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Only real experience can fix real-world woes

Date

Stephen Bartos

Former West Australian Premier Geoff Gallop.

Former West Australian Premier Geoff Gallop. Photo: Quentin Jones

Geoff Gallop is a rare species of academic. He actually knows about his field from direct experience rather than from a distance. Currently professor and director of the graduate school of government at the University of Sydney, Gallop was premier of Western Australia from 2001 to 2006. His insights into government and politics are always valuable because of this duality of experience. A collection of his speeches and lectures has now been gathered into one volume, Politics, Society, Self.

It is not a book that will endear Gallop to traditional academics. Australia, in common with other English-speaking countries, has too many academics who scorn real-world policy problems and implementation of solutions. Last year, both the then head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, and a previous head, Professor Peter Shergold, made public comments to the effect that academics were next to useless in advising governments. Although the ACT is blessed with a larger than usual proportion of academics engaged in real-world problem-solving, the old culture that Moran and Shergold described - which celebrates the trivial and irrelevant over the helpful and applied - is still apparent in many universities around the country. Generalisations, though, are always subject to exceptions, and Gallop is a prime example.

Most of the pieces in this book are speeches, and so are accessible and readable. They avoid jargon and obfuscation. They are also wide-ranging, including not only politics but globalisation, the internal workings of government and the public service, federalism, multiculturalism and well-being. That breadth of interests in itself contains a useful lesson for public servants. The development of good policy requires wide and general experience rather than narrow specialisation. The experience in countries that have delegated policymaking to technocrats has been mostly unhappy. Too close a knowledge of subject matter blinds policymakers to wider social implications of the policies for which they are responsible. As a rule, specialism fails. Doctors are not good at running hospitals or health departments; educators, even if they succeed brilliantly as school principals, tend to struggle if faced with running education departments. This is another huge generalisation with many exceptions: talented people can sometimes escape the limits imposed by their training and succeed even if they do not generalise. Even so, it is notable that many of our best public-sector administrators are to be found in departments that have nothing to do with their first technical speciality.

One of the reasons why the amalgamation of departments in 1987 led to an outpouring of innovative and effective policy was that it broadened the span of issues that senior managers handled. The amalgamations reduced the number of different federal departments from 28 to about 18 (there is always dispute about the exact number, because opinions differ on whether Veterans' Affairs was a separate department). The lessons from that time were that the most successful departments were the ones that introduced their senior people to new and different areas of responsibility rather than maintaining silos. Being able to consider issues from different points of view led to better, more inclusive and responsive policy development.

The Ahead of the Game reform report has contradictory views on the question, possibly reflecting different authors. In parts, it advocates diversity and a broad range of experience, but in others it advocates specialisation. In particular, it makes the mistake of asserting that ''strategic policy analysis requires specific skills, such as econometric modelling, statistical data analysis and stakeholder engagement'' without apparently noticing that good policy also requires a knowledge of life more broadly, including non-technical aspects such as morality and ethics.

That is where Gallop is most worth careful reading. Throughout the book, the underlying purpose of government is emphasised. He writes best when he reflects on issues such as the ingredients of a healthy community (strong, purposeful government and active citizenship, including reducing discrimination and prejudice) and understanding what produces well-being.

He is also prepared, unlike most writers about government and the public sector, to reflect on personal questions. It is well known that Gallop stepped down as West Australian premier after he experienced severe depression, and he is open about that in many of these speeches. One of the most evocative sections addresses this directly, where ''prejudice and melancholy feed off each other like psychological twins … the more the concealment, the more the depression''. He is honest not only about himself but about how government should work. It is clear from reading this book that he has an abiding belief in the ability of government and the public service to effect positive change. At its heart, government has a moral purpose: to make people's lives better. If we take that as a starting point, it logically follows that honesty must be part of governing well. Honesty is a marker of underlying moral strength and purpose.

Honesty, however, is sometimes difficult to find. In the third century BC, the philosopher Diogenes wandered around carrying a lamp in broad daylight. When asked why, he said he was searching for an honest man, and had yet to find one. He would be in his element on Capital Hill today. The tightly scripted world of sound bites and staged media appearances that pervades politics is the antithesis of honest communication. We sometimes see something different - for example, Prime Minister Julia Gillard's extended press conference last month that threw open any and all questions on her past life as a lawyer, or Liberal frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull's eulogy for his friend, Robert Hughes - but such moments are far too rare. The public service has also seen a trend to less open and honest communication. These days, formal speeches from senior public servants (juniors are no longer let off the leash in most departments) have all the excitement and pizzazz of wet blotting paper. Pre-prepared and highly digested lines conceal rather than reveal the truth.

Indeed, if there is a weakness in Gallop's collection, it is that some of the pieces that were delivered as public speeches lack personal connections. For example, the rather important question ''how healthy is Australian federalism?'' is not resolved, ending on further questions rather than answers. An insider's perspective on the realities of Commonwealth-state and interstate relations may have led to clearer answers. With any luck, Gallop might be persuaded in time to prepare an annotated version that reveals more. That may mean waiting until all his key counterparts have left the political stage; he's clearly not out to stir up politics with this book, but to stir up ideas about how best to run our national institutions.

Stephen Bartos is the executive director of ACIL Tasman and a former senior public servant.

s.bartos@aciltasman.com.au

Politics, Society, Self, Geoff Gallop (UWA Publishing, 2012). RRP: paperback $29.95, ebook $14.99.

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