John Daley’s parting gift should be read by every senior public servant, staffer, journalist and minister

By Bernard Keane

Monday July 26, 2021

Instead of simply complaining about the lack of good reform over the past decade, one of Australia's best public policy thinkers has taken a serious look at what has gone wrong.
Instead of simply complaining about the lack of good reform over the past decade, one of Australia’s best public policy thinkers has taken a serious look at what has gone wrong. (frdric/Adobe)

For years now, the commentariat has lamented the dearth of good public policy reform in Australia, comparing the current generation of politicians with greater figures from the 1980s and 1990s — Hawke and Keating, and John Howard in his first two terms. It’s been much more rare for that lamentation to actually result in a serious analysis of why governments, both at the federal and state levels, are no longer as reformist as they used to be.

John Daley, one of Australia’s best public policy thinkers, has done exactly that in his final report for the Grattan Institute, which examines what failed and successful reforms of the last ten years have had in common — and what that tells us about impediments to reform in Australia. It’s a cracker of a report that should be bookmarked by every senior public servant, staffer, journalist and minister, even if they won’t necessarily like his conclusions.

Daley has examined the fate of the 73 reforms recommended by the Grattan Institute since it kicked off in 2009, which have covered around 75% of government activities. His findings about the reasons why some were implemented but many — 50 of them — were not contain some surprises.

  • Fifteen of reforms were electorally unpopular — and they all failed.
  • Ten were contrary to the shibboleths of the party in power — seemingly innate partisan beliefs that are unrelated to evidence (think climate denialism in the Coalition; industry protectionism in Labor). All failed — three of them were also unpopular.
  • Six failed because they were opposed by powerful vested interests influencing the policy process
  • Three failed reforms had no evidence beyond Grattan’s report.
  • Five came with big budget outlays (the only reform with a big price tag that succeeded was the government’s recent, partial extension of childcare support.

But contrary to claims circulated during the Abbott government, upper houses uncontrolled by governments did not play a major role in stymieing reforms.

Daley identifies the important role of independent evidence in getting reforms over the line: vested interests have a more difficult time stopping reforms if there is a strong evidence base for them, which makes the job of the responsible minister in refuting self-interested claims easier. Party shibboleths tend to be fact-resistant, however, and governments make their job harder for themselves when they simply announce reforms rather than consulting on the problem to be solved and ways of doing that.

But Daley casts a wider net for impediments. Growing numbers of political staffers, most without any policy background, are a problem, with “little experience beyond student politics, and aspirations either for pre-selection or a career in various forms of government advocacy”. They “tend to be focused on winning the immediate war of public opinion in a culture of continuous campaigning” and “are more likely to gain their next step on the career ladder – often as a more senior adviser, preselection for parliament, or in government relations – if they are seen to have minimised political damage to their minister.” A similar logic applies to ministers themselves — why pursue reform that may come with a political cost to the government if you’re looking for a promotion? And political party structures, which aim to suppress and hide genuine policy debate for electoral benefit, don’t help.

The media also plays a role: the shrinking numbers of journalists and the loss of specialist rounds means poorer coverage of policy issues by less knowledgeable journalists, who are easier prey for vested interests. Australia’s highly concentrated media sector makes discussion of valuable but unpopular reforms more difficult. “The Murdoch media – closely connected to both mining industry and right-wing parties – generally adopted an anti-climate change stance, and reinforced opposition to climate change within the Coalition in Australia and the Republican Party in the US.”

And hyperpartisan media “sets an agenda, as programs on Sky News after dark are discussed in mainstream media. It can particularly influence how the stable of News Corp publications approaches an issue. And it may also be important in shaping and reinforcing partisan shibboleths…”

The public service also has its failings — externally imposed, via politicisation, outsourcing and a political preference that public servants do not contribute to public debate, rarely advise, and concentrate on implementing what governments decide, and internally generated, such as the decline in program evaluation, which reduces the available evidence base.

It’s hard to recall a more comprehensive and coherent summation of the current flaws in the public policy process in Australia — whether you agree with every Grattan report recommendation or not. Those complaining about the lack of reform, in politics, or the media, or in think tanks themselves, have no excuse not to read it and consider whether they themselves can start trying to reverse a failure decades in the making.


READ MORE:

Heigh-ho: from a golden age of policymaking to our winter of discontent

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