Ross Gittins. Launch of book by Menadue and Keating.

Nov 9, 2015

Sydney, Thursday, November 5, 2015


Paul Samuelson, the famous American economist, is said to have remarked that the stockmarket has predicted nine of the past five recessions. I thought of that this week and decided the Canberra press gallery could top it: the gallery has predicted nine of the past two early elections. They were at it again last weekend, reporting that, with the Coalition now riding high in the polls, serious thought was being given to calling an election – per force a double dissolution – early next year. It was an unconvincing proposition and, perhaps fearing that election speculation wouldn’t help restore business confidence, Malcolm Turnbull quickly scotched it, saying we could expect the election to be when it was supposed to be, in September or October next year.

The sub-title of the book whose launch we’re here to celebrate is, Filling the Policy Vacuum. The media have an important part to play in filling that vacuum – and maybe in having helped to create it in the first place. At present, what’s filling the vacuum – that absence of serious and informed discussion about the many policy issues the government should be grappling with – is what’s called “race-calling” – who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s facing leadership rumblings from the backbench and who’s planning to call an early election.

The gallery loves writing this stuff – it’s much easier and more interesting than discussing policy issues. And the gallery has discovered their editors back at head office love it. It’s reporting politics as though it was a form of sport – my team versus your team, who’s winning on the league table and worries about Plugger’s groin and whether he’ll pull up by Saturday. For most of our lives the newspapers have faced ever-increasing competition, not just from rival purveyors of news – radio, television and now the internet – but, more significantly, from the ever-multiplying ways for us to spend our leisure time rather than sitting down and reading the paper. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the media have reacted to this growing competition from rival forms of entertainment by making their political reporting more entertaining; by more race-calling and less earnest discussion of policy choices.

I don’t happen to agree with this approach. For one thing, politics as a fifth code of football doesn’t have that many followers. Most of us in this room would be avid followers, but most people out of this room aren’t all that excited by it. It may well be that all the argy-bargy the media focus on actually turns voters off politics.

Nor do I accept that policy discussion is inevitably on the dry side. Policy can be interesting, provided the journos know enough about the subject, have the confidence to sort the wheat from the chaff and highlight the parts of the policy choice that touch on people’s lives. The real problem is that good policy reporting and discussion requires harder work, not to mention greater specialisation.

In Ken Henry’s introduction to this book’s collection of 48 short policy discussions by 31 contributors covering as many as 15 policy areas – with all those contributors being well-known and well-respected former bureaucrats or academics (none more so than the book’s two editors and most prolific contributors, John Menadue and Mike Keating) – Ken says he “can’t recall a poorer quality public debate, on almost any issue, than we have had in Australia in recent years”.

There may have been a worse time in the past but, like Ken, I can’t remember it. In this talk I could try to come to grips with all the pertinent and challenging things those many authors have to offer on those many problems we face at present, but I’ll content myself with saying a little more about how this policy paucity came about and how the vacuum could and is being filled.

I’ve already acknowledged the part the news media have played in creating the vacuum and filling it with dross. As Michelle Grattan wrote in a piece published on The Conversation website last Saturday (October 31), “if we are talking about improving and enhancing public policy and the debate around that, the media have a significant role to play. They provide prime routes by which information about policy is disseminated; they are also conduits for the ideas being thrown up from these other players”.

It’s easy – and probably correct – to attribute part of the legacy media’s deterioration in performance to their preoccupation with finding a continuing place in the world of the internet, increasingly accessed by apps on mobile phones.

But I want to make the point that, from a policy-debate perspective, digital disruption has brought pluses as well as minuses. People interest in finding thoughtful, well-informed, even expert policy discussion no longer have to rely on newspapers and magazines. They can find new sources of quality supply quite readily on the net. Chief among these is the aforementioned The Conversation. I think this is a wonderful development.

One of the problems with the policy debate has long been the paucity of the contribution to that debate by academics. The universities profess to want to contribute to the debate, but the plain face is their reward system effectively discourages it, overwhelmingly favouring research. Many academics don’t follow the policy debate; they write for publication in journals that aren’t much interested in practical, “applied” matters like policy discussion and, fearing criticism from their peers, they spend months perfecting an article before letting it see the light of day.

