In stepping down as Chief Executive of ANZSOG, I have bought myself more time to spend thinking and writing about public policy -- with fewer constraints on what I can say. (This is the first in a policy commentary series.)
An early opportunity came with an invitation from Greg Lindsay at the Centre for Independent Studies to speak at one of their ‘leadership lunches’. This took place on 2 March at their pleasant new premises on Macquarie Street.
The assignment was to revisit the ‘to do list’ of reforms I compiled in 2012 prior to leaving the Commission. This had been prompted by a remark by Glenn Stevens that if governments really wanted to do something about Australia’s failing productivity performance, there were many suggestions in Productivity Commission reports and they should simply ‘go get the list and do them’. My ‘to do list’ sought to make this a little easier.
However it came as no surprise to find that, five years later, very few items have been ticked off, even partially. There have been some isolated advances, such as the decision to finally stop throwing good money after bad at the assembly operations of foreign auto companies (amounting to over $30 billion dollars from Australian taxpayers in the past two decades alone). But these tended to be offset by counter examples (such as the procurement of those costly and untried homemade submarines – 12 for the price of 24). The real priorities on the productivity reform list, like workplace regulation and taxation, have stood still or gone backwards.
Meanwhile, a variety of policies introduced since then are candidates for future reform, including ever-rising renewable energy targets and subsidies: through which our governments have collectively managed to sabotage Australia’s comparative advantage in low cost, reliable energy – for negligible (or, properly assessed, negative) environmental benefit.
Most of my talk -- Of lists undone: too hard or not trying?-- explored why there has been so little real reform in this new century, and so much poor policy instead. I could think of only three possible reasons: (a) ‘institutional amnesia’ (the subject of Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay), (b) tougher politics or (c) weaker policy capability. While there have been signs of all three forces at work, the last of them in my view is the underlying problem. A loss of policy capability within government – Commonwealth and State -- is palpable and multidimensional. It has emerged over the past 10-15 years under a style of government mercilessly but accurately lampooned in The Hollowmen TV series. A ‘Washminster’ hybrid that is proving antithetical to properly-informed policy.
Yet, if this diagnosis is correct, there is hope. Unlike the adverse changes evident in our parliaments and media, changes which are arguably reflective of changes in society itself, the decline in capability is not irreversible. Unless it is turned around, however, we cannot tell whether reform has truly become ‘too hard’, as many now seem to assume.
Improvements to the policy-making system have become an essential pre-condition for improvements in policy itself. As a close observer of this system, I am accordingly proposing two further ‘to do lists’ that, with effective leadership, seem eminently achievable and would make a significant difference: one focussed on the bureaucracy, the other on Ministers and their offices.