Morrison is right about one thing – we’re sick of the drama


“We continue to find compelling evidence of an increasing trust divide between government and citizen, reflected in the decline of democratic satisfaction, receding trust in politicians, political parties and other key institutions (especially media) and lack of public confidence in the capacity of government to address public policy concerns,” the researchers concluded.

Bottom line: we’ve never expected so much of government, nor trusted it less to deliver what we want. No wonder we’re grumpy.

Some scepticism in the ability of government to deliver desired outcomes is warranted, according to research released last week by the newDemocracy Foundation and spearheaded by former NSW treasury secretary Percy Allan. Just 30 per cent of a sample of 40 major policy decisions by state and federal governments over the past two years meet the project’s independent test following a sound decision-making process, including properly identifying a problem, considering alternative solutions and developing a plan for implementation.

“The results over the last two years mean that most policymaking is kept in the dark, which defies our ‘right to know’,” says Allan, who is calling on all politicians to commit to subjecting all contentious policy measures to a green and white paper process.

It’s a message Prime Minister Scott Morrison has begun paying lip service to, at least. Speaking to the Business Council of Australia on Wednesday night, Morrison downplayed the need for extra economic stimulus through bigger or sooner tax cuts.

“A responsible and sensible government does not run the country as if it is constantly at DEFCON1 the whole time, whether on the economy or any other issue. It deals with issues practically and soberly.” Hear, hear, Prime Minister.

Unfortunately, Morrison could not control his instinct for political point-scoring, going on to accuse Labor of being “panic merchants” during the global financial crisis by delivering stimulus he described as a “desperate, one off, short-term sugar hit”.

In reality, when your entire global financial system is staring into the abyss, some counter-cyclical measures are warranted. But Morrison is also right to distinguish that, while global uncertainty abounds today, the trigger for immediate fiscal stimulus is less clear.

Today, our problems of slow growth and moribund wages are far more structural than cyclical. In light of that, Morrison is right – for now at least – to reject calls to sacrifice a return to budget surplus for emergency pre-Christmas tax cuts.

Overall, Morrison strikes a chord when he diagnoses that Australians are sick of the “drama”. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also want solutions to the more pressing challenges of our time, including climate change, a shifting taxation base and missing real wages growth.

Forgive me if I read some deeper meaning in Morrison’s commentary that he is, indeed, serious about overseeing a return to a more rigorous policymaking environment, one in which policy problems are clearly identified and explained to the public, competing solutions are canvassed in consultation with interested parties, and an agreed solution is landed upon, clearly explained and implemented. Following such a process is no guarantee of ultimate policy success – just look at carbon pricing. But policymaking is almost guaranteed to fail if you don’t at least try it.

In his comments to government economists, Kennedy urged them to remain “humble” about their abilities. But the tool set of economists – of considering trade-offs and identifying unintended consequences – is just the thing needed in today’s frenzied environment of urgent calls for instant action across myriad policy areas. It’s a delicate balancing act between consideration and action but one we must do better at, as a nation, if we are to stop the binge-and-purge cycle of policymaking of recent times.

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In education we place great emphasis on teaching children to develop “executive function” skills, including the ability to control impulses, think before they act, see alternative perspectives and problem solve.

It’s not unreasonable to expect our governments to display such qualities, too. We can only hope they will begin to do better.

Jessica Irvine is a senior writer.

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