OPINION

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Policy pusillanimity?
What is a national policy? “Public policy is a course of action created and/or enacted, typically by a government, in response to public, real-world problems, or a rule or principle that better guides decisions, resulting in positive outcomes that enhance the community or unit.” Government policies contain the reasons things are to be done in a certain way and why. I looked up “government policy in Australia” and got straight to the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet, whose role: is to advise on policy priorities that affect the lives of all Australians.
“…This involves advising the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and Portfolio Ministers on issues such as jobs and economic growth, the budget, industry, infrastructure, agriculture, innovation, health, education and the environment. The aim is to provide the Government with high quality advice on how to make Australia more prosperous, successful and stronger”. The website goes on to list current issues across Australian government, but what follows is just that: a list of agencies and individuals that have been tasked with reviewing religious freedom, vocational education and training… and a range of other well-meaning activities. Lots of discussion papers, plus a large helping of self-promotion but not a whiff of policy.
Policies do not occur in a vacuum. Let me illustrate. Our goods and sales tax (GST) is a policy. In its current form it first came under consideration in 1975, and finally came into effect in July of the year 2000, the first year in the current millennium, nearly a quarter of a century and six PMs later. The primary goal was to simplify and overhaul the existing sales tax system and other state and territory taxes with a single 10 per cent tax. Getting the GST over the political finish line was a monumental effort. Earlier plans to introduce a broad-based national consumption tax had already cost former Liberal leader John Hewson the so-called ‘unlosable election’ during his ‘Fightback’ campaign just six years earlier in 1993.
John Howard took it to an election and won. When the Howard government went back to the polls in 1998, with a GST firmly on its election policy agenda, it was a big risk, but the major difference was that this time, the Coalition was much better prepared. It had already invested thousands of hours honing the finer details of how such a tax would be applied and levied, and how it would be implemented. This involved tapping into the sharpest tax minds in the country to help build the detailed framework for the
GST legislation.
It is apparent that for a major policy to be formulated, there must be an appetite for it in the body politic: parliament and the electorate. In other words the formulation and adoption of a policy involves sustained dedication to an idea and hard work, and it must have popular approval. It is clear that the present government has no appetite for reform. Some people may think this is a good thing. The belief may be growing among politicians that voting intentions are primarily affected by winning each media day rather than delivering substantial welfare improvements through well-designed and implemented policies. Governments may be less willing to take on public opinion when they only have narrow parliamentary majorities, and a small shift in the popular vote would cost them power. In the past 15 years, only the Rudd and Abbott federal governments have enjoyed significant majorities.
Such reforms as the present government can claim to have introduced are by way of roll-back or relegation of those introduced by ‘a previous Labor government’, such as a tax on carbon production. This is reflex government, government by turning back: it lacks original thought and is non-innovative. It is easy and can be done in the whistle and response of talk-back radio. Little consultation or persuasion of the electorate is required, still less original thought. Since Whitlam, governments have sought to reduce or annihilate any public service that might offer an informed or even contradictory point of view. Policy is more likely to be devised by short-term and careerist political assistants with little experience of the real world, nor sympathy for its inhabitants. Ministerial advisers, increasing in number, and drawn from political backgrounds rather than the public service tend to focus more on keeping the minister out of trouble rather than pursuing good policy. These advisers are more likely to gain their next step on the career ladder – often as a more senior adviser, preselection for parliament, or in lobbying – if they are seen to have minimised political damage to their minister.
Meanwhile, a nation drifts and a pandemic rages.
John Fleming II

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