Will John Howard’s Senate majority be the foundation for more decisive and effective government, particularly in relation to longer-term issues? There is no discounting of the political significance of this electoral outcome. The government will be able to pass hitherto rejected measures, although its National Party allies will set stiff conditions on a Telstra sale. But tackling longer-term issues effectively requires a significant change of approach.
Recall the election campaign: The rhetoric and promises of the party leaders had almost nothing to do with the big issues that face the country. For example, the aging of the population has wide ranging fiscal and institutional implications. Who will pay for the hospital system, medical care, nursing homes and pensions as the baby boom generation passes into retirement? How will the education system be reconfigured to allow re-skilling?
And then there is environmental sustainability. The Murray-Darling Basin is one of the most important water catchment and agricultural regions in the country. The problem of salinity has been recognised for years and it is growing worse.
This policy gap has been recognised by a wide range of community organisations. These include the Business Council which last year conducted a major long-term review of Australia’s outlook. It concluded much more needed to be done to prepare the community for the uncertainties ahead. The Productivity Commission has recently added its voice with its call for attention to challenges facing the health, education, nursing home and pensions systems as well as for a wider debate about Telstra privatisation and greenhouse issues. Prime Minister Howard has himself acknowledged that there is a problem.
The ultimate ground for effective policy making is with public support. The more an informed public recognises the significance and priority of an issue, the wider the range of actions available to governments and the better the outcome for the whole community. An informed public also allows governments to respond more rapidly and realistically to exigencies.
Why have our political leaders been unable to generate public understanding of these longer-term issues? In a new study, David Yencken and I argue the causes lie in the way the present system engages public opinion. The basic problem concerns the way longer-term issues come before the public. This happens through the parliament. As soon as matters enter this environment, adversarialism typically takes over. If the government declares a contentious issue to be white, and public opinion is divided or uncertain, the Opposition almost invariably declares it to be black. Yet in government, the Opposition have often supported a similar approach (for example both major parties on a consumption tax). This is not because the Opposition is perverse or malevolent. It happens because, when public opinion is divided or uncertain, rewards accrue to leaders who champion contrasting alternatives, even if they are hollow or only manufactured for political impact.
The present incentive structure is an important part of the problem. It rewards sharp distinctions. This encourages the major parties to create differences even when they don’t exist or to exaggerate them when they are minimal. Or it encourages parties to try to manufacture issues that shift debate away from matters of real longer-term significance towards those that offer most advantage in the struggle for office. Hence the rise of wedge tactics.
When Australia’s political parties were divided ideologically, there was merit in an adversarial structure. It ensured that sharp distinctions in the parties’ approaches would be clearly communicated to the public. Now there is overlap and convergence between the agendas of the major parties but the political system has not adapted to this development.
One key problem concerns the transparency of the policy development process. Issues only come to the parliamentary arena after the government has decided what to do. This means that its prestige is implicated in the successful passage of its proposals. This encourages posturing and attention to electoral advantage. Electoral incentives invariably trump arguments based on merit and prudence. There is no setting for a prior phase of inquiry in the parliamentary domain where the scope for even partial consensus between the major parties could be explored. There is, in other words, no scope for a ”contemplative phase” in public debate.
This is despite the high degree of common ground between the parties about broad strategies. Take policy developments after 1983 when the internationalisation of the Australian economy was inaugurated. The major changes introduced after that time all enjoyed bipartisan support. These included financial deregulation, floating of the exchange rate, an independent Reserve Bank, competition policy and tariff reductions. The measures that did not receive bipartisan support, such as the sale of Telstra, have proved much more intractable.
Tacit bipartisanship is not a base for effective policy making. On the contrary, it has perverse consequences. A gap between elite and public opinion creates a climate that is very congenial to populism, as exemplified in the rise and fall of One Nation. Populist surges introduce new pressures on the major parties. It encourages them to distort debate and to conceal important but difficult issues. As a result, opportunities are lost for building public support on longer-term issues such as the environment, Indigenous disadvantage, globalisation, or continued economic reform. Is it any wonder public opinion remains divided and uncertain about action on these fronts?
For most of the twentieth century Australians were well served by the two party adversarial system. This reflected the social reality: a community in which socio-economic class was the primary determinant of political orientations and allegiances. But over the past couple of decades, these attachments have been overlaid by a variety of influences that cut across the ideological divide. These include gender, attitudes to the environment, regional loyalties, religious affiliation etc. The community is now much more differentiated and pluralised. Voters are also generally better educated. Via the media, they are subject to a wider array of opinions and images. As a consequence, political loyalties are much more fluid. But the formal political system has not changed to accommodate these developments.
As a result, a representation gap has opened up between the formal political system and the community that it nominally serves. A number of developments have combined to create a particular problem concerning longer-term issues. The major party organisations once contributed critically to their identification and resolution. Debates at party conferences were then real events. They provided the opportunity for new agendas to be promoted and for the leadership to connect with the party’s activist vanguard. Since the dominant interest groups (trade unions with Labor and business with the Liberals) were closely linked to one or other of the major parties, their perspectives were also well represented.