In the fifth episode of the University of Melbourne’s monthly podcast series The Policy Shop, Vice Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis discusses how elections and the electoral cycle impacts policy making.
He is joined by former Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training, Lisa Paul, and the University of Melbourne’s Dr Scott Brenton, from the School of Social and Political Sciences and the Melbourne School of Government.
Here we set the scene with former secretary of the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Terry Moran AC, and the University of Melbourne’s Professor Helen Sullivan and Associate Professor Sarah Maddison.
In 2007 then head of Treasury Ken Henry famously cautioned his department that in the lead-up to elections “there is a greater risk of the development of policy proposals that are, frankly, bad”.
Former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, thinks the caretaker period during election campaigns is the ideal time for the public service to do some strategic thinking and prepare high-level policy advice in the “blue and red book” briefs for a returning or new government.
“Elections are a great opportunity for the departments to do strategic work on the challenges facing the country,” says Mr Moran.
But aren’t the politicians and political parties supposed to be the ones we rely on for policy ideas? Or is the messy business of elections and a partisan political culture simply driving short-termism?
Concerns about short-termism have led to calls for longer electoral terms and complaints that the independence of the public service has been undermined by politics. Has something gone wrong? And is the frequency of elections part of the problem, or more is democracy part of the solution?
An election is the last place for new policy ideas, says Associate Professor Sarah Maddison, from the 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, Associate Professor 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 says 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,” Associate Professor Maddison says.
Mr Moran believes the best way to improve public policy formation is to create an independent policy analysis group within the parliamentary departments. It would be tasked with providing confidential advice to political parties in the same way the new independent Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) works in costing the policies of rival parties.
“The PBO is a major initiative of great importance, but it shouldn’t stop there,” says Mr Moran, who as PM&C head was Australia’s most senior public servant from 2008 to 2011.
“The next step to improving things is for people to realise that when ideas are put up, we have some group attached to Parliamentary Departments able to check what is known about proposed policy initiatives and give advice on whether they are viable and supported by available evidence.”
The PBO is able to access costing data and expertise across the public service to provide parties with an accurate assessment of what their policies will cost.
“Outside of election campaigns such advice can remain confidential, giving parties and parliamentarians the freedom to cost their ideas before committing themselves to a policy.
“I’m encouraged with how the introduction of the PBO is changing the dynamics of this election,” says Mr Moran. “It means we can be more confident that a party will follow through on its promises because reliable costings offer little option other than to deliver the promises made.
“The sum of all announced policies costed by the PBO can then be related to the base line set in the Pre Election Financial Update released by Treasury and Finance.”
He says a similar body for policy would be able to inform parties how comparable proposals had fared overseas, and give an indication of implementation risks and the likely consequences of a policy.
It would be important that such policy advice remain confidential in order to encourage parties to consider new ideas knowing that they are protected from attack until such time as the ideas are adopted and released, he says.
“We need a Parliamentary Policy Office which can do an evaluation of the merits of policy ideas before they see the light of day.
“A party using this service for the analysis of evidence supporting particular policy ideas should remain in control of how and when the policy work is used,” says Mr Moran.
“Parliamentarians and political leaders don’t want to merely muse or speculate about big policy ideas in the public domain.
“The public is best served by ideas that emerge from policy research and have been tested through an evidence based policy process which clarifies what works or doesn’t work and how much it will cost. Our democracy will be better served by policy proposals that have been tested through a professional policy process.”
Mr Moran says joint parliamentary committees would be the ideal places to thrash out policy ideas and have the public service provide open advice on proposals. But he says politics has become increasingly partisan and that committees have too often simply become opportunities for political point scoring. It is another reason in favour of establishing a PPO for policy, he says.
“Where can you have a non-frenzied exchange across the political divide about national problems and policies? In the old days it could have been in parliamentary committees, but both sides have managed to make committees look more like bear pits,” he says.
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 Professor 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.
Professor 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, Professor 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 globalised and interconnected world,” Professor 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.”
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