Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - confidentiality, confusion and Australia's election

It continues to be an odd Australian election campaign. I am not sure that I believe the latest Herald/Nielsen poll; this shows the opposition with an apparently election winning lead, with Labor's primary vote down to 36 per cent. Regardless of the results of the election, you can expect it to be analysed to death afterwards!

While I don't want to comment on the detail of the campaign, I do want to make a few purely professional comments.

The Greens

Regardless of which side wins the overall election, it seems likely that the Australian Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate. For that reason, The Green's policy positions become more important than they have been in the past. I, for one, do not know enough of those positions. They need to be subjected to the same type of forensic analysis that should be applied to the main parties.

Cabinet Confidentiality and Leaks

The leaks about the workings of the Rudd cabinet make me me very uncomfortable at several levels.

Each minister wears several hats in cabinet. Each has to take into account his/her portfolio interests; this includes making judgments about the impact on the portfolio if other expenditure proposals are approved. Each has to make judgements about both the overall national interest as they see it. Each has to take party and electoral considerations into account.

Once cabinet has reached a decision, once it becomes Government policy, then ministers are bound to defend it.

Ministers change their minds all the time, at least at the margin. They do so for both policy and party political reasons. They have to be free to do so. If not, cabinet becomes unworkable.

Part of the reason for cabinet confidentiality is to provide ministers with the freedom required for sensible discussion. Take this away, and you cut at the very heart of effective government. To my mind, whoever has been responsible is not just striking at the ALP, but at the system itself.

There is a broader issue here, that of the role of confidentiality itself. However, the issues here are beyond the scope of this post.

Policy confusion and post election: trouble for both sides

To my mind, the level of effective policy analysis in this election has been quite low, couched in generalities on one side, responses to specific announced initiatives on the other. In saying this, I am talking as much about the analysts and commentators (I include myself here) as the party leaderships. Let me try to illustrate.

A very high proportion of Government policies and programs are already locked in. Further, the existing government has already announced major changes that are partially underway.

Taking this into account, consider the opposition first. It's announcements combine three things:

  • Statements of general principles such as the Coalition Economic Principles. Now what do these actually mean in terms, for example, of regional development or the principles underlying the Australian Federation?
  • A range of specific proposed expenditure cuts, totaling in all almost $A24 billion. Many of these are small, some bigger. Some such as the proposed abolition of the National Broadband Network have been picked up, others not. But what do they actually mean? For example, do we really want to discontinue our campaign for a seat on the UN security Council?
  • A series of smaller new spending initiatives that have attracted some attention.

In all this, I actually have very little idea as to what an opposition win might mean for, as an example, the structure of health services.

None of this should be construed as an attack on the policies themselves, just a statement that I don't know.

Now look at the Government. Here we have a range of policies and programs already announced that will, presumably, continue. This includes major implementation challenges in areas such as the announced health reforms. Normally with a Government going to re-election, the past is taken for granted. However, in this case one could be forgiven for a degree of uncertainty. So how are present and past meant to fit together?  Again, I'm not sure.

Between now an the election, I will try for my own sake (I do have to vote!) to work out some of the implications on both sides. For the present, I am left with the feeling that both sides are likely to experience some discomfort when it comes to comes to forming a new Government.      


It was pointed out to me on the security council seat that the opposition had previously criticised this spend. Fair enough. But that was as opposition. I do remember it, now that I am reminded. I ask again, does the opposition as now the possible government, actually think that Australia should not seek that seat? If so, why not? More broadly, I don't think that either side has really spelt out any foreign policy vision.

On health, it was suggested that the Government already has a framework in place, that there is no need to spell things out. Sorry. As a mere mortal, I actually think I need to be told. After all, I am not absolutely sure which pieces of previous policy are still valid.

These comments may seem a bit sour. I am not at all sour about the suggestions. I am a little sour about the nature of the debate.


Anonymous said...


I don’t think you are being sour. I can see that, for a person interested in policy and rational outcomes, you must be disappointed in the lack of detailed discussion/debate in the present campaign.

Bearing always in mind that my particular vote isn’t worth much – given the “safe” state of my Federal seat – these are the stray thoughts I have had:

1) A complete lack of differentiation between the major parties in most areas. 2) The disgraceful way Labor has abandoned its principles on the so-called “boat people”. 3) Disappointment with Gillard PM, as opposed to Gillard pre-PM. 4) The almost complete lack of attention to the Greens; they will probably hold either government to ransom in the Senate; have we all forgotten Harradine? 5) The concentration on the personality and performance of the leaders, as opposed to policy - but I am guilty of this in 3 above. 6) Climate change is an issue for me. Labor’s proposed congress is fanciful; Abbott seems to move every time he talks on it. 7) NBN is an issue for me – so a disappointment that Abbott seems uninterested. 8) Defence, or more particularly Iraq/Afghanistan. We should not be there, but being there, I object to our troops being used as sort of placeholders, until either of our parties make up their minds. 9) Indigenous affairs: both sides of politics should hang their heads in shame – as should we all. 10) Most important last: the GFC is not over yet. Labor has done quite well thus far, but I suspect so would have the coalition.

And you wrote on that word ‘spin’, which itself has been spun. When I was a kid it referred to the motion of a top which rotated in a wobbly fashion over the tabletop, and to a type of bowling whereby the ball was deliberately diverted from its natural straight through course, and to telling a tale or yarn.

But now I look at what I’ve just recalled, and maybe the sense has not changed that much? Only the object of the ‘spin’.


Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting that I would generally agree with you on points 1 through 10. And on the top/bowl!

I accept that I am being a little unreasonable in my expectations about the level of debate. After all, at one point I was making quite a decent living from Government relations advice because things weren't explained/discussed! But there is a degree issue, I guess.

Legal Eagle said...

For that reason, The Green's policy positions become more important than they have been in the past. I, for one, do not know enough of those positions. They need to be subjected to the same type of forensic analysis that should be applied to the main parties.

I totally agree with that.

I am so disappointed about politics at the moment. I want intelligent policy debate, with details and figures, not spin.

Jim Belshaw said...

I do understand your frustration, LE! However, I did strike a more optimistic note in the post I have just brought up.

Even in an efficiency/effectivness world, ideas and values still underpin policy. An interesting question that I am mulling over at the moment is just what current policy proposals actually have a longer term importance? It's quite interesting, because it actually forces perception shifts.