Monday, December 12, 2011

"merit" vs representation (I just have to put it in quote marks)

"Political candidates should be judged on their merits. What we need is quality; whether they're male or female or gay or straight or white or brown or purple shouldn't matter!"

This is nonsense.

It's nonsense because it ignores the obvious question: what, exactly, constitutes merit with regards to a political candidate?

I thought I'd try to unpack what constitutes merit for me, when I'm trying to explain why I think particular politicians suck or not.


Political identity is complicated, and it's different for everyone. What may be a low priority for some people (the fact that they're a woman!) may be a high priority for others (the fact that they're a woman!).

For me, my political identity isn't really centred on me being a woman, or even on me being a single woman who is purchasing a property with her non-romantic, non-sexual domestic partner-type person (even though this causes me to have to explain shit to people so fucking often and frustrates the shit out of me).


I don't think any moral value attaches whatsoever to what each individual adult decides for herself is important to her identity.

I do think that moral value attaches to making sure that each individual adult has a reasonable chance of voting for someone (or for a party) that she feels represents her, in whatever form that may take.

Aaaaand, as a statement of fact, lots of different groups of people feel that their interests have been shafted by rich old white men! Repeatedly! To the point that sometimes an individual adult, having thought about what's important to her, may feel like rich old white men don't represent her at all, or do so badly.

And for lots of people, it doesn't go that far. Like I said, my political identity isn't really centered on me being a woman. But that doesn't mean it's not important to me at all, or that I'd be happy if political life were always dominated by men in NZ to the extent it is today.

It's important to have a diverse range of backgrounds and personalities and personal characteristics in Parliament because we're a representative democracy, and society is diverse.

"But quality should trump that, right?"
Yeah, except that from where I'm standing there's not a lot of evidence that we have, or have had at any time in our history, so many brilliant politicians jumping at the bit to enter Parliament that we should judge on talent and talent alone.

Whatever talent means.


I'd start with the ability to analyse policy. At a basic level, an MP should be able to:
1. Explain what the current law and policy is on a particular issue that they have chosen to speak about.
2. Explain what, if any, current problems there are with that law and policy, and articulate why the problems are problems and not imaginary boogiemen sent out by PR firms to frighten the public.
3. If there is a balancing exercise in the current policy or law, explain what that balancing exercise is (for example: the trade-off between freedom and security). Explain why the balance is wrong, if the MP thinks it is.
4. Explain what the MP's proposed new law or policy is. Explain how it is intended to operate.
5. If there is criticism of that proposed new law or policy, be able to counter it with an argument logically connected to both the proposal and the criticism (rather than: "my opponent obviously spent the night on the toodle!")

A totally made-up example of this in action might be:

"The current law on unicorns is that they must be kept not closer than 3 miles from populated areas at all times. Any area that has more than 100 people living there counts as a populated area.

There are a number of problems with the current law. First, this law means that unicorns are mostly found in the central North Island, where they occasionally cause trouble at the Army training camps, and in Fiordland, where they compete with native birdlife for food. Second, the reference to "3 miles" has not been updated since we moved to the metric system.

As unicorns are dangerous to most adult humans, there is a strong public interest in keeping them away from people. However, although they are not a native species, they are internationally endangered and have adapted well to our New Zealand ecosystems.

Our proposed policy is that unicorns must be kept not closer than 1 kilometer from populated areas, but may travel to towns and cities for veterinary purposes. We will also work to remove unicorns from national parks, with the exception of a reservation near Mount Taranaki. Over time, we will create a sanctuary for unicorns on an offshore island.

The Opposition would have you believe that this will cost the earth. They are wrong: DoC figures suggest removal from Crown land will cost less than $25 million over 4 years, and will help to ensure the survival of some of our most treasured native birds. We do not think $25 million is too high a price to pay."

Can all of our current MPs do this? No. Often political explanations of policy come out as "blah blah blah SLOGAN blah blah blah BUZZWORD blah blah blah I WAS RAISED BY blah blah blah BUZZWORD blah blah blah." Politicians are often reasonable at explaining what the policy is, but totally crap at explaining how it's going to work, or acknowledging that it's not perfect, or explaining what the drawbacks are, or engaging in legitimate debate about its worth.


So if there even is a trade-off between "tokenism representation" and "merit", NEITHER SIDE IS WINNING AT THE MOMENT. Parliament is still pretty unrepresentative of New Zealand society, for a whole bunch of reasons. And despite being unrepresentative, it's not exactly filled up with the intellectual heavyweights of the world, who, uh, mostly happen to be old-ish, rich-ish white dudes.


At some point I intend to further examine what I think constitutes merit in an MP - it, like most things, is ~complicated~. But I do think there's an assumption hidden in the merit/representation thing that assumes that people who aren't "diverse" are more likely to meet the talent standard - like, you're a fat queer chick, obviously you're here for diversity reasons and not because you're any good - how could you be?