The Abbott government has expressed repeated frustration with the cross benchers. The cross benchers have expressed repeated frustration with the Abbott government. Can the system work better?
Let's look at some recent episodes, starting with the taxation review commissioned by the Rudd government. The GST was excluded from the Henry Review and the ill-fated mining tax was adopted. The government received the Henry report in November 2009 but did not release it until the following May. In words that echo in recent events, Ross Gittins (SMH 12 November 2012 p. 6) explained these decisions:
'Each side is afraid that, if it showed the slightest interest in considering the (GST), the other side will use this as a pretext to launch a scare campaign….One reason that the miners were so opposed to the RSPT was that the government caught them off-guard. This would not have happened if Labor had released the Henry report for discussion well before it made up its mind….So why didn't it do it? Because it was so afraid that the Opposition would run a scare campaign claiming that Labor intended to implement all of Henry's most controversial proposals.'
A similar fear on the part of Prime Minister Abbott apparently delayed release of the Commission of Audit report. The proposed higher education 'reforms' fall into a different category. But think of the process by which they were promoted. First, they were introduced as a budget measure. This contradicted a pre-election promise. Second, and most importantly, the government decided what to do on a very significant structural matter with almost no prior public negotiation or deliberation.
Minor party senators were presented with a done deal. Is deregulation the best approach to generate needed funds for Universities? What are the alternatives? Why is extra money imperative? None of these critical issues was adequately aired in the lead up to the Senate debate.
Could these matters have been handled differently?
Reflecting on Tony Abbott's 'ragged' year, The Australian has editorialised repeatedly on the need for a new narrative. This is not enough. It ignores the challenge of building a supporting base in public opinion for tough measures. Public opinion does not spring into life in one swoop. Its formation is a slow and contested process. Think of John Howard's campaign to change the GST. He won the subsequent election but lost the popular vote. Hardly auspicious.
Public opinion is king. For evidence look at the political record of the past decade. Short of bipartisanship, we have no examples of successful policy change on a major contested issue. Not one. Indeed in the ten months prior to his defeat, John Howard himself u-turned on not one or two but seven issues. Moreover, these were not minor matters: they were issues at the heart of his programme – Work Choices, climate change, broadband, the Murray-Darling, education funding and so forth. Such in a democracy is the rightful power of the public.
Things hardly improved thereafter. The only significant policy matters to survive the Rudd and Gillard governments were based on bipartisanship – plain cigarette packaging, the NDIS and perhaps the Abbott-Morrison-led race to the bottom on refugees. Climate change is on-going. Australia's policy system is gridlocked.
So here's a different idea. Why not resurrect the old green paper- white paper approach to policy change. The government commissions an enquiry or gets a proposal from a department that indicates a policy need. Instead of declaring its hand, why not issue what is in effect a strategy paper. Like the Henry Review or the Commission of Audit or the Gonski Report. These reports told us why we should worry about a big issue – why it's important for the country – and what are the options for dealing with it.
This report can be issued without executive commitment. It would go in the first instance to a cross party Senate committee. The government would indicate it would take the findings seriously (which could include ignoring them), it would allow months not weeks for deliberation and it would encourage business and community groups to come forward with their points of view. The committee itself could adopt novel outreach and engagement approaches. There are many ways it could dramatise proceedings.
The acknowledged standing of such an enquiry would attract media interest. The fact that Government and Opposition members, crossbenchers and key stakeholders tentatively declared their positions (or at least dispositions) might give cues to others and their comments could at least inform what the government subsequently decides to do. Protagonists would also have the information necessary to form later coalitions to support their preferred approach.
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