TERRY MORAN ‘Back in the Game’ Part 1 of 2

The policy pendulum is swinging away from a consensus on the primacy of light touch regulation of markets, the unexamined benefits of outsourced service delivery, a general preference for smaller government, and a willing ignorance of public sector values and culture because they’re not always compatible with efficiency as viewed by Treasuries. 

Replacing this consensus is an increasing acceptance of a larger role for government, including involvement in service delivery, more effective regulation and bolder policy initiatives.  

(This speech, posted in two parts, was the IPAA Victoria Oration, 21 November 2017.)

It’s been another perplexing year in Australian politics. One might say, as Sir Humphrey said to Bernard, much activity is a substitute for achievement.

One ray of sunshine was last week’s resounding ‘yes’ result in the marriage equality survey. Such a clear outcome – majorities in every state and 89% of electorates – make the passage of legislation before Christmas inevitable. And that’s a great thing.

Now it just so happens that the think tank I chair – the Centre for Policy Development, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary – has been finalising its own attitudes research.

We’ve been probing what Australians want from their democracy, and from their governments. CPD focuses on the policy challenges that matter for Australia over the long run.

Right now, there is perhaps no greater challenge than boosting the health of Australia’s democracy and, with it, public administration.

Tonight, I’d like to preview the results of this attitudes research, and some of the ideas that might emerge when CPD’s full discussion paper is released next month. I do so because one of the lessons of the marriage equality survey is that Canberra has been listening to but not necessarily hearing what Australians want.

What’s clear from CPD’s research is that Australians think reinvigorating our democracy is a pressing and overdue task. And it’s not just about reforms to the system and its processes. It means ensuring the best contemporary policy ideas rise to the top.

Many of you here tonight will recall the Ahead of the Game consultations I led 7 years ago. If there is a motto for my speech tonight, it’s that government and the public service must get back in the game – both in terms of policy and in terms of service delivery. Let me explain why.

No quick fix

There is no shortage of diagnoses from opinion makers telling us what the problem with Australian democracy is: mediocre politicians, powerful vested interests, inadequate public service advisers, partisanship, disengaged voters, the list is long. There is also no shortage of solutions put forward: a federal corruption commission; fixed parliamentary terms; the use of citizen juries; tighter regulation of political donations; and reforming the Federation.

The reality is there are no silver bullets, although some of these ideas would be helpful and are strongly supported. We might include among them limiting machinery of government changes, which have been rightly described as devastating.

As someone who has observed governments at close quarters for decades, I’m not convinced the quality of people is the problem – although the diversity of our representatives is an issue.

What’s less clear are the key ideas, understood and accepted, sufficient for our political system to break through the current policy impasse.

What are the new policies, derived from these ideas, Australia needs to restore both confidence in a system under stress and legitimacy to political leadership?

My own view is that we’ve reached the end of a nearly 50-year political policy cycle, dominated by ideas derived from macro and micro economics.

Right now, the policy pendulum is swinging away from a consensus on the primacy of light touch regulation of markets, the unexamined benefits of outsourced service delivery, a general preference for smaller government, and a willing ignorance of public sector values and culture because they’re not always compatible with efficiency as viewed by Treasuries.

Replacing this consensus is an increasing acceptance of a larger role for government, including involvement in service delivery, more effective regulation and bolder policy initiatives.

What do Australians want?

CPD’s attitudes research is national and shows Australians don’t just want more effective government. They want a more active government. The research was done in partnership with Professor Glenn Withers from the Australian National University and with Essential Media. It focuses at the federal level but much the same results would probably apply at state level.

Glenn oversaw similar research for Prime Minister Paul Keating’s Economic Planning Advisory Commission in 1994, and for the Australian Council of Learned Academies in 2015. We’ve produced a third tranche of data, and included new questions about Australia’s democracy.

What did we find?

  • 73% of Australians agreed that politics is “fixated on short-term gains and not on addressing long-term challenges”.
  • One in three Australians (35%) think the main purpose of democracy is “ensuring that all people are treated fairly and equally, including the most vulnerable”. This was easily the most popular response.
  • Australians are prepared to pay more for essential services like health, schools, social service payments to the elderly, and economic infrastructure because they benefit the community. This has been a trend for more than two decades. 61% of Australians are still prepared to pay more.
  • Australians are highly sceptical about the outsourcing of social services. 82% want to see government retain skills and capability to deliver these services directly, and view government as a ‘better’ provider of services on most indicators when compared to charities and businesses.
  • People thought the top policy priorities the Federal Government should pursue are those delivering economic benefit and nation building, such as investing in economic infrastructure, improving job security, boosting wages, investing in R&D and shifting to renewable energy.
  • People believe local governments provide better services and more accurately represent the needs of the community than Federal or State governments.
  • Australians have a strong appetite for positive reforms to the form and function of our democracy. 79% supported strengthening the parliamentary code of conduct. 77% supported introducing a federal corruption commission. 68% supported allowing citizens to serve on parliamentary committees.

This last finding warms the heart. Unlike in other countries, Australians don’t want to overturn the system or drain the swamp. They want to landscape it more artfully!

Australians see democracy as a force for equality, and want their governments to take the lead in identifying big problems and helping to solve them. In my time in DPC, research I had access to suggested a strong view of this sort in Australia but not in the US. We are not at all the same as the Americans although few realise this.

Things haven’t changed much including the inability of governments to hear the message.

Terry Moran AC is a former Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria and Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. He is Chair of the Centre for Policy Development

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One Response to TERRY MORAN ‘Back in the Game’ Part 1 of 2

  1. Allan Asher says:

    Terry Moran points to some encouraging trends in public attitudes to neo-liberalism, costs of the social contract and nation building role of government.
    He is in a unique position to comment on the sad decline of social policy and current changes in public opinion.
    Another aspect of governance on which I would like to hear Mr Moran’s views is the “integrity gulf”. This is my shorthand for the serious run down in parliamentary scrutiny of the executive and the related trashing by successive governments of the Australian National Audit Office, Ombudsman’s Office, Information Commission and Public Service Board. Maybe they will be in Part 2?

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