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Quarterly Essay Political Amnesia Dark

EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Politics in Australia has become inane and ugly because we have forgotten the lessons of the past. Politicians, advisers, public servants and the media have developed political and policy amnesia and that's putting the nation's future in danger.

That's the thesis of the latest quarterly essay written by the financial review's political editor Laura Tingle.
She argues that a glimpse at recent history would surely have guarded the Abbott Government against making the same mistakes as Labor. She finds it equally puzzling that while so many senior members of the current government lived through the Howard years, some of them as Cabinet ministers, they didn't absorb any insights into how government works and how to get things done. Laura Tingle joins us from Canberra, welcome back to 'Lateline'


EMMA ALBERICI: Very well. Now the essay reads like a bit of a celebration of the public service, a much maligned public service that it is bloated - a perception rather that it is bloated, and inefficient and the private sector knows always how to do things better. How did we get to this point?

LAURA TINGLE: Well I think there are a whole range of interconnected changes in the public service, Emma, which partly reflect the view that the public service is always bad, the private sector always knows better, so in addition to the sort of much more regularly cited issue of politicisation of the public service, a lot of private sector ideas were brought into the public service, which is a really good idea, you are always looking for a more efficient way of doing things, but I think the result has been not what people wanted.

You had for example a lot of contracting out whether it was the old Commonwealth employment service becoming the job network, Indigenous affairs is largely contracted out to not-for-profit providers, a lot of aged care - all of those things are a great idea except it means that public servants at one end become contract managers rather than service deliverers, and that influences their capacity to provide advice to Executive Government at a time when the Executive Government is starting to, through its own advisers, start to assert its right and its capacity to make policy without the input of a public service, so you end up with a public service that can't really give government what is used to be able to give.

EMMA ALBERICI: The rot you say really started to set in during the Howard era?

LAURA TINGLE: I actually date it a long way back to the beginning of, or to the Whitlam Government, really.

EMMA ALBERICI: Well, yes, but you say it got a lot worse in Howard.


EMMA ALBERICI: You say it started with the Whitlam era because they were so, I think I'm quoting you correctly, this he were so suspicious of the former 23 years of Coalition governments?

LAURA TINGLE: Yes, you had the rise of the political officers, the political advisers up on, or what is now up on the hill, but in the Old Parliament House, but certainly during the Howard Government period, you did have this trend to contracting out, you had the night of the long knives which sort of gave in the public service where six public service heads lost their heads, and it started to create this real atmosphere of quavering fear, if you like, about people's futures, and apart from the sort of scariness of all those things, you had these changes in the way the public service worked so that people would move around departments, they were no longer rewarded for being experts on particular policy areas, they were rewarded for moving between departments. The more departments you had on your CV, the better.

EMMA ALBERICI: There are a number of questionable claims that you say have become political truisms over the years. Government debt is always bad, contracting out is good, government regulation is just irritating red tape which is bad, privatisation is good. In what way are those assertions at odds with political history?

LAURA TINGLE: I think - I don't know that they are at odds with political history, but I think it's one of those things where we unthinkingly just presume these to be the case, and you would look at what's happening with the current government, the new, new government, at the moment with regulation. In the first couple of years under Tony Abbott, we had regulation repeal Day and the big macho sort of measure of that was how many pieces of regulation you removed. Now, it didn't matter whether it was good to remove pieces of regulation or bad, the idea was just to get as rid of as many as possible. Now, under the Turnbull regime there is a different approach to that which is to say; well, what is the regulation, how does it interact with the other pieces of regulation, what is the actual impact if we remove it, why did we actually put it here in the first place?
So it's not necessarily that you don't privatise, but you actually think holistically about what the impact of things might be.

Similarly, nobody likes budget deficits particularly, nobody likes government debt, but there is a very strong argument that if you can use it selectively for infrastructure purposes, as the current government is now saying it is going to do with the Northern Territory, or with Northern Australia which may or may not be a good idea, if it's used for producing better productive outcomes in the economy, it isn't necessarily a bad thing.

