Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Uniformity and the tyranny of the majority

My post WA election, Lyne and a wry sense of enjoyment triggered a conversation in the comments between Bob Quiggin and myself. In one comment I said in part:

What do you do if the entity is such that a majoritarian approach means that you must always lose out, creating a perpetual case of majority oppression?

Bob responded:

What do you do when you are in the minority? For a start, you suck it down, because that's what a democracy is - the tyranny of the majority. That leaves the hard grind of changing attitudes through lobbying, education and work. It's not like it's a hopeless cause, unless it is a plea for special treatment on a plainly unequal basis.

What Bob says says here sounds so reasonable, yet I think that it is very badly flawed. Things don't work like that in practice.

As I write, Nathan Rees, the new NSW Premier, has launched a major cost cutting exercise following an apparent $1 billion collapse in the State budget. In so doing, the new Premier said that he had no explanation of how the State's finances had fallen into a hole since the June budget.

The Sydney Morning Herald (10 September 2008) quotes Mr Rees as saying: "I don't have the time, nor the inclination, to examine why we've got those estimates wrong." Apparently the Government was simply unaware of the problem until last Friday (September 5). Now here there are two quite different issues: how did the problem arise; why was the Government not aware of it?

Dealing with the second first, access to information is central to informed debate and decision making. Here I was a bit appalled, but simply not surprised by the apparent problem faced by the new Premier.

Back in March last year in Access to Information - a NSW oddity, I complained that there was no way in NSW to access Government press releases. Oddly, when I commented on this to a Sydney journalist, he found nothing strange about it. I could always go to the State Library, he said!

What I could not say at the time was that I became aware of the problem because of some work that I was doing that required me to check past Government statements. I had to scrounge round to find copies on files or in people's private holdings. I also found that NSW had no apparent system for recording or accessing past Cabinet Minutes or decisions. Again, I had to scrounge round.

The lack of transparency - internal as well as external - may have facilitated the Government's capacity to constantly recycle announcements, to apply its electoral supermarket approach, but it did not make for good Government.

In writing about NSW Government policy over the last few years, I was (I think) one of the few who took the Government's major planning statements - Mr Iemma's Ten Year Plan, the various coastal strategies - seriously enough to try to analyse them in some detail. Here I pointed to two key weaknesses as I saw them.

The first was that were very bitsy, really an aggregation of somewhat disconnected performance measures. The second was the apparent disconnect between the statements and targets and actual economic and demographic change on the ground. This created an apparent Kafka like world in which the official system acquired its own powerful internal reality - plans, projects, targets, performance measurement, power structures, accords, special interest groups, Commonwealth-State agreements, the power of Premier's and Treasury, risk management, communication strategies, best practice - that was in some weird ways disconnected from the world around and especially that outside Sydney.

Also as I write, on the other side of the continent, the Australian is carrying the sad story of Sanchia Norrish.

The facts are simple enough.

Five years ago, the normally healthy 53 year old became ill. On the Friday morning, she was driven 25km to the Northam Hospital in WA's wheat belt. There she was X-rayed and diagnosed with a blocked bowel. Neither that hospital nor the immediately surrounding ones had the doctors or staff to operate - Northam Hospital itself services a population of 20,000, but usually does not have doctors at the weekend.

Mrs Norrish was then driven to Perth - and hour and a half trip. The busy Perth hospital did not accept the local diagnosis. By the time the diagnosis was confirmed, it was too late. She died during the operation.

The significance of the Norrish case is that the leader of the WA Nationals, Brendon Grylls, is the local member. Mrs Norrish forms one element in his push for improved regional services.

Now when resources are short, and they seem to be getting shorter all the time, Governments have to triage. They have to set priorities. In this context, those living in Sydney could point to a string of similar cases in the greater metro area.

The problem with triage in an increasingly resource constrained world is that it creates a pattern of winners and losers with sometimes fatal consequences to the losers. In a perfectly fair system, one could argue that this may be sad for the individuals or communities concerned, but them's the breaks.

The present Australian system is neither perfect nor fair, nor can it be. The current emphasis on national or state priorities, uniformity, common standards both conceals and adds to the unfairness, creating a constantly changing pattern of winners and losers.

At present, NSW has very particular problems. This means that the squeakiest immediate wheel gets action. However, even if we can fix the current problems of transparency and fragmentation, problems will remain.

