MICHAEL KEATING. The Future of Democracy: Part 2

Jan 8, 2019

Yesterday in Part 1 of this article I discussed some of the possible explanations for the apparent loss of government capacity in most advanced democracies. Today in this second Part I will discuss some of the solutions that have been proposed to restore government capacity. This discussion has been influenced in part by Laura Tingle’s excellent Quarterly Essay, “Follow the Leader: Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman”, and by some of the responses to that Essay.

According to Tingle:

“To be a leader … you either have to know what it is that you want to persuade other people to do, or else have the knack of identifying and synthesising an issue on which people are seeking leadership. You also need to know how you are going to do something about such issues. And you have to know which are the most important things to get done at any given point of time. Then you have to make the rest of us understand why these things are important and what you are going to do about them.”

Personally, I find this not only to be a useful summary of leadership, but also of what we need from government if it is to win our confidence and trust. Two points that emerge from Tingle’s analysis of leadership/government, and the comments thereon, which I would like to further explore are:

1. People are more likely to support the government policy agenda if the government is able to convey a sense of unifying commitment to a central purpose. Furthermore, according to Amanda McKenzie (the CEO of the Climate Council), it seems in the last decade or so is that this unifying commitment has unravelled.

2. The critical importance of leaders/governments explaining, advocating and persuading people to adopt their policy ideas. In addition, Shireen Morris (the Labor candidate for Deakin), argues that the best leaders/governments, when dealing with vexing policy and political problems, hammer out a noble compromise, by taking on board the legitimate concerns of their opponents, learning from them, and using the lessons to forge a new and better synthesis position.

But even if we accept that governments would be more effective if they were able to define and commit to a central purpose and then persuade the public of what policies are needed, that begs the question of how do we bring about the necessary changes in our political system. At present, Australia has a particularly adversarial political system, and any attempt by government to compromise is too often seen as weakness. Equally, as Tingle observes none of our recent political leaders seem to have a particular view of where they want to lead the country, and as she states: ‘For most voters, Morrison arrived in the top job as little more than a series of clichés’.

While a vision might not be crucial, governments do need to foster a sense of direction. Consistent with the theme of the book, Fair Share, that Stephen Bell and I recently co-authored, I would argue that a Labor Government, in particular, should make a more conscious effort to group its policies around the central purpose of reducing inequality and restoring equality of opportunity. For example, important policy initiatives that have already been announced, such as assistance for housing and reducing negative gearing, and the Gonski reforms to achieve ‘needs-based’ funding of schools could readily be presented as consistent with this purpose. In addition, I would argue for a major new initiative for vocational education and training to ensure life-long learning so that people can adapt to the challenges of technological change, which is the main cause of increasing inequality and loss of job security. Together these various policies could also be presented as dealing with the problem of low wage growth which is the principal reason for slow economic growth (see my article, “Slow Wage Growth and Its Implications for the Government’s Economic and Fiscal Forecasts”, Pearls & Irritations, 17 December, 2018).

Equally, Governments need to be seen to be governing for all of us, and to be fair when dealing with the inevitable competing claims of different interest groups and constituencies. In this context, the achievement of agreement on policies is much easier if there are established systems of consultation and information transfer. In this regard I think the position in Australia has deteriorated in the last couple of decades. For example, the tripartite Economic Planning Advisory Council established by the Hawke Government was very helpful in building the consensus for the reforms undertaken by that Government and achieving a better distribution of incomes. In addition, while there has been lots of talk about evidence-based policy development, program evaluation is now the exception and not the rule as it was under the Hawke and Keating Governments. Furthermore, what little evaluation is carried out, is often undertaken by consultants who cannot be expected to offer frank and fearless advice. However, proper program and policy evaluations are usually the best way of ensuring the provision of trusted information that typically provides the basis for negotiations that can lead to the achievement of a noble compromise.

Finally, it would also help if more use were made of Parliamentary Committees. It has generally been observed that a much more cooperative spirit can be achieved in these committees. This may involve the government having to take a few risks, but without a more open and cooperative system of government, the risk of policy stalemate only increases. In this context it is also interesting to note the New Zealand experience, where no political party has been able to govern on its own since the electoral system of mixed-member proportional representation was introduced in 1996. In effect, coalition government has been the inevitable outcome, but that seems to have encouraged the political parties to seek compromises, and has possibly led to more effective government.

In sum, if we want to preserve our democratic system and make it work, we need to return to a more open system of government and forget the futile pursuit of “winner takes all”. As we have seen in the US and elsewhere, if democratic government is seen to have failed, the threat is that it will be replaced by a populist strongman. However, as Tingle concludes:

We should expect our leaders to help rebuild the national debate and protect other voices within it. We should be looking for strong leaders to follow, not a strongman.

Michael Keating was Secretary, Department of Finance and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

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