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Debate: Politicians’ Outside Interests

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Should elected representatives be banned from pursuing outside interests?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alastair Endersby. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.

Background and Context of Debate:

Historically, politicians were members of the social and economic elite who spent much of their time managing their own businesses (often landed estates). Parliament was an occasional activity in which they participated unpaid out of the duty of from a love of their country or of power. In the twentieth century the payment of elected representatives has allowed candidates for parliament to be drawn from a much wider social and economic pool, while the growing complexity of the modern state has hugely increased the amount of time elected representatives have to devote to politics, their constituencies and legislation. This situation, coupled with an awareness of the corrupting influence of interest groups on the political process, has led to demands that elected representatives no longer maintain business interests outside politics, nor continue to practice as barristers, doctors, paid speakers, etc.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Elected representatives should be working for the people and take only their interests into account. Politicians who also run their own companies, hold directorships or manage extensive share portfolios will stand to gain or lost substantially from individual pieces of legislation, which is likely to affect their vote and so distort the political process. At worst this can become outright corruption, as vested interests pay elected representatives to lobby on their behalf, or reward them with lucrative directorships if they vote in certain ways.

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No

Any suspicions that outside interests might sway the political process can be dealt with through full disclosure of representatives interests, so that their voting record can be analysed by the media and electorate. Applied rigorously, such suspicions would prevent politicians having any life outside politics whatsoever, as non-remunerative “interests” such as hobbies (e.g. hunting, opera), sexual orientation, and religion could also affect the voting behaviour of representatives.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The public has a right to demand that its elected representatives work full time on its behalf. Legislators or ministers with outside interests will inevitably have less time and energy to devote to affairs of state.

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No

In a democracy it is for the electorate to judge whether they are being short-changed by “part-time” representatives with outside interests, and to punish them at the ballot box at the next election if necessary. Outside interests seldom require major time commitments while legislatures are sitting.

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Argument #3

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Yes

All politicians have to keep in close touch with the opinion of “real people” in their constituencies, in order to give themselves a good chance of re-election. The backgrounds of the elected representatives in any national parliament are usually very varied, with only a few without significant work experience in the world beyond politics; it is the lure of lucrative outside interests which threatens to make the views of many representatives the same.

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No

There are positive advantages to the public in having elected representatives with outside interests. Many modern politicians become involved with party campaigns at university, become lobbyists or campaign staff upon graduation, and later go into parliament, without every holding a “proper job” in the “real world”. For some representatives to continue to meet people whose primary concerns are not politics, but their businesses, jobs, the impact of taxes and the economy, is healthy and likely to lead to better law-making, more in touch with the people.

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Argument #4

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Yes

The uncertainty of employment in politics is well known to every aspiring politician, although in many countries the criticism is rather that incumbency carries a huge advantage in any election. Rather than encouraging elected representatives to pander to interest groups in search of jobs to provide future security, it would be better to guarantee retired and defeated politicians a decent pension, or funding to update their professional skills.

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No

Politics is an uncertain profession, with fickle electorates liable to throw representatives out of a job at every election. It can also be stressful and a strain on family relationships, leading a significant number of politicians to retire early. Such middle-aged job seekers will find it hard to support themselves in the “real world” unless they have maintained their professional skills or business interests while in parliament.

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Argument #5

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Yes

All forms of profitable employment beyond politics should be declared by elected representatives, but irregular media engagements or speaking appearances are different in kind from the pursuit of business interests. This is because politicians seek to use the media and public platforms in order to advance their political agendas and personal careers, whereas links with outside businesses allow certain interest groups to use elected representatives to further their own ends.

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No

There is often considerable snobbery over what kind of interests elected representatives are allowed to pursue. Although business and industry are often looked down on as “trade”, many representatives still earn money from journalism, paid speaking commitments, television appearances or continued academic work. These activities, although clearly less regular employment than those usually termed business interests, could equally be seen to sway politicians voting behaviour, e.g. on media issues.

Motions

  • This House would ban MPs from pursuing outside business interests
  • This House demands full-time elected representatives
  • This House would stop the gravy-train

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See also

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