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Informing government

By Scott Prasser - posted Friday, 7 April 2006


Some time ago, the former director of the now defunct federal Futures Commission, Sue Oliver, lamented that:

Australia … has a closed, non-porous policy making system compared with, for instance, the United States and its use of congressional committees. Congressional committees provide a stage for lobby groups and think tanks to bring their ideas, research and advocacy within the political process. No such formal process exists in Australia at government level for reaching out for new ideas or, at the very least seeking to achieve co-operation between … interest groups.

The argument being that Australia has a very executive dominated political system and that governments at both federal and state level in Australia rely heavily on their departments for their advice.

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Such views need to be seriously challenged on several counts.

First, the Australian advisory system has never been as closed as many thought. Dr H.C. Coombs, observed in his autobiography, Trial Balance, that, “although it is the convention … prime ministers should and almost invariably do rely upon the head of their department and his colleagues to inform and advise them,” this is, “as a rule as much honoured in the breach as in the observance.”

Further the 1976 Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration (Combs Commission) highlighted the range of advisory sources and devices that had long been used by governments. They were broader than suggested by Oliver’s comment.

Second, there has been a growth in advisory mechanisms since the mid 1970s that owe part of their origin to the election of the Whitlam Labor Government. These developments will be briefly outlined below.

Last, Australia has long used public inquiries - they can be ad hoc, temporary, task forces, committees, working parties, commissions and royal commissions and composed by members drawn mostly from outside government. Such inquiries employ many of the very functions that Oliver complained was lacking in Australia. Public inquiries remain a largely understudied institution, whose existence once appreciated, changes substantially some of the existing notions about Australian policy advisory processes.

While departments and policy units have long been with us, of significance has been the massive increase in ministerial minders and consultants appointed from outside of government.

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Listed below is the range of advisory instruments available to government nationally and to a lesser extent they are duplicated across the states.

  • government departments and policy units;
  • ministerial minders;
  • consultants;
  • departmental advisory bodies with key sectors (hearing/representative);
  • specialised policy bureaux within government;
  • statutory advisory bodies located in or near govt - some with regulatory roles;
  • inter-governmental bodies - temporary/permanent;
  • parliamentary committees; and
  • public inquiries.

However, despite the increase in their numbers such advisory instruments do suffer from the flaw that they are very close to executive government and many of their activities and the exact nature of their advice seem outside the realms of public assessment.

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This article is a summary of a presentation to the Senate Occasional Lecture Series on February 24, 2006.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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