Political crossfire and prematurely axed policies — Lisa Paul’s insider view

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday May 31, 2016


It’s the fear at the heart of democracy; have election campaigns become the enemy of good policy, with the pursuit of victory coming above all else?

Former Department of Education secretary Lisa Paul, who stepped down in February after a public service career capped off by 11 years at the top level, doesn’t see it that way.

As a public servant she simply kept in mind “they’re elected and I’m not … they come in on a mandate to do things on behalf of the Australian people” — even when it was her job to dismantle and replace something she had worked for years to build, she told University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Glyn Davis last week.

Paul joined the political science professor and sometime Queensland government mandarin to reflect on how elections affect policymaking for his most recent Policy Shop podcast (below).

“The most telling example of complete change following a change of government” came after Kevin Rudd dislodged John Howard in 2007 and scrapped the WorkChoices system. She was secretary of the massive Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and had to completely replace the policy her team had just finished putting together.

“So exactly the same public servants who had diligently prepared the legislation and done all the policy work for WorkChoices then turned around, you know, on the head of a pin, and went into diligently implementing the Labor government’s platform for industrial relations called Forward with Fairness.”

Paul acknowledges that good policy can get caught in the political crossfire, and says it’s a shame to see governments axe promising programs before they get a chance to prove their worth. And while politicians do their best to “accentuate” the differences between themselves and their opponents, she has rarely seen policy frameworks completely torn down and rebuilt from the ground up

A new government brings a different “underlying philosophy” but they usually keep a lot of the major policy “fundamentals” the same for long periods, Paul explains, with examples from her own former areas of responsibility.

Even the recent period featuring a hung parliament and a rapid turnover of prime ministers, ministers and governments has not led Paul to fear for the prospects of good long-term policy design. Quite the opposite, in fact. She says the lack of continuity over the past decade has only strengthened her confidence in the “robustness” of the Australian system.

Davis asks provocatively: “What happens when governments commit to things that you know, as a professional, can’t be done?”

“That’s actually incredibly rare in my experience,” Paul assures him, “because the important thing is the policy ambition.”

She says each policy can be understood as “a solution to a problem or a way of meeting an aspiration” even if the preferred mechanism to achieve it is misguided.

“They are saying: ‘We want to achieve X’ but the way they want to achieve it at first might produce perverse outcomes, in the opinion of public servants,” Paul says.

“And we’ll go up and say: ‘Look, we know you want to achieve X, but think of these other ways to do it.'”

The podcast also features political scientist Scott Brenton and covers a range of issues related to elections and the role of public servants during caretaker period, which Paul says is a good time to think deeply about long-term policy challenges and come up with new ideas in between getting the incoming government briefs done.

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