears. Until recently, the Constitution served as a check to the worst tendencies of the US governments. Sometimes, as in England and China, social inertia suffices to define what governments can and can’t do. That’s not always a good thing.

Business as usual for many governments is defined by the sense that it’s best to get what you can while you can. Hesitating only means that the other guy steals what could have been yours. In an environment like that, a conscience is a handicap.

When a government goes off the rails, the first job is to re-establish the culture, a set of guidelines which everyone recognises, even if only in mockery. The best way to keep a dishonest politician in line is to trap him in his own pretence. A watchful alliance between the Missionary and the Mercenary may run against the Missionary’s every instinct, but it has be result of keeping the Mercenary where he can see him.

A more curious effect is watching the Mercenary start to act as if he actually believes what he’s saying. Say something often enough and it inevitably begins to sound like the truth.

The most difficult aspect of righting the ship of state is dealing with a malingering crew. A political culture typified by dishonesty and opportunism almost always infects the highest levels of the bureaucracy, and often extends throughout the rank and file. Re-establishing a sense of discipline, professionalism and – gulp – responsibility sometimes looks like an un-winnable war.

In a dysfunctional environment, the lowly worker has no incentive to perform. In fact, everything militates against action. The simplest way to avoid being punished for incompetence is to avoid being involved in any way with something you know will fail. Given that most everything fails in a broken bureaucracy, that means avoiding all work at all times.

Turning that environment around requires a curious alignment of Missionary, Monarch and Manager, in which the Monarch aligns his ‘divine’ right with the Missionary’s vision and then, contrary to his nature, allows that authority to devolve to the Manager and even, on occasion, to the Mercenary.

Over the last half-decade or so, Vanuatu has gradually been emerging from a state of near-collapse, returning to a fairly respectable level of operation. Whatever its shortcomings – and they are many – it compares favourably indeed with other Pacific nations.

Make no mistake, there is many a mile yet to travel. But the good news is that right now, momentum is pushing us in the right direction. It’s a perfect time to inject some new energy into the scene.

Missionary, Mercenary, Manager and Monarch: Vanuatu needs them all, but each in the appropriate measure.