Monday, March 01, 2010

Mr Rudd's mea culpa and the way ahead

The air waves and print media here have ben full of Prime Minister Rudd's mea culpa. I quote from the Australian:

The Prime Minister yesterday issued an extraordinary public mea culpa, admitting the government needed to lift its game and that it deserved the "pounding" it was taking "because we haven't been up to the mark so far".

Reactions have been quite varied, as you might expect.

From my viewpoint, the critical issue now is the approach taken by the Government to address the performance problems that Mr Rudd has identified.

My own criticisms have run along two lines.

First, that the Government's desire to do new things first risked and then did out-run the capacity of the supporting systems to deliver. There was another straw in the wind on this today, with the release of a previously confidential report on the operations of the Commonwealth Attorney General's Department completed in January 2009 by Roger Beale.  

This apparently concluded that the critical issue was the weakening of the first law officer role of the Attorney-General.

"As first law officer, the attorney has a special responsibility to ensure that the cabinet acts on the basis of sound legal advice, that the commonwealth is a model litigant and that the attorney's quasi-judicial powers are used with a degree of independence from political considerations," his report states.

"To discharge this role effectively, the attorney, and the Solicitor-General on whom he or she relies, must have first-rate professional legal support. It is no longer possible for AGD to provide that."

The report warned AGD's legal capacity had been "substantially diminished" by the decision to commercialise and outsource government legal work.

This process began under the Howard Government, leading Attorney General Robert McClelland to say to the Beale review that he had been frustrated by the lack of progress on key priorities during the government's first year and felt unsupported on issues of legal and constitutional reform.

While some internal changes have been made since, it seems that key issues arising from the review have yet to be fully addressed.

My second criticism lay in the faults that I saw in the structure of the policies themselves and in the mechanisms adopted for delivery.

Both issues need to be addressed if performance is to be improved.

The Rudd Government is actually in a very difficult position for which I have a degree of sympathy. With major reforms, there is often a timing issue if things are to work.

To cite a personal case, I once talked my then Minister out of providing certain support for the Australian aerospace industry. My argument was that the industry was going through a change process and that this had a little way to go before the proposed support would generate best results. The optimum time for that support would be twelve to eighteen months out.

My logic was impeccable. The only problem was that by the next budget round, Canberra power structures had shifted making the major funding required impossible to get. We had missed our chance, in so doing greatly reducing the opportunities for the local industry to play a significant and growing role within the global aerospace industry.

To a degree but on a much larger scale, this is what has happened to the Rudd Government. The need to take action on the global financial crisis, action that did help shield Australia from the worst effects of the crisis, now constrains the Government's ability to do new things.

The current budget round is difficult, the next one will be more so. The Government simply will not be able to do all the things that it wanted or indeed promised to do. The world has changed.

I make this point because I think that people need to recognise the changed circumstances, to give the Government some slack, to change the focus of policy discussions. We need a renewed discussion on the future, less on the current and the past.  


I hadn't seen Neil's post, Kevin Rudd bares all…, when I posted this. It adds to what I said. And it is nice (blush!) to have one of my old post recognised in this way!  

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