Sarah Maddison: 'absolutely not the time for new policy ideas'

By Andrew Trounson

May 24, 2016

An election is the last place for new policy ideas, says Associate Professor Sarah Maddison, from the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences.

“Elections are when populism is at its zenith. The parties have usually already scoped out their policies and follow a strict program on when to make announcements. Anything that threatens to take them off message is shut down. It is absolutely not the time for new policy ideas.”

She says the time for real debates to inform policy is between elections. Indeed, Maddison, who is also chair of advocacy organisation GetUp!, says many civil society organisations will be purposely holding back on airing new policy ideas during the current election campaign.

“There are a suite of proposals on policy of alternatives to offshore detention, for example, that are ready to come forward, but a decision has been made to keep these off the table until after the election because the view is that during an election campaign, when populist politics is at it height, these proposals are not going to get any clear air.

“Proposals are likely to be simply trashed and demonised by both the major parties.”

She said concerns that public policy is becoming too short term are real, but the answer has less to do with extending the terms of governments, but in encouraging wider debate and consultation during government.

“The election cycle produces a constant short-termism in terms of policy making, so there is a very limited window in which politicians or civil society can lobby for particular policy change and actually get some air,” she says.

“But while you could have longer election cycles if our system was behaving more democratically in terms of participation and consultation and engaging people, I simply don’t think we are in that space yet.”

Another factor feeding short-termism is that policy advice to government from the public service is no longer as independent as it once was, she says.

Going back to at least the Whitlam government, there have been concerns that senior public servants have become increasingly dependent on their elected masters. The Keating government removed tenure for secretaries in 1994, and that power was very publicly demonstrated in 1996 when the Howard government took office and sacked six secretaries. Tony Abbott removed three secretaries when he took office.

“The political neutrality of the public service has been undermined at the highest levels,” Maddison says.

Top image: when John Howard and the Coalition won government in 1996 he quickly sacked six departmental secretaries in what is remembered as the ‘”night of the long knives.” // AAP

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