The federal gas-fired strategy: so brazen, it’s a lesson in how not to craft policy

By Geoff Edwards

Friday October 2, 2020

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It’s impossible for an external observer to know how widely the gas-fired recovery plan was consulted around the public service, but it’s reasonable to assume, not very much. Even Treasury would surely have identified more cost-effective methods of stimulating economic re-birth, writes Geoff Edwards.

There is a basic flaw in most attempts by policy aficionados to clarify the meaning of the ‘public interest’ as an objective in policy-making: these well-meaning attempts presume that politicians actually want to govern in the public interest.

Of course, many politicians do. Yet, from time to time, one or other of our major political parties acts as if it has no aspirations for improving the wellbeing of the people or the land that nourishes us, but rather aims only to secure power for its own sake – or to enrich its mates or taunt its political opponents.

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Exhibit 1: The bizarre gas-fired recovery announced in September 2020.

This is not a partisan column. Let’s acknowledge that the wide boys of Sussex Street are well capable of matching the hard men of the Liberal Party in strong-arm tactics any day of the week. However, the Coalition’s announcement of a program designed by gas industry associates to the benefit of the gas industry as the centrepiece of a post-COVID economic recovery is so brazen that it is worth exploring as a lesson in how not to craft policy.

Most published critiques have zeroed in on the egregious disjunction between the new gas-fired strategy or the associated “energy roadmap” and the imperative to reduce national carbon emissions, but that is possibly the least appalling of the appalling features of this new example of cronyist policy formulation. Investors wary of climate risk will have their way with the gas-fired recovery; the strategy has inflicted other, deeper wounds to the polity.

Deeper wounds? Climate change is a threat to humanity like no other, but it is only one cluster of challenges among many facing our nation. By sidelining our policy-formulating public institutions, the gas-fired announcement has undermined their capacity to serve the polity competently in future across the entire spectrum of challenges in all portfolios. Three particular assaults come to mind.

Precedent for dealing with problems

Every prominent decision taken by politicians sets a precedent, for good or ill. The media hones in on prominent decisions, searching for patterns, speculating on downstream consequences and regurgitating them as examples of inconsistency or hypocrisy months or years later. It behoves every government to ensure that its decisions are soundly based and enjoy reputable support. Half-smart decisions taken to solve immediate political exigencies can burden a polity for a long time.

Exhibit 2: Recommendations from a National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board populated with business executives will never enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of independent energy experts and will remain vulnerable to reversal when a new administration comes into power. This is manifestly a fragile basis for a proposal to augment infrastructure with a lifetime of decades.

When a government makes a decision that conspicuously favours its political supporters or ignores informed critiques, it taints not only the political party responsible but the entire governmental apparatus. It dumbs down policy analysis and corrodes trust.

Capacity to solve problems

It is a commonplace that governing is complex and that knowledge about issues is dispersed. To this external observer, there is no evidence that the government consulted widely with stakeholders affected by the gas strategy, other than the energy industry, let alone diverse sources of knowledge about how to recalibrate the economy after COVID-19, which was supposed to be the point of the announcement.

Only by a corruption of language of Trumpian proportions can the interest of the gas industry be equated to the public interest. Even enthusiastic supporters of gas as a source of energy must acknowledge that there are contrary, well-informed opinions: held by farmers, economists, Lock the Gate Alliance, the renewable energy industry and environmental scientists, to name only a sample. By not systematically, thoughtfully and receptively consulting widely, a government increases unnecessarily the risk of serious and irreversible error.

For example, has the national government consulted engineers and geologists about the risk of seismic disturbances through fracking coal seam gas? If not, why not? If not because such messy details are acknowledged to be the responsibility of the states who administer the gas-producing regimes, then the Commonwealth has no business promising to “unlock” new gas basins.

It’s possible that the states were consulted in the preparation of the gas-fired strategy, but it is unlikely that they would all have prioritised the gas industry as the primary vehicle for economic recovery ahead of a range of other potential stimuli. If the strategy pre-empts decision-making procedures in each specified state (and phone calls to premiers don’t count), it further weakens the states’ capabilities for development assessment and undermines the federation.

A defining characteristic of contemporary public administration in Australia is the weakness or absence of deliberative forums in which information from a range of sectors can be assembled and translated into policy. This is particularly important as the environmental limits to development are being approached at accelerating speed. The Australian parliament has long since ceased to be an adequate deliberative forum and governments have trashed previous successful bodies such as Land and Water Australia. Momentum for citizens’ assemblies to step into the breach is building.

Competence and morale within the Australian Public Service

It’s impossible for an external observer to know how widely the gas-fired recovery plan was consulted around the public service, but it’s reasonable to assume, not very much. Even Treasury would surely have identified more cost-effective methods of stimulating economic re-birth.

In any case, a policy process that appears to have been based on private briefings with and cabinet-in-confidence submissions from executives with a background in the affected industry sends a powerful message to technical experts within the public service: our expertise is not required, when will the next redundancy package be offered? It sends a powerful message to bright young graduates: don’t bother joining the public service if you aspire to apply your education to making a difference in public affairs.

It is written into history that nearly the primary duty of leaders, of all cultures, skills, temperaments and political stripes, is to choose their advisers carefully and that there is no end to the grief if leaders seek only advisers who tell them what they want to hear. Inspiring public servants to serve a government faithfully shouldn’t be all that difficult. But it requires the political leaders to want that result.

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