On the tyranny of the short term

Jan 22, 2024
Hourglass on the background of the Australia flag.

What has become very apparent in public policy over the past twenty years is the extent to which the “short-term” is given precedence over the “long-term”. Both major political parties live to win the next election, and the mainstream media joins in rapturously because it treats politics as a binary competition that is most sensationally conceptualised in the short-term.

Traditionally–at least since the end of WW2–the LNP has done very little in developing long-term policies, preferring to let the private sector run the country–barring foreign policy–with a bit of tinkering on the side regarding taxation policy. The ALP in power for a much lesser total time than the LNP has been the party that has tended towards the long-term with the introduction of Medicare in 1975, the lowering of tariffs on imported goods and the establishment of the NDIS in 2012. On the other side one can add the GST introduced by the Howard government of 2000 and the Aged Care Reform Act of 1997. Of these Medicare and the GST could be seen as sitting in the middle, the others being more on the sidelines.

Yet over the past twenty years the short-term has assumed priority in political decision making even though the country is in desperate need for long-term policies, especially those directed towards Climate Change and economic equity. What we have been given by the Albanese government as a long-term commitment is AUKUS which involves the expenditure of huge amounts of money for little return.

Arguably long-term perspectives should be advanced by the public service, semi-government bodies like the Reserve Bank, Infrastructure Australia, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and the Climate Council, just to name a few. And in some measure this has been successful, yet it has become increasingly undermined by the plethora or short-term contract appointments, especially at the top level of the public service.

Governments attempt to invest and publicise long-term perspectives in their policy platforms and in the various so-called independent semi-government bodies mentioned above they set up and supposedly treat at arms’ length. Equally, the board of any large corporation should be able to look beyond the day to day workings of the company and suggest some long-term directions and the kinds of procedures that might implement these.

I raise this problem of the short-term because the entire world and Australia is faced now with such grave problems requiring both short- and long-term thinking. Arguably the worsening influence of Climate Change is the most palpable of these problems and that about which most governments are doing the least. This problem is “existential” to use the words of a former ineffective Prime Minister who was going to implement a carbon price until short-term pressures from the fossil fuel interests threatened a public relations campaign against its implementation. At the time this campaign was assessed by the ruling government as having short term political consequences, which they placed above the good of the country.

As is now universally recognised in scientific circles, dealing with this problem requires the strict implementation of strategies which will unfold over at least decades even if they require some modifications over that time.

Similar too is the question of economic inequity, canvassed everywhere, especially outside of the mainstream media and with clear medium to long-term strategies involving fairer tax rates-especially to be levied on those earning higher incomes, elimination of negative gearing on housing, the government supported construction of social housing, just to name a few. These will have virtually no effect if only implemented over a three year period as they require legislation slated for the long-term.

The obvious legislative model of short-termism is the three-yearly election cycle, where in the past there were some long-term plans proposed that would be prosecuted even if the government changed. However, in the last few decades this situation has changed, exacerbated by the media which focusses above all on electoral competition and contrasting the personalities of leaders. It has also been magnified by the constant use of polls to determine popularity or otherwise of the two main parties. This often means the main parties will respond directly to the results of these polls.

Short termism has also been strengthened by the increased number of political advisers and government press officers who now play such a fundamental role in giving advice to ministers and others. Equally significant is the mainstream media which focusses on politics as a game of binary competition in the short-term, Finally, we can add the large consultancy firms. These function as “alleged” independent bodies giving confirmation to what the ruling party wants, often for short-term political goals.

How can we convince governments and the corporate sector, given the dominance it now has in the running of society, that they must take long-term perspectives on the entire gamut of problems besetting society, instead of just appearing to focus only on the short-term and with goals defined as such? Neo-liberalism has much to do with this as has the main-stream media with its focus on short-term discernible results that must be absolutely predictable, especially in financial terms.

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