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Lack of professional diversity in politics
Published Date: 16/04/2018 (Monday)

By Ranmini Gunasekara

Today’s politics is more about selling your ideas than arguing them. A profession that was once aspired and reserved by lawyers and attorneys have now switched sides into business.

An informal study done by a group of journalists into the professions of Sri Lankan Members of Parliament (MP) revealed that the majority of parliamentarians have identified themselves as businessmen. This study however, had its limitations as not all MPs have revealed their professions in their applications.

Nevertheless, out of 157 of the MPs who had revealed their professions, 44 of them (28 per cent) were businessmen, whilst lawyers took the second place with 34 members (22 per cent) listing their professions as either a lawyer or an attorney-at-law.

Commenting on the matter, Senior Lecturer and Sociologist Dr. Kumudu Kusum Kumara noted that this change has been observed in many countries and that with the onset of globalization and liberalized economies there has been a trend of businessmen and corporations involving themselves directly in politics.

“One of the main reasons they get involved in politics is to ensure that the government and the ruling parties reflect their interest.

“This class of people have now become powerful in Sri Lanka, especially after the liberalization of the economy. As a result, we can see businessmen, company owners and executive directors in politics today. This change was something that we saw from the past 30 years,” he added.

Global context
Businessmen have risen in the global political context as well. Although the United States’ President is often cited as the most glaring example, there are other crucial yet subtle changes happening in the lower tiers of politics as well.

According to the Toronto Star, in the Parliament of Canada in 2013, only 47 of the MPs in the House of Commons listed their past profession as ‘lawyer’, this number has steadily decreased from the 1860s to the present. In the same year 97 MPs have listed their backgrounds as business or consulting.

Similarly in the United States a study done by the Congressional Research Service in 2012 shows that members whose occupations were in the banking or business sector slightly surpassed those from legal backgrounds in the House of Representatives.

Figures aside, what do these changes mean?
Unlike in the past, when ‘lawyers should be legislators’ was the natural conclusion, today politics has many facets. In the present, companies are not the only entities that need marketing strategies, governments do as well.

In a capitalist society Parliament is no longer a courtroom with the public acting as the judge, rather, it’s a marketplace where everyone tries to grab the biggest customer share. In this context knowing how to run a business would certainly prove an advantage.

Furthermore, according to Prof. Kumara, politics and the economy cannot be viewed in isolation.

“The government provides solutions for societal issues. This isn’t just politics, you have to provide solutions to a wide range of economic issues as well, thus business is also relevant to politics,” he added.

This is especially true when considering the recent financial crisis, and the drastic economic reforms that many countries had to undergo.

But do businessmen really know what is best for one’s country?

There are many times when one would think that politics can use some business-sense, but both present and past experiences show that success in running companies does not equate to success in running a country. The primary example for this is the present US President Donald Trump. 

Speaking to Ceylon Today, Professor Desmond Mallikarachchi, former Head of the Department of Philosophy in Peradeniya, said there are many risks of having so many businessmen involved in politics.

“Today, everyone is a businessman in Parliament, since everyone has their own side businesses. There are so many conflicts of interests, where they make the law to suit their own businesses. Even if you take lawyers, they also do businesses as well... their main motivation in coming to politics is their own commercial interest,” he added.

There is no need for examples in the local context; as no Sri Lankan is a stranger to politicians having field days on tax payers’ money. But is there a solution?

Professional diversity

Some say that having representations of different careers might be the answer. According to Professor Mallikarachchi, Parliament is divided along two binaries, with very little career diversity.

“Our Parliament is currently composed of two binaries; there are very little representations of other professions. We have only two engineers and very few doctors. I don’t believe being a businessman is the same as being a professional, they are not intellectuals and most often they are not educated,” he added.

However, there is a fine example we can take from India – that is the All India Professionals’ Congress, a party chaired by Shashi Tharoor, Indian politician and former Under-Secretary General to the United Nations.

In an article written to The Quint, Tharoor writes,

“Before I entered politics myself, one of my more frequent laments had been about the abdication by the Indian educated professional classes of our political responsibility for our own destiny.”

He further states, professionals with skills and qualifications but no political background should come into politics and this eventually would be the democracy’s salvation.  It remains to be seen whether this initiative would truly salvage a system that was damaged by decades of corruption. 

Yet, it is worth considering whether
Sri Lanka should focus on professional diversity in politics as much as gender diversity.

Source: Ceylon Today

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