EMMA ALBERICI: On Indigenous affairs which you just referenced, you do write that pretty much for 20 years there has been kind of policy paralysis because of this kind of trend to attack institutions?

LAURA TINGLE: Well, that's right I think certainly when John Howard came in, you will remember that there was - well, maybe your viewers won't remember, if my theory is right, but if John Howard came in, there was a big attack on ASIC, ASIC as a self-governing body for Indigenous people certainly did have its problems but there was the charges of corruption and incompetence, ATSIC was dismantled. But so were a lot of the other Indigenous organisations that basically ran black Australia, sort of land councils, corporations that would run particular communities and with the dismantling of those sorts of groups you lost a lot of institutional memory and capacity within the Indigenous community.

Now, in its place, what we've gradually seen this is introduction of a lot of not-for-profit groups. As Noel Pearson says in the monthly a few months ago, basically it is a white industry but nobody charges them with corruption or incompetence, but if you actually look into the sorts of numbers involved in the services they provide, they can be charging fairly outrageous fees for different sorts of social services. But there is no sort of scrutiny of Indigenous Affairs anymore, and it is a bit of an unknown quantity to most people about what it is we are actually trying to achieve. Wasn't there an emergency a few years ago? Have we still got the emergency? We don't know. Is that the only guiding light of policy? Is it Noel Pearson's strategy? There is no sort of coherent view about what we are trying to achieve here.

EMMA ALBERICI: The other interesting thing you pointed out about the Howard years was that economic reform sort of took a back seat to a focus on social and cultural issues such that it's this sort of idea of political correctness emerged?

LAURA TINGLE: John Howard, in the time he was particularly when he was Opposition Leader immediately before he became prime minister, used to talk about political correctness and he was talking about political correctness of the Left, in current terminology, and suddenly it was no - it wasn't fashionable to talk about Indigenous affairs or social security issues or any of those sorts of things, but I...

EMMA ALBERICI: I think you say you are a bleeding heart if you mention any of those, or you are a Lefty.

LAURA TINGLE: You are a Lefty or a mainstream Australian, so being a Lefty is now the term of terrible denigration, whereas in the Hawke era, it was being a neo-con or economic drive.

EMMA ALBERICI: Unfortunately we're out of time. Laura Tingle, thank you so much.

LAURA TINGLE: Thanks Emma.

The importance of history and memory is at the heart of Laura Tingle’s stimulating new Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How To Govern. Tingle’s central claim is that a lack of historical knowledge is one of the main problems in contemporary Australian politics.

This “growing political and policy amnesia”, Tingle writes, is a key reason for Australian politics becoming:

… not only inane and ugly but dangerous.

Why has this happened?

This amnesia is the result of a variety of institutional changes, including the declining influence of public servants on policy formulation and the increasing power of ministerial advisers.

Tingle points out that the presence of ministerial advisers is not in itself a problem. In the Hawke government, for example, advisers had an important role. But the relationship between ministers and the public service was more balanced and effective:

Hawke insisted his ministers should have bureaucrats in their offices, specifically as chiefs of staff. It kept open the links with the public service in both directions. Ministers’ offices understood the public service. The public service understood their ministers.

However, various other developments have upset the balance between ministers and public servants. Senior public servants do not enjoy the security of tenure they previously did. Tingle suggests that the Howard government’s “night of the long knives” – when the new prime minister sacked six departmental secretaries – was a crucial turning point.

In addition, public servants now more frequently face attack in parliamentary committees. The end result is a “toadying culture” in a “cowed” public service.

Even if public servants were in a position to be giving “frank and fearless” advice, though, it seems unlikely that ministers would welcome it. Tingle quotes a former senior public servant who describes the Howard government’s approach to the public service in its later years as:

We’ll do the thinking, you just implement it.

The result is that ministers make decisions without the benefit of proper advice.

These developments have been exacerbated by a loss of expertise and institutional memory in the public service as a result of cutbacks, redundancies and contracting out. One indication of this is that “the median length of service of ‘ongoing’ public servants in mid-2014 was 9.4 years”.

