IAN MARSH. Our political system is in gridlock.

May 18, 2016

Longer term policy making in Australia.

Longer term policy making in Australia is in a parlous state. The scale and significance of this problem is totally unrecognised. For example, since 1996 almost no contested measure that required legislative approval has past the Australian parliament. Change to the Senate voting system was one – but it is hardly likely to weaken the influence of minor parties. The GST was another. As a result John Howard nearly lost the 1998 election.

Almost all controversial measures that have attained parliamentary approval have attracted bipartisan support. Take the last ten years. The list is slender. NDIS, plain cigarette packaging, a shameful strategy on refugees and that’s about it. More recently, the Opposition seems to have pushed the government to action on tax avoidance by wealthy individuals and MNCs – but the fine print has yet to attain the light of day.

Other proposals have been defeated by Government or Opposition led scare campaigns (negative gearing, GST, refugees, carbon tax), by scare campaigns funded by the affected interests (poker machine legislation, the mining tax), by internal disagreements within the major parties (same sex marriage) and by ad hoc Senate majorities (the first Abbott budget). Or some combination of these factors.

Looking further back, it is not widely recognised that in the run up to the 2007 election John Howard u-turned on not one or two but seven major measures that had been at the heart of his prior programme. This included industrial legislation, climate change, the Murray-Darling, education funding etc. This was despite the fact that he had held office for 10 years with all the resources of the state at his disposal. He had established no base in public opinion for key measures. Had he been obliged to do so, wiser policy might have been forthcoming.

What is common to all these outcomes is the inability of the proponent government to muster any countervailing support in public opinion before opponents pounce. Governments blithely announced measures with no or little prior engagement of public opinion. They assume the authority of office will carry the day.

The magnitude of this challenge is masked by day-to-day distractions. Of course governments continue making programme, regulatory and budget decisions, many of which do not come before the parliament. They maintain the appearance of action by announcing inquiries. But the results go nowhere – think of Commissions of Audit, the Henry tax review, Kevin Rudd’s Health Commission, the Gonski report etc. The on-going business of government masks the parlous underlying scene. With its breathless accounts of day-to-day leadership and other dramas, the media abets this outcome

Why is this challenge so under recognised? Perhaps part of the explanation concerns the dominant voices in political commentary. Much comes from people with a background in law or economics. These disciplines simply assume the political system. Students are not trained to evaluate or question underlying processes or structures. Perhaps another part of the problem is imagination. We are so used to the structure of power as it currently exists that any other arrangement is unthinkable. But for a different policy making world in a similar cultural and constitutional context look no further than New Zealand.

Simply put, the current policy process is not fit for purpose. Yes – we have a variety of expert assessments. These are essential. But the more difficult step of creating a base in public opinion for contested matters goes by default. Moreover, the ‘problem’ will not likely be solved by the forthcoming (or any) election.

What does the record tell us about the requirements for longer term policy making? One clear condition is an inquiry that lays out the technical case for change. There are quite a few successful examples: the Campbell and Wallace reports on the financial system, the Productivity Commission on tariffs and privatisation continuing more recently to the NDIS, the Hilmer inquiry on competition policy etc.

In each case the report became the basis for subsequent bipartisan support. But in each case the report also wielded influence in a political context pervaded by a sense of crisis. In the background, the major parties shared the recognition that a new approach was needed. The inquiry offered a detailed solution to a widely shared perception of a problem that demanded redress.

The fact that both major parties agreed on the need for action then became an important cue for wider public opinion. By contrast the absence of bipartisanship and/or instantly mobilised hostile public opinion, separately or in combination, create potent obstacles to prudent action.

It is hard to find inquiries in Australia that deliberately paid attention to building a base in public or political opinion. But there is one notable British example. The Turner inquiry on pensions was set up by the Blair government to recommend action on pension sustainability. At the time it was appointed the possibility of extending the retirement age was regarded as a non-starter by both major parties. The inquiry spent two years carefully framing issues and then testing responses in the court of public opinion. Its report was followed by a parliamentary committee review that brought findings before influential members of both major parties. In the event, extension of the age of retirement was passed with bipartisan support. This inquiry, particularly its approach, deserves much more attention.

Reaching back further in time we find many examples of how to mobilise public opinion around single issues. The various social movements of the 1970s (women, gay, environment, Indigenous rights, consumers etc) show how it can be done. GetUp provides a contemporary example.

Such processes, in suitably adapted formats, need to be recognised as an essential part of public inquiries. Moreover, the cross-over from a formal inquiry to parliamentary deliberation needs to be much more carefully orchestrated. Parliamentary committees are an obvious vehicle.

In the consideration of policy proposals, the system lacks what might be termed a ‘contemplative’ phase. Expert, political and public opinion needs to be engaged in transparent settings prior to decisions being taken by the executive. This is a fundamental gap.

But this step would run counter to the conventions that now frame executive power. Under these, matters remain largely outside the court of public opinion until the executive decides what to do. That approach worked when the party brands exercised much more authority than they now do and when the Australian community was much less pluralised. In contemporary conditions it is a recipe for gridlock. Until these facts are more widely acknowledged, there seems little prospect of a renewal of longer term policy capacity.

Ian Marsh is a Visiting professor at the UTS Management School. His study Democratic Decline and Democratic Renewal: Political Change in Britain, Australia and New Zealand (with Raymond Miller) was published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press.

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