The genius of The Conversation is that it has reframed academic contribution to the policy debate as something the uni authorities smile on (because they fund the site) and as something that, because of the unavoidable time pressures, everyone accepts is quick and dirty, the very opposite to what a journal article is supposed to be. The proprietors of the site must have established for themselves a licence to extensively rewrite the turgid prose most academics have trained themselves to write.

Of course, The Conversation is just the biggest and most notable new digital contribution to the debate. Various local academics run their own blogs – John Quiggin is the oldest example – or contribute to high quality group blogs, such as Club Troppo and Core Economics.

Which brings us to blogs by former bureaucrats, the chief among which must surely be our own John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations. All the pieces in the book are, in fact, invited contributions to the special series John and Mike Keating organised earlier this year on Fairness, Opportunity and Security. The 48 articles are still accessible on John’s blog, but as an oldie who usually prints off internet articles to be read on paper rather than screen, I hope this project of turning them into a book will make them even more accessible and more widely read. They certainly deserve to be.

In view of this policy vacuum needing to be filled, it’s really great to have John providing this new platform and encouraging former bureaucrats to use it. Never has their contribution been more needed. We independent media commentators do our best to evaluate the government’s performance, but there’s nothing like a former bureaucrat to be able to see through the smoke and mirrors and decipher the true position. I myself have been delighted to take full advantage of Mike’s superior understanding of budgeting and macro and micro-economic policy.

I should add that the Grattan Institute – itself composed mainly of former academics and bureaucrats – has made a useful contribution to filling the policy gap, as have the many former bureaucrats now kept busy in non-retirement at the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy – some of whom have contributed to this volume.

Since the extraordinary economic and political incompetence demonstrated by the Abbott government’s first budget, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about who was responsible for its failure and the huge damage this did to the Abbott government’s policy performance in other areas. Was it the econocrats in Treasury and Finance, the people at the top of the spending departments, the government’s youthful private office advisers, the bum steer provided by the strangely constituted commission of audit (which was pretty much contracted out to the Business Council), or just the manifest personal deficiencies of Tony and Joe.

I’ve come to the conclusion that poor advice from the econocrats and the department heads can’t be absolved from some share of the blame. But this can be traced back to the fault of the politicians – Rudd and Gillard as well as Howard and Abbott. The shiny-bums are an easy target for all politicians and, in the case of the Coalition, a very senior bureaucrat told me that they hold public servants in contempt. I believe that year-upon-year of ever-higher “efficiency dividends” has robbed the econocrats and the spending departments of much of their ability to provide their political masters with good policy advice.

The new practice of new Coalition governments beginning their terms by arbitrarily sacking a number of department heads must surely be designed to encourage the others not to provide frank and fearless advice. The Liberals’ “revealed preference” seems to be that they don’t want policy advice from bureaucrats. We’ll make the policy, you just implement it.

I know it’s easy to develop quite unrealistic expectations of what Malcolm Turnbull even wants to change, let alone will see his way clear to. But, even so, I’m sure he must be better than this. He’s too smart not to want good quality and frank advice from his bureaucrats, and I think he’ll want a high quality, intelligent public debate about policy options.

In Michelle’s Conversation piece that I referred to earlier, she implied that one reason for the gallery’s less than inspiring performance on policy issues is the actions of governments of both colours and over many years in discouraging contact between bureaucrats and journalists. It wasn’t like that in the 1970s when she – and, a little later, I – first went to the gallery.

Michelle suggests that the gallery’s coverage of policy issues could be much improved – to the advantage of the government of the day – if contact between the gallery and fairly senior bureaucrats was restored. As she stresses, this wouldn’t be about leaks, but about officials with expertise providing journos with the context and detail they have at their fingertips.

If any politician is able to see the sense in such a proposal, it ought to be Malcolm.

Ross Gittins, Economics Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald

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