When the history of the Rudd-Gillard-Swan government is written, much will be made of the intense personal differences that emerged between the key players of the era. There will be many observations about their personalities, characters, and rivalries. There will also be lessons about the character and role of government.
The abandonment of a proper functioning Cabinet process by Mr Rudd, and the corresponding centralisation of power in his office, was a major flaw.
Mr Rudd’s craving for personal power, and his confinement of decision-making to a small group, robbed the government of the important discussions that contribute to better outcomes. Would the pink batts fiasco or the cash-for-clunkers scheme have survived a proper Cabinet process?
The ability to discuss and debate issues with colleagues in an environment of total confidentiality immeasurably improves the resulting decisions.
The propensity to bypass Cabinet has been repeated by Ms Gillard. Hence the disastrous decision about media regulation was foisted on an unsuspecting Cabinet, when some members were delayed elsewhere, without notice.
The former Hawke minister, Gary Johns, suggested recently that a Coalition government should look to cede power to the states, and engage in a program of deregulation. A national government should be thinking about what is necessary and what can be done in other ways, or by other bodies.
There are a number of questions that should accompany every proposal for government action.
First, is there a real and significant problem that requires a response? Secondly, is there a legitimate interest for government to be involved in some manner? Is it necessary to act for the well-being, protection or other legitimate interest of the individual or the nation? Can institutions in other spheres of society better respond?
Thirdly, is the response proportional to the problem that has been identified? Government should opt for the least intrusive response. If education or incentives are sufficient, for example, legislation should be the last resort. And if a law is necessary, it should avoid causing moral dilemmas for individuals, as far as possible. Fundamental freedoms should be preserved.
Proper consideration of these questions is likely to lead to less rather than more laws and regulations.
The 19th century economist Alfred Marshall, described government as “the most precious of human institutions, and no care can be too great to be spent on enabling it to do its work in the best way. A chief condition to that end is that it should not be set to work for which it is not specifically qualified, under the conditions of time and place.”
Prudence is a central characteristic of good government. It is time to restore it in Australia.
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