Thursday, September 01, 2011

Refugees and the NSW disease

On Monday I wrote of the New South Walesing of the Federal Government, expressing the forlorn desire that we might get back to discussion on policy. That desire now seems even more forlorn.

The Australian media this morning is dominated by the High Court decision disallowing the Australian Government's Malaysian refugee swap deal. Legal Eagle's Breaking News: High Court declares Malaysian “Solution” illegal provides an initial summary of the legal issues, as does Ken Parish's Driving the final nails into a political coffin.

Insert: Legal Eagle has now posted a very clear analysis of the High Court decision, including an explanation as to why the Government felt so confident - Malaysian Solution Post Mark II. Do read this when you are considering some of the commentary.

It is too early to say what the policy outcomes will be in the refugee area, nor can we assume that they will be positive.  However, from a political perspective, the immediate damage has been substantial. Michelle Grattan's Incompetence and disaster: another grim day for Gillard and Annabel  Crabb's High Court climax to a tale of rambling incompetence will give you a feel.

Terms like New South Walesing or the NSW disease that I and others have applied to the Australian Government must seem quite obscure to international readers. For that reason, I thought that I should describe it in a little more detail.

About NSW

With a population of 7.3 million, NSW is Australia's largest population state. While not the largest state in area, it is still large - 809,444 km2 or 312,528 sq m. With 4.4 million people, the Sydney Statistical Division (Sydney plus the NSW Central Coast and the Blue Mountains) contains a substantial majority of the State's population.

NSW has not been an especially well governed state for a very long time. The reasons for this are part institutional, part cultural and part geographic. In recent years, NSW Labor Government performance deteriorated to the point that the term NSW disease was coined to describe the results. But what is the NSW disease? This is best described in terms of symptoms.

 Rise of the Professional Machine

In my recent post cited above, I suggested that the role of Government was to govern. However, to govern you have to be in power. Even twenty  years ago, the ALP's political machine in NSW was seen as a model because of the way it used professional techniques such as polling and focus groups to target policies to particular areas that would yield the best political results.

In NSW, this led to what I called pottage politics in which expenditure of small amounts could be used to attract support in particular seats. Of itself, this was not new. The nineteenth century factional political system used the same process. What was new was the degree of professionalism.

There is nothing wrong with either the desire to attain power, nor in being responsive to needs. However, what occurred in NSW was that professional politics came to dominate. Instead of asking the question how do we sell our policies, the question became what policies will sell and at the lowest cost.

Communications and risk management

As part of the process that I am talking about, concepts of communication and risk management became increasingly important. How do we communicate our message, how do we manage the risks that something might go wrong?

This was not unique to NSW, but is a broader feature of modern politics. However, as political conditions deteriorated in NSW, more and more time was spent on communication and risk management, leaving less time available for other policy development activities.

All new things involve risk. The greater the weigh that you place on risk, the more constrained you become in your capacity to act.

Rise of the media and the commentariat

Things such as sound bites or the twenty four hour news cycle are not unique to NSW. They feed on and interact with the professionalisation of politics because the media requires instant stories, professional politics requires that the message be got out.

The problem is that much effective policy development is long term. Inevitably, policy failures increase with time. As its record of failures increased, the NSW Government became increasingly locked into short term, reactive approaches. One symptom of this was the increasing tendency to go for actions perceived to be immediately attractive to the electorate or groups in the electorate, really the symbols rather than the substance, that would yield a short term hit at minimum immediate cost.

Actions or proposals were packaged and re-packaged for immediate gain. As the media became more hostile, the Government was forced into a narrowing range of options, creating a downward spiral. This fed to an increasingly cynical media. By the end of the NSW Labor period, the media had actually become the real opposition.

Distribution of spoils and the rise of the professional party person

Another feature of the rise of professionalism was the creation of new career paths.

Labor has been in power in NSW for the majority of the last hundred years because of the political demographics of the state. With the professionalisation of politics, Labor came to draw from an increasingly narrow band of people who followed very specific career paths through ALP and trade union structures.

NSW Labor has always played its politics hard. From the 1970s, the Party began increasingly to use power to reward through appointment. I am not talking about formal corruption. Rather, the appointment of sympathisers to a myriad of official and often unpaid positions. In some cases, this actually broke long standing conventions about, for example, the role of MPs.

Pursuit of immediate power and status became dominant in the Party. Bad ministers were protected by their factions, new blood found it hard to break through.

By the last days of the NSW Labor Government, there was a growing disconnect between Party and factional games and electoral realities. The games proceeded regardless.

Centralisation and Control

  To stay on message requires central control. As things became more difficult, the instinctive response was to increase control, to minimise risk and improve targeting.

By the end of the Labor period in NSW ministerial power had declined. Increasingly, the ability of individual ministers to do new things was limited by the need to protect the Government, to ensure control. At official level, centralisation within agencies and in the central coordinating departments of Premiers and Treasury created acute policy constipation.

Everything was controlled. There was little room for new thought, or for those who wanted to do really new things. Even when, as was the case with Premier Morris Iemma at certain points, the Premier as head of Government wanted to do new things, they stumbled on systemic constipation.

Focus on rules, process and reporting

Control requires rules. Risk management requires rules.

By the end of the NSW Labor period, doing things the right way, compliance, had become central. Doing things the right way had become more important than doing the right thing, much more important than doing the new thing. This was complicated further by an ever increasing accretion of controls and rules introduced to correct defects or because they were seen as politically popular, as well as increasingly complicated reporting requirements.  

Agencies and officials struggled under a load that affected both internal administration and service delivery. In some cases, child welfare is an example, systems started to collapse. Output measurements and reporting requirements proliferated. 


Australian readers will note that I have generally not mentioned specific policies in this discussion, nor the question of corruption.

Dealing with corruption first, corruption does tend to rise with rules in the sense that where money is involved more rules means more scope for corruption. That said, and despite the newspaper stories, I know of no evidence that corruption under the later Labor period in NSW was any worse than in previous periods, although the rules designed to prevent corruption did reduce official flexibility.  

On policy, my focus has been on systemic weaknesses: I could have and have cataloged various failures; here my focus is on the underlying causes.

I am, I suppose, something of a natural rebel. I like to achieve. I also want to improve things. I have been campaigning for improvement, for basic reform, for some time.

My knowledge of the way things work makes me a reasonably acute judge of what is likely to go wrong. My character and approach can make it difficult to get messages across.

As I write, I am listening to commentators zeroing in on the immigration issue. Words like death spiral or this Government could not organise a chook raffle are being used.

That may be right. But in the focus on politics and the immediate events, those of us who want to talk about policy or about improvement are simply being crowded out. The way things stand now, we are at risk of doing a NSW, creating a situation where the Australian Government will become dysfunctional, limping along.

The Government may or may not win the next election. In the meantime, let's get on with the business of discussing policy and ways of improving performance.  


Anonymous said...

Excellent Jim. Took the liberty of mentioning your piece elsewhere in the hope that a few more might sit back and look at the bigger picture.

Thank you. kvd

Legal Eagle said...

Agreed - great post, Jim. They're being sidetracked by this stuff instead of actually governing, and that's the tremendous pity. If they governed rather than just responded, I'd have a lot more respect for the lot of them. >:-(

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, both. In a previous post providing gratuitous advice to JG, I said that if the game stinks, change the game.

Maybe it's up to those of us who care about good policy to focus on that, distancing us from the daily political turmoil. I know that we try to do this now, but it's easy to get trapped.