Saturday, June 14, 2008

In praise of boring people


I WOULD LIKE to say a word or two in praise of boring people.

We might not want to sit next to them at a dinner party and we’re certainly not interested in reading about them in the paper. The lives of dysfunctional celebrities and egotistical big-noters are far more riveting.

But the world would be an unimaginably worse place without the vast number of anonymous, boring people who don’t do drugs; who don’t cheat on their partners or walk out on their spouses and children when the going gets tough; who are not into tattoos, body piercing and tagging; who pay their bills on time and obey the road rules; who join school committees, turn up at Saturday morning sport to support their kids and run sausage sizzles outside the Warehouse to fund a class trip to Australia; who help foster a sense of community pride and order by keeping their sections tidy and their houses painted; who catch the train or the bus to work at the same time every day and sit down to eat at the same time every night; and who tut-tut at the appalling things going on around them, but would never dream of thrusting their head above the parapet by taking part in a protest march or writing an angry letter to the paper.

If I were able to choose my neighbours, these are the sort I would opt for.

Perhaps we should institute a new category in the honours list: the Order of the Bore, for people who keep their heads down and just get on with it. Recipients could be randomly plucked every year from the duller middle-class suburbs to receive the award on behalf of the tens of thousands like them.

* * *

I RECENTLY drove through the territory of the Horizons Regional Council and pondered, not for the first time, the fatuousness of public organisations trying to sound dynamic and glamorous through “branding”

Horizons Regional Council covers the Manawatu-Wanganui region. I need to explain this because the name “Horizons” doesn’t give you a clue where it is, which is one of the reasons why it’s fatuous. You would expect the name of a regional council to convey a sense of place, since that is surely its essence; but every place has horizons, so Horizons Regional Council could just as easily be in Nova Scotia or the Mato Grosso.

Another reason it’s fatuous is that unlike a commercial enterprise, which has to attract customers and promote its product, a regional council has a captive market and doesn’t need “branding” to tout for business. However much they might like to, its ratepayers can’t switch to the Feelgood Regional Council (“Where Rates Increases are Painless, Year After Year”) or the Betta Value Regional Council (“Three Resource Consents for the Price of Two”).

Still, no doubt councillors and bureaucrats feel better working for the snappy-sounding Horizons than for something as dull as Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Council. And some lucky advertising agency or PR firm will have got several months’ lucrative work out of exploring alternative brand names and coming up with inspirational logos.

And if it all cost a lot more than anyone expected, as it always does – well, it’s just a matter of making a small adjustment to the rates demands.

* * *

AT THE annual Summer Sounds Symposium in Marlborough last year, Australian academic and writer Joe Poprzeczny introduced a new word of his own invention: ballotocracy.

It’s the term he uses to describe the system of government in which we get one chance every three years to decide which politicians will govern us, then relinquish any control over them for the remainder of the triennium. Poprzeczny is a great fan of Swiss-style democracy, in which voters exert continuous influence over their elected representatives through referenda.

He argues persuasively that “ballotocracy” describes our system more honestly than democracy, which implies direct rule by the people.

If his argument holds true in Australia, it’s probably even more applicable here. Later this year we will go through the motions of an MMP election in which voters will have no control over the ultimate outcome, since no one knows what deals will be hatched behind closed doors in the coalition negotiations that will almost surely follow.

If it follows the pattern of previous MMP contests, the election will deliver a result in which minority interests with a narrow agenda will wield disproportionate power. This is the antithesis of democracy, in which the majority is supposed to hold sway – a point we’ve lost sight of in our eagerness to appease clamorous minority groups.

The first-past-the-post system may have been seriously flawed, but for all its faults it had the virtue of being more transparent – and arguably more honest – than the fraudulent crock we’re stuck with now.

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