Democracy needs a true contest of ideas. But that’s not easy when one side of politics has little support to develop alternative policies for years at a time. Public policy researcher Martin Bortz explores paths back to meaningful competition.
One of the criticisms that is often made about opposition parties is that they don’t represent an alternative government. Rather, they just criticise whatever it is that the government is trying to do, without actually providing a better alternative. This state-of-affairs has been expressed by the former Labor government led by Julia Gillard, when it referred to the then-opposition as the ‘No-alition’.
Such off-the-cuff remarks belie a more serious structural problem in the Australian political system — the resourcing of opposition parties. A detailed 2008 study on shadow cabinets published by the Australian Parliamentary Library points to the inability of opposition parties to be an alternative government. One of the major factors here, the report points out, is access to the public service.
Indeed, the public service is a remarkable thing. It contains thousands of knowledgeable and professional staff, who can be called upon at any time to provide advice on matters of significance to the country. Being able to draw on this vast resource places the party in government at a considerable advantage. It means that expert advice can be sought out at a moment’s notice, and that policies and initiatives can be tested, refined, and costed. It provides access to a long history of institutional memory, as well as knowledge on a wide variety of different subjects.“The public service is a remarkable thing. It contains thousands of knowledgeable and professional staff, who can be called upon at any time to provide advice on matters of significance to the country.”
These perks go away when a party loses office. This hardly makes for a fair fight.
Addressing this imbalance may help alleviate some of the current difficulties facing Australian democracy. As has been pointed out many times, we are currently seeing trust in our system at historic lows. Part of this can be attributed to a general disillusionment with the variety of ideas underpinning important public policies. That is, when an opposition party comes to power, they often replicate the solutions proffered by the former government — mandatory offshore detention of asylum seekers is a good example.
Our adversarial system is meant to combat this homogeneity. However, a lack of access to the public service makes it incredibly difficult for an opposition party to generate alternative and better policy options. This severely limits the ability of politics to generate a true contest of ideas.
One way we could address this problem is by creating a ‘Department of the Opposition’. This would be set up in a similar way to current departments. This department would house a few hundred (or, maybe, a few thousand) public servants. The remit of this group would be to consider the incumbent government’s policies, and to also deliver detailed and costed policy options that represent a workable alternative.
Creating a department for this purpose would help alleviate some of the resource constraints that opposition parties currently face. More importantly, it has the potential to allow new and better policy ideas to emerge, and ones that have the potential to be implemented directly, should the opposition win the next election.
So, why don’t we have this already? The answer is probably quite obvious. Politicians have a vested interest in ensuring that their opposition do not come to power. The lack of resources currently provided to opposition parties serves this interest nicely. In other words, it is highly unlikely that any current government is going to give the other side a sporting chance.
Opening up a ‘policy window’
All is not lost, however. There are some avenues through which such a proposal might come to fruition. The most promising option here is a situation in which a government knows well in advance that they are about to lose the election (as, for instance, the NSW Labor government experienced in 2011). This would open up what influential policy scholar John Kingdon at the University of Michigan has called a ‘policy window’ — an opportunity for reform. In the lead up to this election, the government could establish the department on the assumption that the department would benefit them once they became the opposition. This would need to be entrenched through constitutional change to ensure that the new government doesn’t just do away with the entire thing once in power.
A simpler option would be to just provide more money and resources to the opposition party. However, this, on its own, is less likely to succeed, for the same reasons described above. That is, governments are unlikely to want to help the opposition party to win the next election, and (arguably) entrenching a funding arrangement is more difficult than entrenching a new institution or organisation.
Though there are some clear challenges to implementation, creating a new support structure for opposition parties will go some way to alleviating the barriers to good public policy. As part of this, it is up to incumbent governments to demonstrate that they are interested in ruling for the next generation, and not merely the next election.
Martin Bortz, Research Fellow, Melbourne School of Government
This article was co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch