Gary Banks: Policy must transcend the spin cycle

ScreenHunter_368 Nov. 21 16.25

By Leith van Onselen

Speaking at the Institute of Public Administration annual conference in Canberra yesterday, the former head of the Productivity Commission, Gary Banks, criticised “a decade in which spin has often triumphed over substance in policy making”, lambasting a range of poorly thought-out government policies that have come “out of the blue”, introduced without proper stake holder consultation. From the AFR:

Professor Banks blamed the continued “efficiency dividend” cuts to public service departments for forfeiting a critical mass of policy expertise…

The rise of the ministerial office and the 24/7 media cycle were also key contributors along with the advent of opposition-ism and the erosion of public servants speaking, he said…

“Anyone exposed to the news in recent times could hardly have missed stories of policy appearing to come out of the blue such as the baby bonus, future fund, ban on cattle exports to Indonesia and the National Broadband Network,” he said…

There had also been the avoidance of long established and well regarded practices such as regulatory impact statements and the bypassing of Cabinet scrutiny…

It’s difficult not to agree with the thrust of Banks’ critique.

When I worked at the Australian Treasury in the early-to-mid 2000s, I encountered a number of staff complaining how a bunch of budget measures (read pork barreling) had been introduced at the 11th hour, without Cabinet scrutiny,  just prior to the release of the Federal Budget. Similar practices are rumoured to have occurred under the Rudd Government, including the introduction of the First Home Buyers’ Boost in the wake of the GFC (apparently against Treasury’s advice), in addition to the ill-fated introduction of the Resources Super Profits Tax, which despite being a good idea, was introduced without proper community consultation and thereby implemented poorly (these are obviously only a few examples).

Banks is also correct to highlight the downsides of the 24-hour media cycle. Over the past six years, politicians from both sides seem to have spent much more time and effort “massaging” their message and responding to the latest media attack, rather than just getting on with the job and developing sound policy.

I have often wondered whether the big micro-economic reforms of the mid-1980s and early-1990s would even be possible today. Back then, before the rise of the internet and “instant media”, politicians only had to contend with a few television and radio bulletins a day and generally only one news print, leaving them plenty of time to get on with the job.

By contrast today, those reforms would likely have faced constant attack from vested interests and opposition political parties, likely resulting in many of the reforms being either watered down or abandoned altogether, in favour of populism.

That said, it is wrong to merely blame the 24-hour news cycle on the policy black hole that seems to have infected Australian politics. Political parties are equally responsible, too often choosing to feed the media beast, increasing its influence in the process. The former Rudd/Gillard Labor Governments were legendary at this, and it arguably contributed to their downfall once their lofty expectations of returning the Budget to surplus (amongst other things) – spruiked en masse through a hungry media – could not be met.

It’s a cycle that must end, particularly given the serious challenges facing the nation as the once-in-a-century mining boom fades and the population ages.

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