IAN MCAULEY. Reframing public ideas

Dec 27, 2017

Our capacity to understand political and economic issues, and to shape better public policy, may be helped if we break out of established but no longer functional ways of looking at public policy – re-framing in other words. Over January I will write eight articles about the way we frame public ideas. They will cover ideas of leadership, the role of government, economy and society, economy and environment, competition, jobs, capital and choice.

The year just past has seen no respite from the political upsets of 2016, a year marked politically by Brexit and the election of Trump.

Over 2017 those who view the world in terms of a swing to the right and hardening authoritarianism have found confirmation in political movements in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, and in the easy re-election of the Abe Government in Japan. In China President Xi Jinping’s retreat from openness fits the same general pattern.

Some people point to a re-emergence of xenophobia and racism, with America’s move back to isolationism (while still unhelpfully meddling in Israel and the Korean Peninsula), Trump’s failure to condemn racist movements, and the rise of nationalist movements such as Germany’s Alternativ für Deutschland and Marie Le Pen’s Front National. In Austria, a country that has been a refugee transit route, there is a new coalition government including the eurosceptic, anti immigration, far right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs.

But there is also evidence pointing in other directions. In the UK Jeremy Corbyn, with a classic British socialist platform, came close to knocking off the Tories in an “unlosable” election. The French elected the hard-to-classify Emmanuel Macron. In Germany, while both the mainstream parties lost ground, not only the AFD but also the old communists did very well. If we can generalise from these three European elections they’re about a rejection of traditional political groupings.

In Australia we have seen similar movements. Elections in Queensland and Western Australia have continued a disastrous electoral run for the Coalition, confirming opinion polls showing a rejection of both the Liberal and National Parties, but with less than a commensurate gain to Labor. Many of the gains have gone to One Nation and the Greens.

And the defining image of the end to our fractious parliamentary year was a bear hug between Warren Entsch and Linda Burney celebrating an overwhelming passage of legislation for same-sex marriage!

At times in the past political and economic issues have been fairly clear-cut along “left-right”, or “liberal-conservative” lines, but that is not the case now and is unlikely to be the case in the future.

I suspect that as the conversations at our seasonal social gatherings turn to politics the consensus around the dinner tables and barbeques will be that there is no easy why to summarise these developments, and no agreement around the main issues or areas of conflict.

Perhaps that’s because much of the way we think about such issues is in terms of frameworks that are losing their usefulness.

John Menadue, I, and others, for example, have been puzzled by the way journalists and other political commentators keep on assuming that the two-party system is a natural part of our immutable political landscape, even in the face of strong evidence that it’s falling apart and is no longer fit-for-purpose.

There are many other ways of thinking that have become subtly entrenched over time. There is an almost unquestioned belief for example – almost an article de fide – that there is something intrinsically inefficient about government. The idea that any strong effort to contain climate change will be at the expense of our economic performance is subject to little scrutiny.

Such entrenched ways of thinking are favourable to those in power. The idea that “small government” is good government favours rent-seekers and others who benefit from privatisation; the idea that short-term fiscal management is the be-all and end-all of economic management favours those who want us to ignore our economic structural weaknesses; and the idea that taking action on climate change would damage the economy is of clear benefit to the coal industry.

There is no need for an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, or a Trumpian Ministry of Alternative Facts, to impose these ideas. They are reinforced every day by partisan or lazy journalists, by ministers backed by speaking notes prepared by their apparatchiks, and by the strident voices of self-interest calling for tax cuts for foreign businesses and protection of rent-seekers.

We can and do change our frames of thinking, however. The standout example in the last few years has been the way we see the legal definition of marriage.

But that has been easy. Apart from those who saw an extension to same-sex marriage as the first step on a road to moral depravity, it represented no great challenge. For most people it was simply an extension of the principles of separation of church and state, and of the distinction between personal morals and the law. It didn’t involve anyone having to make any personal sacrifice.

Other re-framing, however, may be a little more confronting.

Over January 2018 I want to write eight short contributions to Pearls and Irritations, each dealing with one aspect of public policy where it may be useful to re-frame the ways we have been thinking about public policy, emphasising on economic issues. (Perhaps other contributors may do something similar in relation to their areas of interest.)

These will cover the following topics, summarised below.

  1. Leadership. Leadership is the hard task of getting communities to make progress on difficult problems requiring adaptive change. It is not to be confused with authority. Beware of the call for a “strong leader”.
  1. Role of government. We tend to think of a “left” seeking bigger government and the “right” seeking smaller government. But such a framework can see governments simultaneously neglecting important areas while interfering where they shouldn’t.
  1. Economy and society. Many public debates are framed in terms of compromises or balances between “economic” and “social” objectives. Such ordering is confused: economic policies are meaningless unless they serve social ends.
  1. Economy and environment. Arguments around climate change and other environmental matters tend to assume some tradeoff between “economic” and “environmental” objectives. But the overriding principle is about making the best use of scarce resources.
  1. Competition. Competition is a means of encouraging innovation and productivity, and bringing those benefits to the community. When it becomes an end in itself, however, it can become a destructive force, imposing costs on us all.
  1. Jobs. Governments brag about the number of jobs created on their watch. Does our obsession with “jobs” distract us from other ways in which people can contribute to society and share in its bounty?
  1. Capital. Barry Jones complained that we tend to think of “capital” in terms of stuff that hurts when we drop it on our toes. It’s too easy to overlook other forms of capital – human capital, social capital, institutional capital and environmental capital.
  1. Choice. Market-based capitalism, we are told, brings us choice. But often “choice” is within a limited range of similar products and services. In the name of supporting markets we can be denied the choice of being able to share services with one another, and the choice of opting out of markets.


Ian McAuley is an Adjunct Lecturer in Public Sector Finance at the University of Canberra and a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Development.




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