Commonwealth timidity on the big issues.

Aug 4, 2021

Federal Labor has become as timid about reform — particularly in the “big” Commonwealth fields such as the economy, or taxation, and tertiary education — as is the conservative government. It doesn’t dare say anything on defence and foreign affairs — or social justice — for fear of being wedged.

The Grattan Institute ‘Gridlock’ report is well worth a close look on the many problems of government. Below are a few observations worth noting.

One reason ministers may be reluctant to argue for unpopular policy is because the price of failure is high, and with the risk of a policy backlash, it notes:

“But in addition, a high-profile policy failure may limit subsequent career opportunities — ironically high-profile personal failings appear to be much less of an issue. The end of generous defined-benefit superannuation … has made it more important for them to find well-paid employment after political life.”

“But many politicians today do not have a career outside of government to fall back on. Immediately before entering politics many federal politicians worked as ministerial advisers and union representatives. Unlike prime minister Ben Chifley, none has actually driven a train.”

“There are increasing opportunities for former politicians to use their government experience to gain post-politics employment. One in four former ministers works for special interests, and another one in four has an official or media role.”

“These employment factors mean that it is very costly for a minister to be associated with a high-profile policy failure or even a successful but bruising policy battle in the public interest against vested interests that reduces their post-politics career prospects.”

It is interesting to think that we began paying, and superannuating, politicians over a century ago so as to remove such unworthy considerations from their thinking. This does not suggest further increases to already high remuneration. It suggests controls to sharply limit the political prostitution of former politicians in lobbying, industry dependent on government, and patronage jobs.

The major block to institutional reform, such as integrity legislation, is the vested interests of the major political parties, the institute says. Public opinion is not blocking reform — over, say, pork-barrelling, electoral funding on the establishment of an integrity commission.

“Most of these institutional changes will reduce the control of party officials, the power of ministers, and their perceptions of the chance of re-election, at least in the short-term.

“Few governments have such a long-term view that they think these disadvantages would be outweighed by voters grateful for more policy reform in the public interest.”

Of 73 reforms proposed by the Grattan Institute between 2009-2019, 23 were substantially implemented, and 50 have not been adopted. Common patterns emerged:

  • 15 were unpopular with the electorate, and none of these was adopted;
  • 10 were blocked by party or tribal shibboleths (three of these were also unpopular);
  • Six of the remainder were actively opposed by powerful vested interests untempered by high-quality evidence, and none of these was adopted;
  • Three of the others had poor or contradictory supporting evidence, other than the work of the institute. None were adopted;
  • Five were blocked because they involved very large (at least $2 billion) additional budgetary costs;
  • Only two reforms were adopted despite these blockers: one crossed a shibboleth (increasing superannuation taxes) and one involved a large budgetary outlay (increasing childcare subsidies);
  • Of the 23 reforms subsequently implemented none was unpopular, none was actively opposed by powerful vested interests, only one ran against party shibboleths, and only one involved high expense;
  • The senate stymied only two reforms that would not have been blocked anyway; and
  • Federal factors were significant for six reforms — and all of these would probably have been blocked anyway because of party shibboleths or the opposition of powerful vested interests.

It rather looks as if the courage necessary to be “wanting to make a positive difference” is in seriously short supply among modern political operators. Federal Labor has become as timid about reform — particularly in the “big” Commonwealth fields such as the economy, or taxation, and tertiary education — as is the conservative government. It doesn’t dare say anything on defence and foreign affairs — or social justice — for fear of being wedged.

If it won’t handle the big issues, perhaps it could learn something from the fearlessness of some of the Labor premiers and work over some of the “little” things. Like education. And health care. The aged. The disabled. The quality of life. The transition from coal. Climate change and the environment.

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