Of all the political three-card tricks in the pack, few are played with more undeserved success than claims of a "mandate", especially in election aftermaths. All major parties try it on; sometimes, they get away with it.
After the recent federal election, for example, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said: "Labor doesn't want Australians to have the tax cuts they voted for ... they're seeking to deny the will of the Australian people."
Not to be outdone, the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, said, rather less plausibly: "We have outlined an integrated energy and emissions policy that I believe has clarity of purpose, comprehensive coverage and now since the election, a clear mandate." For those who imagine the Coalition's climate-change policies to be not the full bottle, this is more a three-card trick with a fig-leaf variation.
Whatever, on taxation at least the government's mandate claims have attracted support from one of the country's finer political commentators, Michelle Grattan, who says that "when the Morrison government went to the polls with the tax package as its prime policy, it seems more than reasonable to say the Parliament should pass it". Annabel Crabb has thrown restraint to the winds, saying Morrison has "such a mandate" that he "genuinely can do whatever the hell he likes". Duh! Still, no matter how silly Crabb's extravagant sentiments, they may be affecting the Labor Party, with Tanya Plibersek conceding "you get a mandate for a term", and some of her colleagues suggesting that all of the Coalition's tax cuts should be let through Parliament.
Over the years, much ink has been spilled on the question of electoral mandates, although it's one of those topics where, the more that's said, the greater the confusion. So what's to be made of the new Morrison government's mandate claims?
Elections aren't referendums
The first and most obvious point is that elections are not referendums where voters are asked to say yes or no to a single, simple question to which they usually say no. At elections, parties and others on ballot papers put many matters before voters, whose decisions are affected by a great variety of influences - party/political loyalty, the liking and disliking of certain policies, desires for a change or no change, the side of the bed from which they arose on election day, and hundreds of other phobias, some of which may be rationally relevant. The point is that the pattern of these influences is mixed and obscure, and it is difficult to pin votes cast to particular, even major, parts of party platforms.
There's no genuine majority, anyway
Second, in the last election, the Coalition ended up with a narrow majority in the House of Representatives and well short of an absolute majority in the Senate. Of votes in the House, the Electoral Commission says the Coalition parties snared 41.44 per cent. Labor and the Greens got 43.74 per cent and One Nation 3.08 per cent. That is to say, most electors voted for parties that opposed the Coalition's tax policies or, in the case of One Nation, were at best agnostic. As it would be foolhardy to assume that the 12 per cent or so of voters for independents and other minor parties would have distributed their preferences on the basis of the Coalition's tax proposals, it's quite likely an absolute majority of voters didn't support them. What is more probable is that very many didn't so much vote for the Coalition's tax policies, the main effects of which will not be felt for another five years, as much as they voted against Labor's. If so, that would be congruent with the political axiom that there's more ingratitude in politics for threats to remove benefits than there is gratitude for giving them.
It's OK for oppositions to oppose
Third, the idea that claims of mandate should require oppositions to wave through any or all policies that victorious parties have paraded in an election campaign is an unsound political principle. Taken to its logical extension, it would dangerously confine the boundaries of political debate and competition between elections. Oppositions are supposed, in a rational and discriminating way, to oppose government policies as they see fit and to propose competing ones; the health of the democratic system depends on it. Moreover, oppositions can't reasonably be expected to suspend their beliefs on the basis of largely unprovable assertions that others were preferred at elections. Such irresolution would exact more than just a political price.
Of course electors have legitimate expectations that governments will do all they can to make good on their promises. It's difficult, however, to avoid the conclusion that claims of mandate are more to do with political game-playing than with the proper, inherent working of the political and government system in which the public can have trust. Certainly, the Senate shouldn't choke the operation of governments by refusing to pass budget bills for the supply of money, as happened in 1975. Apart from that, what governments can do should come down to what they can negotiate with the opposition, other parties and independents in either house of Parliament, especially when neither the Coalition nor Labor are ever likely to get absolute majorities of the vote in the House of Representatives. In that process, mandate claims should be treated as little more than rhetoric and dealt with accordingly. Indeed, the mixed will of people, as represented in parliaments where governments do not have full control, is, in a way, a reassuring feature of the way in which most democratic systems in the world must function. The only real mandate is the one that Parliament will allow.
Whatever Crabb might make of such speculations, the Coalition government will not be in anyway constrained by mandates about procedures and structures of the public service, as no such policies were in its recent election pitch. It will, however, have the opportunity to turn its mind to this important area when the David Thodey-led review of the public service hits its desk, apparently this month.
