National

The Public Sector Informant

Good government requires useful information, not mere memories: review of Laura Tingle's 'Political Amnesia' Quarterly Essay

How do we 'fix' policymaking? Respect institutions, evaluate policies properly, and discuss them deeply and openly.

A little over a century ago, G. K. Chesterton wrote: "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

Illustration: Michael Mucci
Illustration: Michael Mucci 

Well told, history is always more exciting than the present. In her latest Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia, Laura Tingle demonstrates how a fine wordsmith can skip the dull bits, and compress the achievements of decades into a handful of pages. We're treated to the best insights of the postwar economic policymakers known as the "seven dwarfs". We hear about the creation of capital gains and fringe benefits taxes, over the objections of the naysayers. I challenge you to read Tingle's description of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating's achievements, and not want to carve their faces onto the side of Mount Ainslie.

As these stories unfold, we are treated to some gems. We'll never know precisely how much money was lost by the Howard government's decision to sell dozens of government buildings and then lease them back. But it should have been obvious to any economist that if you know you're going to occupy a site, then "sale and leaseback" makes little sense. When Australian property prices doubled, taxpayers footed the bill for the Howard government's ideological frolic.

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The essay also delivers the pithiest epitaph I've yet come across for the two years after the 2013 election: "Instead of a government that went about its business delivering sensible, articulated policy, voters got broken promises of a spectacular magnitude and a politics of three-word slogans, which seemed perpetually stuck in the mode of opposition." Try producing a better summary of the Abbott government than those 37 choice words.

Like Chesterton's "democracy of the dead" quote, there is much to love about Tingle's essay. And yet both leave me feeling slightly uneasy.

One reason for this is that Tingle's critique of the present sometimes overlooks aspects of the past. Casting an eye down the reference list, I was surprised to see that over half were 2015 publications – a surprisingly young set of citations for an essay that urges its readers to take history more seriously.

As the saying goes, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. Tingle puts considerable emphasis on leadership turnover in recent years. But if you look across all major political leaders – state and federal, opposition and government – it turns out that the big rise in instability was from the 1960s (when only 16 per cent lost their jobs every year) to the 1980s (when 27 per cent lost their jobs every year). Taken as a whole, Australian leadership turnover today isn't much higher than it was in the 1980s.

Similarly, when it comes to public servants, Tingle bemoans the fact that the median length of service in 2014 was "only" 9.4 years. What she doesn't tell us is that, in 1985, it was seven years. On this measure, the typical public servant has one-third more institutional memory today than a generation ago.

Related to this, it's hard to think of a significant Australian reform in which the public service has not been central. In 2012, the Grattan Institute named 10 major reforms over the past four decades that have underpinned our prosperity: Medicare; floating the dollar; tariff reduction; government enterprise privatisation; setting interest rates through the Reserve Bank; national competition policy; superannuation; broadening the income-tax base; the GST; and changes to the structure and funding of higher education. The public service underpinned every one of them.

The same goes for the big reforms in the years since: the national disability insurance scheme and our nation's short-lived emissions trading scheme. More generally, it's hard to imagine that Australia could have implemented a world-leading gun buy-back in 1997 or a fiscal stimulus package that averted recession in 2009 without the public service's deep engagement.

Of course, Tingle is right to bemoan the gutting of the Finance Department in the late-1990s, the partisan firings of senior public servants in 2013 and 2014, and the severe cuts to the Treasury in recent years. But the Australia Public Service remains a force to be reckoned with.

Tingle is spot on when she says our public service, the Parliament and media could benefit from "learning to remember" as a way out of what can sometimes seem like a Möbius loop of crisis. But I can't help feeling a little too much Chesterton through the essay – a sense that the hand of history sometimes presses a little too heavily. Just as Chesterton is too quick to dismiss the electorate as "those who merely happen to be walking about", Tingle's idealised world seems to have too many mandarins and too few mandates. Our political and policy institutions must reflect the challenges in front of us, even as they draw strength from the legacies that lie behind.

What, then, is to be done?

First, Tingle is right that a great public service is critical to Australia's future. When people say we have too many public servants, it's worth recalling that 18 per cent of Australian workers are employed by the public sector, well below the OECD average of 21 per cent. When right-wing think tanks say bureaucrats are overpaid, it helps to remember that the average level of education is significantly higher in the public service than the private sector. It's time to draw the curtain on talk of "meat axes" and "bloated" public services, and recognise that Australia has fewer federal public servants than we did eight years ago, despite the population being one-fifth larger. Whether you're a progressive who believes in the power of government to improve lives, or a conservative who honours institutions, the public service merits the respect of both sides of politics.

Second, we need to build a better feedback loop. At present, many evaluations of government programs are of such low quality that the taxpayer would be better served by not conducting them in the first place. While many other advanced countries are expanding their use of randomised evaluations, Australian evaluations rarely compare the intervention to a credible control group. It is one thing to remember that a program was piloted a decade ago. But if no high-quality evaluations were ever conducted, then there is little of practical value worth remembering. By contrast, early childhood policy across the world continues to build on high-quality randomised trials conducted in the United States in the 1960s, such as the Perry preschool program, the Abecedarian early intervention project, and the early training project. High-quality evaluations that show programs to be ineffective are equally useful. Unless we learn from past mistakes, we'll keep making them – and at great public expense.

Third, our institutions need to be more porous. Public servants benefit from international exchange programs, secondments to academia and stints in business. In my own case, a six-month secondment from the Australian National University to the federal Treasury allowed me to bring in academic ideas, and take back practical experience to inform my research. Both sides of politics ought to take a more relaxed approach towards public servants who have been seconded to work for a minister on "the other side". The public service could also make better use of expert advisory groups – with signed confidentiality statements where necessary – to engage on complex challenges. This will typically be far cheaper than outsourcing policy work to consultants, and helps strengthen the public service's policymaking capacity. The public service also needs to continually build its capacity to engage with the electorate, through a more open approach to data, publishing reports in formats the average voter might actually read and placing fewer restrictions on public servants' use of social media.

Yes, we need a polity that remembers. But we also need one that respects institutions, evaluates policies properly and engages in a deeper conversation about the great Australian project.

Andrew Leigh is a federal parliamentarian (member for Fraser and shadow assistant treasurer) and author. His latest book is The Luck of Politics.

Laura Tingle's Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia, was published in December 2015.