Politics And Government - The Right Way

| by Ruwantissa Abeyratne

We must be the change that we seek in the world
 - Mohandas Gandhi

( June 12, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Niall Ferguson, in his book " The Great Degeneration - How Institutions Decay and Economies Die" speaks of Western civilization and institutions in the context of four "black boxes" which he "opens" in his book. They are: democracy; capitalism; the rule of law; and civil society. These four boxes, in my view, form the bulwark of successful government and governance, which should drive the implementation of a political agenda of a government which was touted before the people before being elected. They also should apply to any democratic or purported democratic government, be it in the west or east. Ferguson goes on to quote Francis Fukuyama who says that the three components of a modern political order are a strong and capable State; the State's subordination to a rule of law and government accountability to all citizens.

All these three components are achieved through strong political leadership. A simplistic definition of leadership is that it is the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal. Put even more simply, a leader is the inspiration and director of the action. He or she is the person in the group that possesses the combination of personality and skills that makes others want to follow his or her direction. Peter Drucker, the Harvard management guru, defines a leader as “someone who has followers..." and goes on to say “to gain followers requires influence”. Warren Bennis is of the view that “leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential. Kenneth Boulding says that “good leaders are made not born. If you have the desire and willpower, you can become an effective leader. Good leaders develop through a never ending process of self-study, education, training, and experience.”

Political leadership involves all the above elements. However, in addition, a political leader has, according to Prem Misir, to combine two behavioural styles – the first being empathy and concern relating to people, which includes respecting people and developing mutual trust. The second is concern with project-completion tasks. Some studies have shown that leaders are effective when they combine both behaviours. Misir states that “political leaders have to not only ‘press the flesh’ but also be knowledgeable about issues and have the capacity to resolve these issues. A good leader can attenuate values from the humanities which bring to a society the elements of empathy and concern and helps build respect and mutual trust. In this context Nussbaum refers to a “greedy desire” and “aggression” in modern society that makes people veer from respect for democracy towards economic success. She quotes Mahatma Gandhi who believed that mutual respect and equality in people must essentially stem from self realization attained through an inner struggle by each person.

Then comes the question of government and governance that a leader should ensure. In my interpretation, the words "government" and "governance" different . Whereas the former is concerned with enacting legislation for the benefit of the people, in accordance with the will of the people (in a democracy),the latter is carrying out responsibility towards ensuring a strategic direction for the betterment of the people.

Ferguson's first box - democracy - is clear to most. It comprises not only the electoral process but also the assurance to the nation (the people) that their voice will be heard throughout the process of governance. Capitalism is an economic system where trade and industry are controlled by the private sector. This is clear and straightforward, provided the leadership of the country ensures that market forces are properly regulated and the people are not unduly exploited.

The third box - the rule of law- however, is more complicated. Primarily, the rule of law posits that everyone is equal before the law. The Magna Carta of England promulgated in 1215 established the principle that all Englishmen were equal before the law. However, this is not the only principle. There are many dimensions to the rule of law. Lord Bingham gives eight such elements that comprise the rule of law in its true sense. They are: the law must be accessible and as far as possible intelligible, clear and predictable; questions of legal right and liability should ordinarily be resolved by application of law and not by exercise of discretion; the laws of the land should apply to all, save to the extent that objective differences (such as mental incapacity) justify differentiation; ministers and public officials at all levels must exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly, for the purposes for which the powers were conferred, without exceeding the limits of such powers; the law must afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights; means must be provided for resolving, without prohibitive costs or inordinate delay, bona fide civil disputes which the parties themselves are unable to resolve; adjudicative procedures provided by the state should be fair; and the laws and wishes of a collective international community must be respected in internal government and governance.

The greatest difference between democratic government and authoritarian rule would lie in the human rights component of the rule of law which calls for the right to life, liberty and security of person; the right to a fair trial; protection from punishment without law the right to freedom of thought and expression, freedom of association and freedom from discrimination just to name a few.

All these boil down to the fact that good politics and subsequent good government and governance are dependent upon responsibility, integrity and accountability of the leadership. This is where the fourth black box of Ferguson comes in - civil society. Civil society, mainly composed of non-governmental organizations or NGOs, can play a watch dog role in keeping the nation aware of its rights.

If there is any leader who could assure a nation of politics and government the right way, I would gladly bow to him, even touch his feet in deference, but not in supplication and worship. Those I would reserve for the deity. 

The author served the United Nations in Montreal for 24 years and is currently President/CEO, Global Aviation Consultancies Inc. Montreal, and Senior Associate, Air Law and Policy, Aviation Strategies International, Montreal.