Political parties as temp agencies

The usual political debate inside our country revolves around conspicuous things concerning the top leaders, like whether someone has been overtly corrupt, promised something too loudly that they could not really deliver, is handing out money to worthy or unworthy causes, or is going up against some vested interest. Whilst there is nothing innately wrong with this mix of politics-as-entertainment and holding top politicians to account, it has always seemed to me to miss the bigger picture, which is that political parties have become temp agencies.

What do I mean by this? Simple, the main role of political parties is to organise temporary political jobs for its members: political parties ‘deliver’ thousands of mayors, councillers, ministers, lobbyists, MPs, select committee members, etc. Political parties are an intermediary between a whole layer of temporary political jobs and the people who want those jobs. In short, they are temp agencies for managerial political jobs. There is nothing wrong with this reality, but there is something wrong with judging temp agencies just by its corporate image.

What is wrong with the political debate as played out in newspapers and television? Again, simple: you dont just ask a temp agency about its corporate mission statement.

Think about it: when you are looking for a new CEO or just a local boss, is the only question you ask whether they have been corrupt elsewhere or promised something they could not deliver? Of course not. You want to know about how well trained they are, what kind of contacts they have, whether they can work with people, who is internally holding them to account, etc.

So what are the questions that we should be asking of our political parties that we are not? Instead of droning on and on about fairly meaningless shades of ‘ideology’ like liberals versus progressives, which in Australia is really of zero actual consequence once a party is in power, we should be asking about the internal training programs inside political parties. We should be looking at measures of competency in terms of whether a particular politician is a good organiser and can motivate people working with them. We should be asking for internal monitoring mechanisms such that a party keeps tabs on how corrupt and self-serving ‘their’ members are once they become mayors, ministers, etc. Have you ever seen a newspaper article digging through the internal training systems of political parties in Australia, or the mechanisms to follow-up on the behaviour of the temps ‘in the field’? I have not and that is weird if you think about it.

In short, we should treat political parties like any other temp agency and demand they are good temp agencies. At the moment, we mainly ask of them that they are good at propagating and defending a corporate story, but we dont really ask whether the people they ‘recruit’ are good managers and what programs they have to ‘improve’ the managerial abilities of their staff.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

11 thoughts on “Political parties as temp agencies”

  1. Without denying their general usefulness in any organisation, why do political representatives need these competences as a matter of course? When, for example, a minister’s in the cabinet at state or federal level, the portfolios under his or her control are still managed day to day by senior bureaucrats who are responsible for the resourcing, implementation of policy and motivation of staff from the top down.

    The ideological function of political parties is essential, as without it government will struggle to articulate alternatives to its own practices, perceived as common sense – of which this oddly “vocational” view of political activity is one example.

    As you point out, in Australia the “shades” of ideology from ALP to Coalition are presently fairly monochromatic, but it certainly hasn’t always been so nor should it be. We shouldn’t plan for a lack of choice for votes in our system, we should militate against it.


    1. Take your own example. A minister needs to deal with senior bureaucrats and hopefully knows something about the policies he ultimately decides upon or at least has the job of politically pushing through. It would be handy if he knew something about managing senior bureaucrats and doesn’t offend them to the extent that they all resign. Indeed, I would like to see some kind of learning program such that senior ministers start out lower down, working their way up. This already happens a bit but could be done far more professionally.

      As to ideology, I fail to see the need for it in the present day. If times change politicians can always re-cloak, but at the moment I do not see what is wrong with having political parties competing in the election on the basis of how well they can run the government machinery. For sure, you want all of them to work for the benefit of the whole of Australia, but that has become a shared ideology. The relevance of 19th century type ideological dichotomies in today’s world is lost on me.


      1. Without descending into meaningless “everything’s an ideology” bickering, the view you’re putting is itself ideological. It’s widely known as managerialism.

        There are a host of undiscussed principles that must underpin a system of the type you’re suggesting. For example, how will competence be measured in this “temp agency”? How will outcomes be measured? What exact past behaviour would disqualify a candidate from holding office or make it less likely?

        It seems inevitable that the answers to these questions will be ideologically laden. After all, if the parties compete on nothing but who can better manage the country, it’s styles of management that become the ideological battlefield. Privatisation in any given circumstance – the public institution equivalent of outsourcing – is a typical example, one that creates as much controversy within private corporations as it does in government departments.

        But anyway, to me those “19th century dichotomies” to which you refer weren’t so much ideological as they were social, brought on by extremes of inequality and injustice that have since been ameliorated by decades of collective political action.

        With economic inequality on the rise in most democracies, the policy differences between parties of the left and right will probably sharpen over time as well. But an (approximately) two party system like Australia’s will always tend to produce some degree of ideological convergence because both parties need to attract the same voters from the centre of the political (and socioeconomic) spectrum.

