Helen Sullivan: democracy means 'working harder to effect good public policy'

By Andrew Trounson

May 24, 2016

For Professor Helen Sullivan, director of the University of Melbourne’s School of Government, the problem facing good policy formulation isn’t the electoral cycle, but rather the state of a democracy too characterized by voter cynicism and “gotcha” politics.

“The electoral cycle is a symptom of a bigger malaise, but it isn’t unrecoverable. We just need to work harder at it than we have done, and we need to take both politics and policy more seriously,” says Sullivan.

“Technocrats can get very frustrated with democracy because they see it as getting in the way of good policy.”

“But democracy serves a higher purpose in giving voice to a broad range of people, and importantly it confers legitimacy on decisions,” she says.

“To say that politicians just stuff up policy implies that there is something purer about technocrats – that they don’t have ideologies, and values and interests of their own, which of course they do. So you have to be careful and not assume that you can just take a policy issue out of the public realm without there being adverse consequences, because I think the adverse consequences are real.”

She argues that outsourcing policy to experts risks creating a wider disconnect between policy makers and the community.

The debate over climate change policy is an obvious example, she says. While scientific experts say the science is settled and action is needed to curb emissions, large parts of the broader public remain unconvinced about the extent to which action is needed. “The gulf between what the experts think is settled and what the public believe, is huge,” she says.

Sullivan argues that our relatively short three-year election cycles can be useful in galvanising policy formation and tying it closely to community concerns. “One of the advantages of reasonably short election cycles is that it does concentrate the mind.”

The big problem, Sullivan warns, is increasing voter cynicism that reflects both the current focus in politics on point scoring and scandal and growing doubts that government can do anything in the face of big global issues.

“There is a sense in which people’s anxiety about what can be achieved through government is now being expressed in the populism that, for example, has brought Donald Trump to the fore of the Republican Party in the US.”

“It is also being expressed in a general scepticism that governments can’t really do anything any more because the world is too complicated. And that is terribly worrying because there are things that government can and should do, even in our globalized and interconnected world,” Sullivan says.

The challenge, she argues, is to work out new ways to encourage wider participation, not just at election time, but also in policy formulation, and so give people a stronger sense that they can make a difference.

“In a democratic system we need to work harder than we currently do to effect good public policy.”

Top image: Fusion Vision/Flickr

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