Friday, March 02, 2007

Politics, the Media and the Immiseration of Public Policy

tr.v. im·mis·er·at·ed, im·mis·er·at·ing, im·mis·er·ates
To make miserable; impoverish.

For the benefit of my international readers, recent public opinion polling shows the NSW Labor Government establishing a strong lead over the Liberal National Party Opposition.

I found the results surprising given that there appears to be a general opinion that the Government is on the nose. Many commentators suggested that the outcome was due to campaign mistakes by Opposition Leader Peter Debnam.

I have no doubt that this is true. However, I think that we are dealing with a deeper problem, one not limited to the opposition.

In this post I want to explore this. In doing so, I want to stand back from individual issues, promises to focus on what I see as a pattern, the immiseration of policy making.

NSW Liberal Party policies can be found here, National Party policies here. Because the parties are in coalition, most are identical. However, the Nationals have a number of additional policies reflecting their regional constituency.

Our political parties, at least those with a hope of being in or part of Government, have become marketing machines. They use sophisticated polling techniques plus focus groups to try to determine what you want. They try to craft policies that will appeal to you while also attracting media attention. They must have media attention because in the hot house of the campaign they need this to get the message across.

All this means that the policies are crafted to reflect what the parties think the voters want. This is the supermarket of politics. We can see the same approach in talk back radio, at least on ABC Sydney, where the announcers have been trying, successfully, to get people to talk about the issues they consider to be important at this point.

Now take the Liberal Party as the major partner in the coalition. What are the principal issues of concern to NSW voters as reflected in the policies of the Liberal Party?

There are 58 individual policy statements - a plethora of policy statements - grouped into nine categories:

  • Health 12 statements
  • Water 7 statements
  • Environment and climate change 5 statements
  • Economy 13 statements
  • Transport 6 statements
  • Law and order 5 statements
  • Children 3 statements. Two of the three deal with threats against children.
  • Education 3 statements
  • Other policies 4 statements,

This simple list tells us that the Liberal Party thinks that we are especially concerned with the economy, health, water, transport and the environment. We are also a fearful people, worried about threats to our person and property (law and order), concerned to keep our children safe especially from sexual attack.

Labor Party policies display a somewhat similar pattern. Herein lies the rub for the opposition.

So long as all parties adopt the supermarket approach to politics with its focus on what people think they want at the time of the election, then (like Coles and Woolworths) the overall structure of their policies are going to look similar. The fight then becomes to differentiate in some way.

A Government with its greater knowledge, experience and resources will always have an advantage in such battles. Continuing the supermarket analogy, it's a bit like a small independent competing against a super market chain.

Take law, order and child protection as an example, an area that Mr Debnam seems to think especially important at present.

As the independent supermarket, Mr Debnam introduces a new section in his store called law and order with several offerings. The nearby chain already has a similar section. In response to the independent it puts a few new signs up, modifies the lay out a bit, maybe introduces a new line if it feels the independent is gaining traction. Essentially, the chain can respond reactively and wait for the other side to make mistake.

If we now look at the policy statements as a whole, we find a complete absence of any overarching statement linking them all together. There is no central policy statement. The Liberal Party is not Robinson Crusoe. The same thing applies to Labor and the Nationals.

Traditionally, the leader's speech at the official launch of the campaign provides an overarching framework. This year in a new development in NSW supermarket politics, NSW Premier Iemma replaced the usual campaign launch with a low key affair in his electorate, while Liberal Leader Debnam decided to have no launch at all. Only the Nationals, always a bit old fashioned, had something approaching traditional campaign launch

This absence of general policy statements carried through into the policy categories. Each category contains a number of specific policy proposals sitting there on their own. When we look at each, we find that they focus on one or more promises as to action. We as voters have somehow to find a way to compare all these bits with the Government's equivalent to decide what we want.

The Government is not much better.

The now much advertised NSW State Plan is meant to provide a framework for Government action and to some degree it does. But the Plan is not really a Plan at all, rather a series of activities and key performance indicators grouped under themes. There is no real overarching statement providing a broader framework and vision, the nexus between the Plan and on-ground needs, problems and opportunities is not well established, the selected KPIs are partial leaving gaps. The Plan is especially weak when it comes to economic development.

Voters face exactly the same problem as they do with the Opposition policies except more so because there is so much more to try to read. I would wager that I am one of the very few people who has actually read the State Plan in its entirety.

The replacement of the politics of policy and ideas with that of strategies and action plans, the immiseration of policy, impoverishes politics because it focuses discussion on particular issues in isolation from each other and from broader approaches. We get lost in the detail, reducing our ability to make real judgements.

As part of this, the playing field is tilted against the opposition because its strategies and action plans - its range of supermarket offerings - must necessarily be less developed. We can see this in the interminable discussion about the costing of promises.

Governments can use their Departments including the Treasury or Finance Department to cost their proposals and the opposition proposals. Oppositions have to rely on limited internal resources, public information or hired specialist support to cost promises, so their ability to cost and to reply to Government costings is necessarily costrained. By chosing to play supermarket politics, oppositions lock themselves into a game that is hard for them to win.

How did this supermarket politics emerge?

There have been political promises to individuals or groups since human beings first invented government. Governments of all types depend upon a combination of rewards and coercion to stay in power. One of the strengths of democracy is that it provides a structured, peaceful way of terminating a government.

So when I talk about supermarket politics I am talking about the way in which rewards and coercions are presented to the public for their choice, about the replacement of one approach by another.

In a post last November I explored, as part of my on-going discussion on public administration, the New Zealand model of public administration. I noted that this highly structured model had been introduced into Australia by the NSW Griener Liberal National Government and had become institutionalised. I also noted that the application of the model was driven by the Government's ideological stance. Here I said:

"The Greiner Government saw itself as a market driven reform Government sweeping away the detritus of the past along the lines already pioneered in the UK and New Zealand. Mr Greiner himself defined the role of the Government in terms of economic and management efficiency. The role of Government was good management in financial terms and in the delivery of services."

This remains the NSW approach. Essentially, we have combined the New Zealand model of public administration with managerialism where things are thought of not in broad way but in terms of management, including heavy borrowing from perceived private sector management techniques.

The problem with this is that it focuses on process, itself a modern phenomenon, leaving a gap when it comes to broader objectives. This gap has been filled by the supermarket approach to policy, itself an approach that fits with this ethos because of its focus on electors as consumers of services.

The difficulties created for effective public policy are accentuated by the media, especially TV.

The media lacks the time to analyse complex activity structures. Journalists look at something like the NSW plan, skim it, write a general story, and then put it away. An increasing proportion of socially important Government activities actually go unreported because there is no context that journalists can use to make their report simple without more work than they have time for, too little time or space to put the final story across.

Our political parties, and especially our opposition parties, are now caught in a trap that they helped create. They crave publicity. To get it, they have to shorten and narrow, find something that will make news. So their communications programs focus on stunts and photo ops, on a small number of messages. Keep on message is a modern mantra. Real policy making and messages gets lost.

Can we do something about all this? I believe that we can, but that is a matter for another post.


Lexcen said...

My lack of enthusiasm for voting seems to be justified doesn't it?

Jim Belshaw said...

I can understand your position, Lexcen Just as well we have compulsory voting!