Good Ideas Going Nowhere

6 September, 2021

Timid governments need shaking up — and the pressure won’t come from the top. In this article for Inside Story, Cranlana’s Lead Moderator Peter Mares says it’s become a truism that contemporary Australian governments are gun-shy when it comes to policy reform, with problems left to fester even when workable remedies are at hand.

He cites examples such as the lack of systematic action on climate change and the failure to rein in house prices. While the 80s and 90s were ‘golden years’ for reform, in the current climate ambitious policy proposals are a recipe for electoral defeat. Politics is guided more by polling and focus groups than by evidence.

Mares references Who Dares Loses, a new essay by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen in Monash University Publishing’s “In the National Interest” series, and the recent report, Gridlock from the former chief executive of Grattan Institute, John Daley. Both talk about “pariah policies” which, despite evidence that they would have a net positive impact on Australian society, have become untouchable.

There is policy timidity on both sides of politics. The result, Errington and van Onselen argue, is a weak opposition – which means poor government: “The progressive side of the two-party divide is too inept to apply pressure to the conservative side, meaning conservatives stay in government without lifting their game.”

The echo chamber of social media has driven polarisation and division. The shifting and shrinking bases of the major political parties have reinforced this polarisation, while the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the professionalisation of politics mean policies are more likely to be shaped to appeal to key demographics than for the common good.

The hollowing out of the public service, the rising power of political staffers and the outsourcing of advice to corporate consultancies have weakened governments’ capacity to generate and implement good ideas. And the “revolving door” that turns a ministerial adviser into a “government relations” professional has picked up pace, as has the “golden escalator” from ministerial portfolio to corporate board or strategic advisory role. So, what is to be done? If we want more ambitious, reform-minded leaders, we need to change the system that supports the current epidemic of policy timidity. Answers lie in structural economic and social changes.

Mares contends a shake-up is needed by building democracy from the bottom up, not suffer it from the top down.

Inside Story, Peter Mares, 28 August 2021. Read the full article here.

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