Thursday, December 23, 2010

NSW 2010: elections, prorogation and public policy

Just a bit of a round-up this morning.

For the benefit of international readers, NSW will be holding elections next March.

The latest Newspoll shows the Coalition in NSW with a still commanding two party lead of 61% to 39% on a two-party preferred basis. Again for the benefit of international readers, NSW has what's called an optional , preferential system. Voters can chose to allocate preferences, one, two, three etc. Should no candidate achieve an absolute majority on the primary vote, preferences are then allocated until one candidate achieves a majority.

The current NSW Labor Government  has been on the political nose for quite some time. With pretty much everybody convinced that the Government should and must go, Premier Kristina Keneally has struggled to put together a new approach that might at least minimise defeat.

It's been interesting to watch. No less than 21 Labor MPs have announced their retirement in recent months. A 22nd was convicted of a criminal offence. Whether this leads to Party renewal in the short term really depends on just how many of those seats Labor can hold.  

The Government has also been clearing the decks in policy terms. They have got rid of some unpopular previous decisions such as the proposed Tillegra dam, while pushing forward on others such as the sale of some of the State's electricity assets. Here the Premier asked the Governor to prorogue Parliament to prevent the upper house, the Legislative Council, from holding an inquiry into the electricity sales.

In February, the use of this device in Canada led me to write Problems with prorogation. Interesting that the same issue should come up so quickly in a NSW context.

The practical effect is that the Government continues in an Executive role until the writs are issued for the next election, but the present Parliament itself has ceased. This raises an interesting constitutional issue, for the Legislative Council committee has apparently decided to push ahead. Here I quote from Imre Salusinszky's story in the Australian:

Ms Keneally last night released legal advice from the Crown Solicitor that the upper house standing committee "cannot function while the house of parliament which created it, and to which it is responsible and accountable, stands prorogued".

But Mr Nile will press ahead today, after getting contrary advice from upper house clerk Lynn Lovelock.

Ms Lovelock told The Australian: "The committee has the authority to meet and conduct the inquiry."

However, she expressed reservations about whether the committee would be well advised to "press ahead" if witnesses felt their protection under normal parliamentary privilege might be compromised.

I would have thought that there were other problems as well, including the simple question of funding the costs of any inquiry.

I have written on the electricity issue, but mainly in a New England context. Back in May, Sydney's 1995 electricity heist provided a somewhat partisan historical view of the process by which Sydney took over assets previously regarded as local and then raided them for cash. The current sale marks the end of this process.

I will write a little more on this issue because its part of the economic and social changes that took place across the broader New England during the second half of the twentieth century. Whatever the general arguments for what is called National Competition policy, it had quite differential on-ground effects.

In the lead-up to the last State elections, I was very critical of the policy approaches adopted by both sides. I called it the super market approach in which each side put forward a rag-bag of specific proposals; electors had then to decide which supermarket they preferred.

The problem with this type of approach is that it leads to a series of disconnected measures. Oppositions face particular difficulties because they lack the resources to properly cost and validate individual ideas. If they win, they are then bound to deliver on what may in fact not be good ideas.

We have an example of this at Federal level at the present time with the abandonment of the Green Loan/Green Start program. This is being presented as another example of the inability of the Federal Government to deliver. That may or may not be the case. However, it is an example of an ill-conceived election promise.

Another of the difficulties of the supermarket approach is that it can actually make it quite hard for public servants to respond sensibly.

At the last NSW elections, there was very little focus on opposition policies at officials' level because people had decided that the opposition could not win. That it is not the case this time. All the various state agencies are trying to work out what advice they might provide, how they might respond, to a new Government. They are all preparing ideas and briefings.

This is part of the liberating effect of a possible change in Government.

Over the last week or so I have chatted to officials with some involvement in the process across three major agencies. I got the feeling that they were all struggling to some degree. Their problem is that while you can cost and plan for a specific proposed activity, you also have to integrate that activity into existing programs and approaches, working out how the whole thing might fit together, what changes might need to be recommended.

To do this, you need a feel for the opposition's values and policy principles in general and in the particular areas that you are responsible for, something that you don't really get from the supermarket approach. At the moment, about the only thing on which there does appear to be agreement among officials is the likelihood of immediate cuts.

I will be watching developments here with interest.

Finally, I just wanted to note for my own purposes, to complete a story that I wrote on extensively at the time, that  Dr Mohamed Haneef and the Federal Government have apparently agreed terms of compensation for his wrongful detention.           


Brigid said...

Liked your description on how public policy items were placed on the agenda or in the electoral supermarket. Quite lucid.

There are also policy decisions made by governments (who can access reasonable advice and financial information) on the run because of pressure or opportunism which have similar symptoms and conclusions.

Classic example is The Intervention otherwise known as The Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) or, under Labor, Closing the Gap.

This particular policy has small benefits to very few people and has seen millions of taxpayer dollars (probably more if every last buck was appropriately nailed down) go down the gurgler and the majority of people, to whom the policy is supposedly directed, receive no benefit.

Parsons-Brinkerhoff, charged with building houses, wasted $35 mill in the New Futures Alliance without a nail being hammered. Ande no sign that govt is asking for an accounting or reimbursement of wasted money. 'Tis wondrous what govts can do!

Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, LE. That was fast!

I have written on some of the things that you mention; I will put up a post later to give you some of the links.

In terms of your last point, I feel that it is more wondrous what Governments can't do when they should be able to!