In my series Why I remain a New England New Stater I tried to set out using personal examples why the current system worked against New England. Here my core focus is on institutional factors.

In somewhat similar vein, to test the NSW Government's Ten Year Plan, I took New England as a case study. My core conclusion, set out in NSW Ten Year Plan and New England - Conclusions, was that the plan simply did not reflect New England's needs. I would add that it could not because current institutional structures prevented those needs from being recognised.

Now one could argue, and quite fairly, that my New England focused approach is parochial, even quaint! However, it does rest on reasonably articulated underpinnings.

In my posts on constitutional issues (list of some at the end of post) and especially the View from 1926 series, I refer to the views of David Drummond.

Drummond argued that all exercise of Government power involved loss of freedom and created winners and loosers. He also suggested that a major problem in democracy lay in the fact that the majority would always oppress the minority. This is not simply a matter of changing majority views on particular issues. Rather, of cases where there is an entrenched majority view.

To overcome this, he suggested that Governmental structures should be geographically based, close to the people, so that there was a commonality of interest. This implies a shifting hierarchical structure capturing different levels of needs.

Drummond would have accepted, I think, that there will always be cases where specific local, regional or (for that matter) national interests must be over-ridden in the interests of the greater good. However, he would have said two things.

The first is that the meaning of greater good must be defined, tested. Secondly, that the dangers of majority oppression must be controlled through proper decentralisation of Government.

Our current structures do not easily allow for this. Let me illustrate this by taking an example that Bob and I share.

Working in the Commonwealth Industry Department, we were trying to develop new policy approaches that would encourage the development of Australia's electronics, aerospace and information industries. These industries shared many common features, but were also very different.

In developing new approaches, we had to fight against deeply entrenched Canberra attitudes.

One was the view that any industry support measure involved market interference and was therefore bad. A second that the only appropriate measures that could be used were so called horizontal, universally applicable, measures. Any vertically tailored approach was necessarily bad in its own right and open to special pleading.

We shared the doubts about previous industry specific measures. We also knew that most of the so-called horizontal measure ignored industry and geographic variation. In this sense, the so-called horizontal measures became deeply vertical because of their very varied industry impacts. By contrast, vertical measures that took into account industry variation could be structured to achieve a more uniform affect.

To manage all this, we developed what we called the matrix approach, something that Bob has referred to before in his comments. This was quite simple in concept.

We listed all the industry sectors we were dealing with across the top axis. This is a very big and varied sector, so there were a lot.

Then down the horizontal access we listed all the economic factors affecting the industries, all the relevant policy measures as well. Again there were a lot.

We then examined the effect of each policy measure, each economic variable, in each industry sector. From this we asked basic questions: what were the common features; what the differences; what were the gaps; what needed to be done to alter or harmonise policies so that negative impacts were overcome, so that their effects were harmonised and mutually reinforcing.

The approach proved very powerful, but also failed in the end because we could not overcome the horizontal, one size fits all, mentality. Our fatal flaw lay in the fact that we wanted to take difference into account.

And this, I think, lies at the heart of problem of majoritarianism.

Constitutional Posts


bob q said...

I disagree, Jim. Much to your surprise, no doubt. :)

Let's take your example of our mutual work first. We got copyright protection up for software, restricting competition, we got increased competition in the telecoms market with the advent of Optus and then others, we joined with defence to get some aerospace initatives up in R&D and supported purchases - different horses for different courses.

Some of these happened after you left and some after I left, certainly, but they happened. They take time and usually more than 10 or so people working hard for significant change.

Some of the examples I quoted earlier (in the thread "WA election, Lyne and a wry sense of enjoyment") are of change which WERE, contrary to your statement, a zero sum game. Equal pay for women means less profit for employers in the short term. Government surpluses means less funding for Government programs.

And your final point in that thread (in my view) argues MY case, that you can fight for change against an entrenched majority, using regionalism or any other weapon that comes to hand.

Given that I have not changed my views, however, what about the Belshaw/Drummond synthesis? The flaw as I see it with your argument is that there is an unspoken presumption that the more local a government is, the more responsive it will be to local issues. In fact, the history of local councils is littered with examples proving otherwise.

Everyone knows the joke: how do you know where the mayor lives? (The bitumen road stops outside his gate).

Local governments are just as, if not more, prone to unresponsiveness. It is an issue of quality of Government. NSW Labor has only been saved to date by lack of an opposition worth the name.

