In his comments to IPAA, Prime Minister inadvertently illustrated the problem with government. It’s not the Westminster system of government or the role of the public service which are secondary issues. The primary question concerns the purpose of government. Morrison’s solution to the ‘trust deficit’ affecting democracy is wrong.
The notion of justice is what’s missing from Morrison’s view of government. He believes government’s effort should focus on a particular segment of the Australian community; that the Australians who work hard, pay taxes, educate their kids, and do this in the context of a family, are the deserving ones. They are, in Morrison’s words, the public service’s ‘stakeholders, not the myriad of vested and organised interests’. Morrison thus excludes the claims of the disadvantaged, disabled, and marginalised from the government’s highest priorities.
The ‘quiet Australians’, as Morrison calls them, expect governments to focus on what matters to them:
- A strong economy that generates more and better jobs and better paid jobs.
- Ensuring Australians are kept safe from threats abroad and at home, and
- Making sure services are reliable and responsive to their needs.
The vested interests, including those advocating for ‘more welfare spending or bigger social programs’, are somehow illegitimately seeking to divert government resources away from the quiet Australians.
By exhorting the APS to ‘to have a laser-like focus on serving these quiet Australians’, Morrison excludes important questions of justice from policy advising and service delivery. His political philosophy fails to encompass the totality of the population by preferencing one sector over others who may be more deserving of government attention. It is a form of majoritarian utilitarianism that measures performance by improved outcomes for a significant but limited portion of the community relative to the rest.
Failure to install justice as the primary actionable principle in politics a major the cause of contemporary widespread distrust and disillusionment with governments of all stripes. Ideas of justice are not limited to sentimental left-wing altruists. While there are differing views on how to reach a just outcome among philosophers and political theorists, few would deny the importance of striving for justice. Justice is widely acknowledge to be a right that can be demanded from individuals and institutions.
Conservatives seek justice in the application of ‘existing norms and practices’ and ‘existing law or moral rules’ which generate legitimate expectations in line with past practice and social conventions. Progressives demand constant reform of norms and practices and seek ‘to change laws, practices and conventions quite radically, thereby creating new entitlements and expectations’. In each case it is the explicability of why an action or policy is just or unjust that is crucial.
Irrespective of our view on justice, some version of it must drive politics. Otherwise, government is by definition unjust. So what might justice delivered by a government look like? Justice should be found in all areas where government can reasonably act. Government can have no obligation if the remedy to an injustice is beyond its power to deliver. But that leaves a broad arena. For example, many would say that because future generations will live with the decisions taken today governments must take steps to deliver intergenerational justice through addressing global warming and protecting the environment.
Justice requires impartiality and that the welfare, well-being, and security of all Australians should always be at the heart of government policies. Obviously, for different sectors of the community justice is affected by different policies and this makes just decision-making hard. Assuring equal access to the legal system and equality in sentencing for similar offences is broadly agreed to be an indispensable element of providing justice. Delivering a liveable and healthy urban environment to city dwellers is also an important component of justice. For Morrison it seems that the chronic failure of the legal system to deliver justice to indigenous juveniles is not as important as supporting middle class quiet, and relatively privileged, Australians. Justice is inverted here. Justice is a human value and the indigenous peoples and asylum-seekers and other non-citizens should expect equal justice from government.
Proportionate amounts of resources and attention should be applied by government on the basis of the status of current welfare, well-being, and security and the degree of hurt being suffered from remediable injustice. The same rule of proportionality applies to taxes and expenditure. Working people have a reasonable expectation that their taxes will be just and that they will be taxed to the minimum extent necessary, given all the other sources of revenue available to government, to enable government to fulfil its obligations to justice. For example, sufficient to ensure government can fund Newstart recipients to levels that provide dignity, adequate sustenance, and housing.
Morrison correctly declared that Ministers should be at the ‘centre driving policy agendas for their agencies and departments’. They are accountable through Parliament and the electoral process. Ideally, Ministers should be held accountable against a principle of justice for their expenditure of public funds, and the exercise of their legislative and constitutional powers. The particular institutional mechanisms by which governments formulate and implement policy, the number of public servants relative to ministerial advisers, or the extent of the lobbying on this or that particular issue are immaterial in the absence of justice.
Behind Morrison’s view of the electorate is the assumption they do not care about justice. I think he is wrong. The lack of justice in society always has been and remains a major motivator of individuals. Many citizens, including quiet ones, find injustice repugnant and conversely draw pride from living in a just and fair society.
When government fails to deliver on its obligation to be just people lose faith in their leaders, the political system, and government institutions.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.