Fix this broken machinery
But even without the Thodey review, there are things big and small that the government should be doing. Prominent among these should be to reconsider the Home Affairs portfolio, which, in its short life, has brought a torrent of administrative and policy incompetence and pain to the government, some details of which were set out recently by former Immigration Department deputy secretary Abul Rizvi on the Inside Story website. The lamentable record is unsurprising, because it's hard to imagine the most malicious of inventors being able to cobble together a government organisation better designed to fail badly and continually. Having to administer Kevin Rudd's policy of conference torture as a means of deterring asylum seekers on boats may well be difficult, but it's not an excuse.
Professor John Blaxland, of the Australian National University's strategic and defence studies centre, was reported recently as comparing the creation of the Home Affairs portfolio to the amalgamation of the Defence departments in the 1970s. He went on to say that arguments in favour of Home Affairs "are hard to counter" and that it's now "not really viable to pull it apart". The professor is wrong on all three points.
No valid comparison can be made between the amalgamation of the Defence departments in the 1970s and the creation of Home Affairs. The Defence amalgamations had a solid rationale based clearly on sensible machinery-of-government principles, and they were concluded on the basis of thorough consultation and an intellectually reputable report. No such things can be said about Home Affairs, whose dominant motif is the whiff of empire-building for its own sake at both the political and bureaucratic levels. Such arguments as have been made in favour of Home Affairs, by ministers and the department's secretary, Mike Pezzullo, are nothing more than an intellectually vapid assortment of cliches that could effortlessly be demolished by a first-year student of public administration. And not viable to pick the organisation apart? Well, anyone with a faint knowledge of the Commonwealth's machinery of government will know that any organisation can be picked apart and, in the case of Home Affairs, doing so would be less risky in terms of policy, administrative and political costs than leaving things in their existing hapless condition.
Blaxland makes a better point, however, when he says the Home Affairs portfolio doesn't promote contestability of advice. But it's worse than that, for it seems as if the immense expansion of the security world and its mindset is degrading immigration policy and administration. How else could the portfolio, including its minister, Peter Dutton, seek to diminish immigration policy by withdrawing Australian citizenship from dual-nationals, sometimes incompetently, and by making it much more difficult for permanent residents to obtain citizenship via longer waiting times and tougher English and other tests? Even in national-security terms, these policies are perverse; they are ridiculous as sound immigration policy and practice.
Contestability of advice within government on national security is more than usually important because there's precious little questioning of government intentions in the public realm, where opposition parties will do anything not to appear "soft".
It's not so much that the Home Affairs structure doesn't, in Blaxland's words, "promote contestability of advice", it more likely constricts it; a shortcoming that may be exacerbated by the controlling impulses of the minister and his departmental secretary. If, for example, Pezzullo thinks it reasonable to phone crossbench senator Rex Patrick to tell him of the error of his ways (an action incurring the displeasure of the Prime Minister and Dutton), might persons within his organisation be subject to more bracing correctives should they not conform to the Pezzullo world view? That's not certain, but it would be nice to be told.
If the Thodey review is able to rise to the occasion, it should recommend a set of principles to help guide machinery-of-government decisions. If they're sensible, their application to the Home Affairs fiasco should, at a minimum:
- remove all immigration and citizenship functions to a new department of immigration and citizenship;
- return the ASIO and the federal police to the Attorney-General's portfolio; and
- create a statutory authority for customs and excise functions.
The timing of such changes could be determined by how much political pain and embarrassment the government is prepared to endure from keeping things as they are.
Big brother bullshit
While mulling over that, the government should act swiftly in the new Services Australia (aka the former Department of Human Services) to put an end to that organisation's intention to record and retain the computer screens of its relatively junior officials when they're taking phone calls. It seems this ghastly proposal is supposed to help with "feedback" to staff. If that's valid, surely there's no reason why the practice should not be applied universally, with ministers recording and retaining calls taken by their departmental secretaries.
This is just too absurd. Services Australia has spawned a child of robo-debt to spy on its staff. It's an echo of long discredited management habits based on misguided beliefs that organisational performance will be improved by morbidly close supervision. This gross misapplication of technology is an affront to decent personnel management, which will not work in its own terms and will not improve service to the public, whose details may also be recorded and retained. It's bullshit. The government should call it off, and those responsible for dreaming up such nonsense should have their personnel records appropriately annotated.
- Paddy Gourley is a former senior public servant. email@example.com