As a present public servant, I have seen informational problems you mention, but its not always the case. Lindsay Tanner, the Federal Finance Minister, in his Age blog of 2 September actually floated questions of what was the best way for governments to communicate, using the web. Unfortunately, the questions were a lot more interesting than the answers provided by most.

But many local governments are far more secretive in their dealings than the State government. Again, I think you are misdiagnosing the cause of the disease.

And I trust you'll laugh at my final point: These things come in cycles, perhaps long waves. Although I prefer a matrix analysis attitudes do change for external reasons over time as well. (For those that missed the joke, search Jim's site for "Kondratiev".)

Jim Belshaw said...

I did grin at you last point, Bob.

As a general comment, there is no such thing as perfect Government or a perfect Government system. However,I would argue that better government involves at least an understanding of the principles on which Government and Government structures are (should be) based. This is why I am gnawing away at this one - I think that we (Australia) have lost that sense of principles.

The principles that I have been trying to articulate do not imply that smaller, more local, is always better.

To continue the analogy from our joint work, the original industry policy approach that we were battling against involved a mix of of very specific sub-sector protection measures on one side (the nonsense of the "room air conditioner industry" comes to mind), extremely broad measures on the other. The first gave rise to special pleading, the second were just too blunt. Neither worked. Without drawing too long a bow, the first can be thought of a localism, the second as one size fits all majoritanism.

Focusing on principles,I have argued that a key feature of Government is that power will be exercised. A second key feature is that all Government actions by their nature involve losses to someone, creating a pattern of winners and losers.

This not an argument for no Government, simply statements that apply to all Governments.

Their are two legs to the traditional arguments about the role of Governments. The first is that Govenments exist because there are certain functions that are needed but cannot or will not be provided by individuals acting alone or in small groups. The second is the role of Government in protecting the weak.

All institutions require decision making processes. Further, because government involves the coercive use of state power, there needs to be a way of protecting individuals from the unrestrained use of that power.In both areas, Government depends in the end on the consent of the governed. Where this breaks down, then the Government or even the political entity itself either collapses or maintains its position though force.

Democracy is our preferred general model.It provides a constiutional basis (the will of the people) together with a decision process (majority vote). Our particular model is a Federation involving a split in powers between centre and states.

All democracies face a problem in accommodating minority views. In most cases, this is not a problem in that people hold a variety of views that change over time and are prepared to trade-off, to accept compromises. Where this ceases to be the case, where a perpetual minority is created, then the entity itself can break because of withdrawal of the consent of the minority.

Arguments about the geographic basis of Government are a subset of these broader arguments. They come from the experience of those who, rightly or wrongly, see their interests and areas as a constant minority whose interests will always be over-ruled by existing institutions and majoritarian systems.

Local government itself is a very good example of the dynamics of the whole process.

The 1924 Cohen Royal Commission in NSW concluded that varying geographic interests within NSW could be best accommodated through an effective system of regional councils.

Those on the other side of the fence used the history of local government as a counter argument.

Bob, I have to stop for a moment. I am going to publish so that I do not lose what I have written.

Jim Belshaw said...

Continuing, in arguing in 1926 that Governments always exercise power,Drummond took local government as an example. These councils, he said, had no independent existence. The State Government always over-ruled and controlled.

This remains true today in NSW. Local government must be one of the most tightly regulated areas in the country.

The successes and failures within local government are interesting.

At the risk of broad generalisations,despite the joke about the tarred road, country councils have generally worked better than city councils.

In the country people know their councillors. Country local government areas have also had a geographic unity lacking in many city councils.

Importantly, the party politics that paralyses so many metro councils has been largely lacking. The problem here appears to lie in the introduction to local government of broader issues and political fights that really have nothing to do with local issues. I also think it true that (at least until recently) there have been fewer opportunities for corruption.

The most recent changes to council structures highlight some of the concepts and issues that I have been talking about.

Here we have changes imposed from Sydney and Brisbane, generally against local wishes. The changes were justified on efficiency and service delivery grounds. Whatever the arguments here, they have changed the on-ground dynamics by introducing new majority dynamics, including a shift in power to the big centres who now control the vote. Many rural votes now feel disenfranchised.

In all this there are no perfect answers. Recognising that I have not dealt with all your issues or examples you raised, the nub of my continuing argument really lies in my perception that we are dealing with systemic problems in the structure of Australian government.