the art of the real question

Once upon a time in a country called Elbonia, there lived a politician who had been voted into High Office by the people in his electorate to represent their interests and help ensure a safe and happy world for their children and their children's children, and their children's children's children.

At the outset of his career, the Politician wanted to help people and make a better world. But as his career progressed, he began to discover how hard it is to change the world. He began to jettison his personal values in order to fast-track his career. At first he felt a little uneasy, but he found a way to live with himself.

His thinking went something like this: "I want to help people. But I can't help people if I don't stay in power. So my priority must be to stay in power".

Once he knew what his priority was, there was no stopping him. He became a master of spin and hype. He was always being interviewed by journalists asking tough questions about why he had supported this or that cause, or how could he have allowed himself to help this group or that group, or what were his reasons for voting this way or that.

He often if not usually didn't have any good answers to these tough questions, so he had to resort to the sly tactics of rhetoric and misdirection. One particular tactic proved to be a real winner, and he resorted to it often. He called it the art of "the real question".

When he was Minister of Transport, for example, a journalist asked him why the Government had failed to provide sufficient funds to maintain the public bus and railway network, and why people were unable to get to work on time as a result.

"That's not the question," was the Politician's response to the journalist, "the Real Question is why the opposition's transport policy doesn't even come close to my Government's proposed new multi-million dollar investment in building road-tunnels, roads and tollways."

Another journalist asked him "Why are you putting thousands of sole-trader taxi-drivers out of work with your new licensing regime that unfairly favours the taxi industry's dominant company, which just happens to be owned by a friend of yours?"

"That's not the question," was the Politician's response to the journalist, "the Real Question is how this Government is continuing to create a large scale, efficient and fully integrated world best practice taxi service for the average Elbonian."

While he was Minister for Education, one day close to an impending election the Politician went to visit a local school. It was a great photo-opportunity, and he was expecting to get a lot of political mileage out of the visit. Inside one of the classrooms, the Politician gave a short, informal speech to the kids and their nervous teacher and assemblage of journalists and camera-people in the background.

"Children are our future," said the Politician, smiling, "and this Government is committed to continuing to focus on providing the very best facilities as part of creating a leading-edge learning environment for our children, and our children's children and our children's children's children." Then he paused before asking whether anyone wanted to ask him a question.

A pretty little girl with her hair in a pony tail shyly put her hand up and waited for permission to ask a question. The Politician nodded encouragement to her. Taking a deep breath she looked down quickly at a piece of paper in her hand, and then asked, "Can we have some money to fix the toilets and the changerooms? It gets very cold and dark and I'm scared to go there?"

The Politician was momentarily at a loss. He was about to try the "Real Question Tactic" but he quickly realised it would probably not be appropriate under the circumstances. Then a journalist gave him the opening he needed by asking, "Out of the mouths of babes, Minister, when will you reinstate the public school maintenance and upgrade program you axed last year?"

"That's not the question," replied the Politician, "the Real Question is how this Government is ensuring consistent standards of numeracy and literacy, and why the parent teacher association is opposed to the introduction of a nationwide syllabus including new and innovative subjects such as diversity studies, arts and culture, and Elbonian pottery."

A few days before the election the Politician was kidnapped by a gang of masked people in what the news reports described as "…a brazen and daring raid, obviously the work of professional terrorists."

Inside the Safe House, the terrorists put handcuffs on the Politician and chained him to a chair so he couldn't escape. They wore their masks all the time so he could not identify them.

"Why are you doing this," he asked in a pleading, piteous voice, "What do you hope to achieve? Are you going to hurt me? How much money do you want?"

The masked kidnappers looked at one another and said nothing, until one of them, a very small kidnapper, with a squeaky little voice, said "Those aren't the Real Questions, none of them. The Real Question is..."

Then the leader of the kidnappers pulled out a gun and shot the Politician in the head, and he never found out what the Real Question is, at least not in that lifetime.

Copyright © S R Schwarz 2007. All rights reserved.

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