        As I said before, I think ideology – understood as a set of guiding principles for decision-making – has a very important role to play in government. Just as it does in general organisational management. Principles provide the basis for a consistent response to changing and unpredictable circumstances which pure efficient resource allocation cannot – not to mention to the host of areas of social policy where resourcing and efficiency are much less relevant, but an ability to transmit the will of the people to appropriate decisions is essential to proper civics (case in point – same sex marriages).

        With all that said, I think you correctly draw attention to at least one very important point, which is that our current political parties seem to be quite bad at producing candidates for political roles who are ideally well equipped for office – whether as articulate proponents of an ideology that may benefit the electorate, or as efficient managers and motivators. Our major parties desperately need reform. I just don’t agree that the reform should involve ideas becoming less central.


  2. They do compete on “economic management”. But I agree that there is more difference in ideological rhetoric than in practice given all the welfare spending Howard committed to, for example. On the other hand, I can’t see the coalition ever having imposed a mining super-profits tax…


  3. “The relevance of 19th century type ideological dichotomies in today’s world is lost on me”

    I would say cementing the power and wealth of one’s own group is ALWAYS relevant. There will always be the haves (owners of capital) and the have nots.


  4. David,
    Agreed that economic competence is already a battleground, but it only pertains to the top. It is the competence of the thousands that get their jobs via political parties that should be at least as important.

    The mining tax is an interesting example. It is hard to believe that we would have ended up with less taxation on the mines than we have now had the coalition been in power. They might not have proposed the MMRT but then also would not have gotten into the position of letting the commonwealth be coopted to police the royalty rates set by the states. So its actually a nice example of how incompetence mattered more than supposed ideology. Besides, there is little ideology about taxing mainly foreign-owned rents in the first place. No one openly runs the line that the object of Australian policy should be the shareholder value of New York investors!

    and which political party runs the line that they only represent the haves or the have-nots? Its a meaningless dichotomy in reality.

    indeed, styles of management should be the political battleground of today. That is the point of the post. Whilst increased inequality is indeed a problem, I have failed to discern a true difference in the political party on that point: whose policies have contributed to it more?


    1. Agreed – I think both parties have contributed to it, I’m not really interested in assigning blame, but I think there’s a need to campaign against obviously regressive tax-related measures. A good example is Abbott’s paid parental leave policy that pays based on parental income, rewarding high income earners more than those on lesser incomes – this should be opposed.

      In a properly functioning democracy, when a harmful phenomenon like economic inequality progresses to the disadvantage of a sizeable chunk of the electorate, that part of the population should eventually mobilise behind a political entity that can stop or reverse the phenomenon.

      You can see this sort of happening in the US where inequality is much worse – but they have a particularly sclerotic democracy, one that is captured and hobbled by vested interests there.

      Either way, I think the differences in “styles of management” have enough substance to sustain ideology … leaving us back where we started.


    2. “So its actually a nice example of how incompetence mattered more than supposed ideology.”

      In the case of the RSPT and MRRT it wasn’t (just) incompetence but also the competent pursuit of conflicting interests that drove the ultimate policy failure.

      The kicker was the ALP’s internal conflict – there are definitely powerful interests within the ALP that tend to work against the best overall outcomes of governance.

      However, I agree that the oversights in the heads of agreement document for the MRRT about replacing state-based royalties were a disaster caused by a lack of transparency and competent oversight in the policy-making process. A legal drafter I know commented that nothing binding of that nature should ever be prepared without more eyes on it.


  5. Well, I dispute the “mainly foreign owned” line. Simple calculations about the size of Australian superannuation funds etc. show that that is not so plausible.


    1. Good. An important empirical claim we can squabble about. “The RBA said most estimates suggested four fifths of Australian mining operations were effectively owned by foreign interests.” as quoted by the mining industry itself: http://www.miningaustralia.com.au/news/foreign-ownership-dominates-mining-industry-rba

      In the greens-paper on this (at http://greens.org.au/sites/greens.org.au/files/Foreign%20Ownership%20of%20Australian%20Mines.pdf) you will find that

      “The mining industry in Australia is about 83% foreign owned. This reflects the high foreign ownership of the two major players – BHP-Billiton at 76% and Rio Tinto at 83%. While most people think of BHP as an Australian company, ‘…BHP under our laws is a foreign corporation, as is Rio Tinto.’ Between them,
      these two companies make up about 70% of the listed company resources. Unlisted companies are mostly very small or 100% foreign owned.”


  6. the ALP’s latest screening process for parliamentary candidates is efficient i.e. university, union organiser, MPs’ staffer and then candidate.

    With no working class left to speak of, do you know of any alternatives that ensure that endorsed ALP candidates are true and loyal members of the party?

    the purpose of political party internal labour markets such as university, union organiser, MPs’ staffer and candidate is to screen for true quality, loyalty and groom for success.

    By socialising together, potential candidates can mutually monitor each other for true commitment to the party’s values and aims.

    In the past, the screening process was through occupation, club, union, and class memberships, and long apprenticeships on the backbenches.

    People are unwilling to wait now on the backbenches because incomes are higher and alternative career opportunities are greater.


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