This means that governments – and younger and less experienced public servants – lose the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of senior figures who can remember what happened not just under the last government, but governments before that.

Changes in the media have also contributed to the problem of political amnesia. Tingle is at pains to emphasise that partisan coverage and populism are not new features of the media landscape. However, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the speed with which information can be communicated have led to a focus on immediacy and getting the “inside story” rather than in-depth reporting of policy issues.

This problem is exacerbated by the tendency for press gallery journalists to be generalists, rather than specialists concentrating on a particular policy area.

What effect has it had on politics and policy?

Many of the institutional developments Tingle highlights will be familiar to followers of Australian politics. But her essay demonstrates an impressive ability to tie these developments together to explain recent political events.

One of the essay’s most welcome features is its focus on the deeper structural forces at work. It is easy to blame the leadership instability and sometimes-chaotic approach to policymaking in recent years on the personality faults of the key figures involved – Kevin Rudd’s focus on control, Tony Abbott’s unrelenting oppositional stance.

The greater worry, though, is that our leaders’ personalities are not solely responsible for these developments; deeper structural forces are contributing to these problems. That leadership instability has also occurred at state and territory level, which Tingle does not cover in her essay, seems to add support to this view.

As with any essay on contemporary political events, there are some points of contention. In particular, Tingle argues that commentators were misguided to draw parallels between Julia Gillard’s challenge to Rudd in 2010 and Malcolm Turnbull’s challenge to Abbott five years later.

Tingle highlights important differences between the two cases. This includes the role of relatively inexperienced factional chiefs in the move against Rudd and the speed with which he was replaced, in contrast to Abbott’s more drawn-out demise and that senior Liberal frontbenchers primarily drove his ousting. Turnbull was also able to explain immediately why he had challenged.

Nonetheless, there are also clearly important similarities between the two deposed first-term prime ministers. Given Tingle’s overall argument, these similarities may well be more important than the differences. Both Rudd and Abbott adopted highly centralised approaches to government and were criticised by colleagues for failing to follow proper processes.

These problems reflect the broader trends Tingle highlights, which pre-date both leaders. However, the problems seem more pronounced in the cases of Rudd and Abbott than they did with John Howard and Gillard.

This is not to claim that a thorough policy process was always followed under Howard and Gillard, or to deny that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wielded enormous power under both leaders. But their approach to the procedural aspects of policymaking did not seem to attract the same degree of criticism as Rudd and Abbott faced.

This might be regarded as a small positive. It suggests that the personal approach adopted by individual leaders can still make a difference to the way government operates, despite the structural forces Tingle outlines.

The demise of Rudd and Abbott also highlights the political dangers facing prime ministers as a result of these structural changes.

Prime ministers now have the ability to dominate the government’s policy agenda in a way they previously did not. However, this power is highly contingent on their personal popularity. Colleagues are likely to put up with a highly centralised approach if a prime minister has recently led the party to a major election win and is doing well in the opinion polls.

But once a leader’s popularity drops, this ceases to insulate them from their colleagues’ resentment. Their control over the government also means they are likely to bear the brunt of responsibility for major policy failures.

It is worth pondering whether the problems resulting from the structural changes Tingle identifies extend beyond political amnesia to a basic failure to properly think through policy in advance and expose ideas to debate.

The centralisation of power in the PMO, insecure tenure for senior public servants and increasingly superficial reporting in the mainstream media have made it easier for those in positions of power to avoid engaging in serious critical discussion and debate over the policies they are putting forward.

The problem is therefore not simply about a lack of institutional memory. It is a broader failure to recognise the value of debate and dissent.

Debate, serious discussion and deliberation are valued highly in a democracy not just for their own sake, but because they are considered essential to testing the quality of ideas and arguments.

Increasingly, decision-makers in Canberra and beyond seem to have forgotten this age-old lesson of democratic politics. The quality of policymaking in Australia may be strengthened if they begin to remember it.