July 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Veritable listeria

By Charles Firth
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

My sister recently became the minister for cancer, women and climate change in the New South Wales government. That is an absurd thing for any person to become, but it's especially absurd when the person is your big sister. In fact, I lied about her title, which officially is the Minister for Women, Minister for Science and Medical Research, Minister Assisting the Minister for Health (Cancer), Minister Assisting the Minister for Climate Change (Environment). The sheer number of portfolios has massively increased the number of Goggle results for her name - which, I've always maintained, is the only objective measure of which of us is better. I'm still ahead, but she's gaining on me.

Obviously her portfolios are a natural fit. All the scientists and medical researchers who are studying the carcinogenic consequences of climate change on feminism are stoked: finally, there is someone in government who understands their issues. Frankly, I don't know why the super portfolio of women-science-medical-research-cancer-climate-change wasn't created earlier. But it is also a bit confusing: what if her briefing notes got swapped, and she came out against equality for women and in favour of cancer? Verity says she doesn't think that'll be a problem, but I'm not so sure.

Unfortunately, Verity's portfolios put her in direct opposition to me. I have long been in favour of climate change (she's against) and against the equality of the sexes (she's in favour), and don't even get me started on cancer. One of the best things about her being a minister is that I now have serious dirt on a member of cabinet, and I'm thinking of selling it to the Daily Telegraph. I have revelations of several Cross-Dressing Incidents (Verity used to dress me up as a girl when I was five).

In case you're worried that my sister is just going around collecting portfolios, Stalin-style, I should point out that she's the most junior minister in the current NSW government. But you could probably tell that by the fact that she's the minister for women. The state's Labor Right has always given that portfolio the same rank as the cleaner (actually, they consider it the same position).

Over the past week, wearing her environment hat, Verity has announced important measures to stop noisy neighbours from modifying their car mufflers and causing a disturbance. Her press statement on the matter was the (Mitsubishi) Magna Carta of our time. And her policy work on the importance of using sunscreen on sunny days, while wearing her (wide-brimmed) cancer hat, is one of the most wide-reaching, politically important initiatives in the history of Western democracy. I consider it the New Deal of skin protection. Furthermore, her warnings to pregnant women about the dangers of cold meat can only be described as a stab in the heart of the forces of tinned-meat tyranny. I know I'm biased because she's my sister, but she truly is turning out to be the Julius Caesar of the War on Listeria.

According to Verity, when you're made a minister everyone says you should set five goals to achieve in your time in office. But Verity is very efficient, and has settled on only three goals across all her portfolios. Her first is to cure cancer. After that, she'll establish true equality of the sexes. And then, if there's time, she'll fix global warming. Verity reckons that if she manages to knock those off by the next election, she'll be in a pretty good position to retain a spot in the ministry. I don't know about that. Politics is a difficult game, and nobody likes an upstart. I tell her it's best if she just keeps her head down and tries to do something that nobody in cabinet will object to, like building a new coal mine or privatising electricity or something.

Of course Verity is joking about her goals, but not entirely. At heart, she's a true believer. (Though maybe I shouldn't reveal that, as it could be used against her.) I guess that's why she's in politics. Because, damn it, somebody's got to believe that curing cancer is possible. But when the portfolios were handed out, nobody higher up the chain thought about the fact that each one in Verity's grab bag was a massive task. Rather than expecting her to effect change according to her political beliefs, I'm sure the men - and they are all men - took the attitude that ministerial responsibilities are there to be managed. Verity isn't expected to cure cancer, just to manage the process of people getting it and then dying, or perhaps occasionally getting over it. She's not expected to solve the problem of global warming, just to manage our response to a warmer climate.

The trend across Western democracies is to give ministers portfolios that seemingly bear no relation to each other. My favourite is Marion Scrymgour, who is the Northern Territory's Minister for Natural Resources, Environment and Heritage, Parks and Wildlife, Arts and Museums, Women's Policy, Senior Territorians and Young Territorians. Why don't they just call her the Minister for Token Affairs? Or the Minister for Stuff the Guys in Cabinet Don't Really Care About? The managerial approach to politics means that a long list such as this is not seen as a problem; each portfolio being a management task, it requires exactly the same skills as the next. Politics becomes a career, not a way to make the world better.

Nowadays, being a minister is considered a job. But a minister doesn't really have a job: he or she is simply vested with responsibility. Verity is there so that if something goes terribly wrong, she can be sacked; she can be held responsible so that the people who have jobs, the public servants, don't have to live in fear of the random exigencies of politics. Yet it doesn't quite work like that. Ministers cling to cabinet positions as if the accountability of the system is not as important as their own careers. They do it safe in the knowledge that any given issue has a short life in the media, and you can get away with a lot if you just hold on.

Despite the creeping managerialism of government, though, there are signs which make me worry that Verity isn't playing the game. She recently came out in support of stem-cell research. It was the best kind of politics: deep ethical scrutiny given to a technological breakthrough; a debate about what we, as a society, should do with our increasing power over our molecular make-up. It required no management skills, but was ideally suited to someone with political skills, a clear moral vision and the ability to make passionate speeches based on fervent beliefs. And you should see what it's done to her Google ranking.

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