Gary Banks: the reform ended when the politics got ugly


Bob Hawke, Prime Minister of Australia (1983 - 1991)

What happened to the days of reform? The media, the spin cycle and governments that abandoned good policymaking process, the former Productivity Commission head argues.

The Governance of Public Policy: Lectures in Honour of Eminent Australians

The Governance of Public Policy: Lectures in Honour of Eminent Australians

The old saying “good policy is good politics” can bring a wry smile to the lips of political insiders. But the recent victory of the Key-English government in New Zealand provides further evidence, if such were needed, that president Harry Truman, who coined the expression in 1950, and Paul Keating, who picked it up five decades later, were on to something.

However, there can be no presumption that one automatically follows from the other. At a conference at the Australian National University in Canberra earlier this year, federal government frontbencher Josh Frydenberg reminded us of a monumental counter-example: the Coalition’s “Fightback” package that turned the “unloseable” election of 1993 into the “sweetest victory of all” for Paul Keating.

The facts are that a positive relationship between reformist policies and politics has typically only held when underpinned by good process. By this I mean process that ensures that a policy has been tested, contested and well explained to those affected, such that agreement can first be reached about the policy problem, making possible acceptance of the policy solution.

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  • Dan Butler

    While I agree with the premise that reform
    relies on reliable, transparent processes, I don’t accept some elements of the
    analysis.

    I think the problem with the media is not its
    24/7 character, but rather its heavy handed bias. “Oppositional” opposition is a
    media tactic as much as a party political one, and in the realm of public
    debate, its potentially much more damaging to policy reform. Witness the appalling
    state of environmental policy as one example. This is one area where true
    reform is required if we are going to seize the tremendous opportunities open
    to us.

    That said, the premise of Gary Banks’ piece is reaffirmed
    by the account of working under the Rudd Government given in Greg Combet’s
    autobiography; where due process falls down, the result is woeful and
    potentially dangerous policy implementation, which invariably makes the electorate
    afraid of further reform. And is fodder for the trenchant views and intent of
    the highly vocal elements of the conservative media outlets.

  • wizard

    Gary, I have often wondered how we have come to this. The early 90s were a good period for reformist governments. I was at Cabinet Office in Vic and then Treasury and Finance, and there was a commitment to reform that ran through government and the agencies. We were supported by institutions including PC and ACCC as well as Ctg Treasury.
    What went wrong? Why was this equilibrium so unstable and some law of Entopy carried us to our current situation so well captured in your article?
    My guess is the benefits of reform were never understood by the community.. Benefits occur over time and the counter factual is not established. So all the effort and energy, and indeed the disruption was held against reform. Perhaps the benefits of reform such as higher living standards also sowed the seeds for failure. People could afford to be blasé about making further sacrifices. Perhaps also peopl wanted programs that had actions and IMMEDIATE and tangible outcomes..even if these were achieved at high cost.(pink batts).
    Perhaps also Governments stopped being courageous, so the direction of causality swung towards policy being determined by Electorate white noise that was taken seriously to secure political advantage.
    Either way I regret where we are today and wonder what it will take, short of a major economic crisis to find the pathway to reform-minded governments supported by high quality, courageous advice.

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