'Tis the season ... for daft policy ideas

It often seems that proximity to Christmas fosters public policy ideas veering between the muddled and the goofy. Public administration is not immune from this syndrome if 2012 is anything to go by. As the anniversary looms of an event Christians believe heralds a ''narrative'' culminating in nothing less than the redemption of all creation, bits and pieces of public policy go haywire. The season of joy becomes a season of silliness.

In this contest, the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has an honourable spot. He, of course, is trying to convert himself into an apostle of virtuous policy leading the country into a new golden age. He's bequeathed much of the labour of political ordure flinging, at which he's been close to world's best practice, to his deputy, Julie Bishop, who as every day goes by becomes more and more like her spiritual grandmother, Bronwyn Bishop. If Julie's vendetta continues to fail to bring forth significant evidence of wrongdoing by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, she'll be marooned up the creek in the obsessive society of those journalist fellow travellers, especially from the Murdoch press, whose imaginations to date have exceeded their investigatory abilities.

Back to Abbott. Early last month, he released a discussion paper on deregulation. Purged of its tendentious rhetoric, it's not a bad effort. It points to numerous regulations whose public benefit may well be less than the costs of compliance and enforcement, and it suggests a number of ways the burden might be lightened. Then it stubs its toe by raising the possibility of linking the ''remuneration of senior executive service public servants, including future pay increases and bonuses, to quantified and proven reduction in red tape'' and ''making the meeting of annual red tape reduction targets a key performance criterion to be considered in determining the reappointment of departmental secretaries''.

While some public servants may revel in regulation, and goodness knows there are more than enough at the senior levels to do so, the ultimate authors of government regulation are ministers and the Parliament. Indeed, while trumpeting the deregulatory cause, the blushless Abbott has opposed the deregulation of the wheat industry, where the benefits of legislative shackles are almost certainly outweighed by their costs. Thus, if Abbott succeeds in his opposition to the wheat industry deregulation bill and if his regime linking SES pay to deregulation targets had been in place, officials in the relevant departments would presumably be punished for actions out of their control. In short, the incentives Abbott seeks to create for officials are perverse and they should be dropped like hot spuds.

If Abbott wishes to reintroduce performance pay - one of the great failures in the recent history of the Australian Public Service - that should be based on public servants' whole jobs and on things within their control.

Meanwhile, in an interview last month with Professor John Alford, the former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran, was asked: ''If you were king for a day, what changes would you make to the public service?'' He replied in part: ''I'd have more involvement for parliamentary committees in considering proposed appointments of departmental and agency heads before the appointments were submitted through the head of government to the governor-general [or to] a state or territory administrator. This would have the effect of establishing an individual's professional credentials for a job and relative security for the duration of the appointment.''


What possibly could have stimulated Moran's bolt from the blue? Perhaps it's the provision in the United States constitution requiring certain appointments to gain the ''consent'' of two-thirds of senators.

In Federalist Paper No.76, one of the great practitioner-theorists of enlightenment government, Alexander Hamilton, supported this provision, saying ''it would be an excellent check upon the spirit of favouritism in the president''. He also said, however, that ''in every exercise of the power of appointing to offices by an assembly of men, we must expect to see a full display of all the private and party likings and dislikings, partialities and antipathies, attachments and animosities, which are felt by those who compose the assembly. The choice which may at any time happen to be made under such circumstances will of course be the result either of a victory gained by one party over the other, or a compromise between the parties. In either case, the intrinsic merit of the candidate will too often be out of sight.'' What good points.

If Hamilton were to come back now and see how his apprehensions about the ''advice and consent'' provisions have been realised in spades, it would be surprising if he would still support them. He would not need to rely on Otto Preminger's 1960s film Advice and Consent to assess the farce; he could see it in real life with every nomination to the Supreme Court where, in the US Senate, relevant background and ability are often not as important as the position of nominees on abortion or other contentious political points.

Imagine how effective a parliamentary committee composed of Cory Bernardi (chairman), Kevin Rudd (deputy) and with Bronwyn Bishop, Bill Heffernan, Laurie Ferguson, Rachel Siewert and Doug Campbell as members would be in establishing ''an individual's professional credentials''? What a dreadful prospect.

Professional credentials are best assessed where partisan politics are excluded. That's the entire basis on which staffing in the APS is predicated and recent changes in procedures for the appointment of statutory office holders, including judges, were designed to minimise the risks of political manipulation. To have these appointments now considered by a parliamentary committee would, as in the US, politicise the process and subvert merit. Terry: please abandon your notion and move on.

And so to the government's white paper on the so-called ''Asian century''. There's much to admire in this paper. It's timely, well organised and expressed, and it provides a helpful frame within which Australia can engage more effectively with Asian countries. Its merits were nicely canvassed by Stephen Bartos in last month's Informant.

It takes a bluff self-confidence about the forthcoming 90 years to now proclaim the 21st century an Asian one.

When it comes to certain particulars, however, the white paper stumbles. ''Proficiency in more than one language is a basic skill in the 21st century,'' it asserts. For a large number of people, that is self-evidently not so and it's a hurdle the vast majority of federal parliamentarians would not get over. While the white paper makes some useful suggestions about what might be done in the public sector, it also says: ''One-third of the senior leadership of the Australian Public Service (APS 200) [whatever that is] will have deep experience and knowledge of Asia.'' The paper doesn't say how the one-third was derived; it appears as a proportion plucked from the air. This is not a sound way to express objectives. It smells of a sheep-dip approach to experience and qualifications. Would 25 per cent be failing, or 50 per cent succeeding too much?

The importance of ''deep experience and knowledge of Asia'' will vary, even at the most senior levels, across agencies. It should be assessed on needs, and success or failure should be judged on the extent to which those needs are satisfied. Grandiose, unsubstantiated objectives about the proportion of staff who should have any qualifications and skills are a recipe for waste, complacency and frustration. The requirements for senior staff should be defined and developed when and where they are needed, and if that means that 20 per cent or 50 per cent are well versed on Asia, then so be it.

Mention of the ''Asian century'' white paper gets to a concluding point: that is, the modern tendency of governments in particular to give documents, laws and organisations meaningless or misleading titles; a habit of disgraceful government regimes from whose ways we should keep a million miles distant.

It takes a bluff self-confidence about the forthcoming 90 years to now proclaim the 21st century an Asian one. Indeed, if the last century is anything to go by, it's unlikely that political, economic and cultural power will always predominantly pivot around Asian countries until 2100. Anyone predicting in 1912 that the 20th century would be an American one would have been disappointed that very many of the major events of that century were neither caused by nor occurred in the US. Trite phrases like the ''Asian century'' are unhelpful and may be misleading. Australia needs to engage strongly with Asian countries but it should do so with all others as circumstances demand.

The grim lesson of WorkChoices-type labelling has not been learned. Among hundreds of annoying examples, we are now plagued with Fair Work Australia, the Department of Finance and Deregulation (an oxymoron, surely), Quarantine Tasmania (but why?), the Australian Reward Investment Alliance (that's the old ComSuper, don't you know), a report in the ACT on occupational health and safety novelistically titled Getting Home Safely, and so on and so on. Please, stop this guff.

Here's a New Year's resolution for all Australian governments: ''We will give our organisations, laws and public documents meaningfully descriptive titles.'' Is that too much to ask?

Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant.


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