By Andrew L. Urban
Integrity. Transparency. Competence. If we apply these three KPIs (Key Performance Indicators in corporate jargon) to the Australian Government over the past 6 years of its Labour life, it is found wanting. Yet these are critical characteristics of good democratic government, especially if we apply competence in its complete meaning: the ability to efficiently manage the entire business of governing, budgeting and communicating.
The choice for voters in the 2013 Australian Federal election on September 7 will be about policy differences between Labour and the Coalition – but equally about these three KPIs. Both sides have embarked on a carbon dioxide abatement policy, as futile and foolish as this will prove to be*; both sides agree on the need for reform on education; and likewise in the area of support for the disabled; both sides wish to better control asylum seeker arrivals; both sides aim for a budget surplus sooner rather than later; and both sides want to make genuine progress in Aboriginal affairs. And no political party wants to oppress the poor or abandon the sick.
Having heard them all making almost identical statements about these issues in general terms (also known as motherhood statements) the difference in managing the detail of how to achieve the best outcomes in each of these policy areas is what voters will be asked to assess. (See Henry Ergas quote below.) The one significant policy clash is on the mining tax – or to be a bit more accurate, on what is intended by Labour to be a tax on super profits. On the evidence, Labour doesn’t understand either how the mining industry operates (or it wouldn’t have agreed to the guidelines with the three majors) nor was the policy developed into a rational argument. To make matters worse, the brawl resulted in misinforming much of the public, many of whom now seem to believe that miners pay no tax at all.
To have botched this opportunity when the mining companies actually agreed on the principle is a failure of competence on an unprecedented scale.
Well, perhaps not unprecedented: Labor’s ineptitude across three Prime Ministers in managing asylum seekers coming by small boats from Indonesia is sadly its equal.
These are not the only failures of competence; readers of this article will not need a detailed reminder of all the others, but economics commentators seem to have accepted that at least $10 billion has been wasted over the past 6 years in mismanagement of projects – not including the NBN Co, whose multi-billion dollar ‘waste report’ is still a work in progress.
On the KPI of transparency, a singular and telling failure was the Government’s decision to shelter the NBN Co behind a wall of secrecy by exempting it from the FOI laws. The NBN Co is also a running sore of incompetent management of Government projects, but then a Government owned monopoly is doomed to be both wasteful and incompetent. (Economics 101, right?)
As to the handling of the Australia Network tender, a lack of transparency, trashing of democratic process, absence of integrity and farcical levels of incompetence came together in a perfect storm. Not only did it look like a sketch comedy, it cost taxpayers an extra $2 million in compensation to Sky News – who would no doubt have preferred to have taken the contract, as two separate independent panels had recommended. The arrogance knows no bounds: the contract was warded to (least favoured tenderer) the ABC – in perpetuity.
Competence has been a challenge too great for this Government, in virtually every nook and cranny of activity, from cash for clunkers through roof insulation disasters to rash and wasteful school building programmes.
Economist Henry Ergas, writing in The Australian, August 16, 2013 said: “ ..choosing a government is not like entering into a commercial contract, which specifies what will be delivered and at what price; rather, it is empowering a party to take decisions on our behalf in circumstances we can rarely foresee and with consequences that are inherently difficult to evaluate.
“It is for that reason that competence matters much more than platforms in determining electoral outcomes; and there is no better way of assessing competence than to look at past performance. Particularly with the decline of class and ideology as determinants of electoral choice, voters increasingly engage in what political scientists call “retrospective voting”: rather than future promises, they concentrate on what a government has really done, and consider whether that justifies relying on it for whatever lies ahead.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. (That’s why I quote him…)
Perhaps the most severe criticism to be levelled at this Government is its persistent and systemic failure to demonstrate its integrity as a natural characteristic. Integrity is an essential element of decent democratic governance – and it is inspirational. How ironic, then, that Kevin Rudd chose to define his re-election strategy as a matter of trust. What was he thinking? Trust is what Julia Gillard destroyed. Trust is what Kevin Rudd has not revived.
But my general point is that if we put hypothetical sunglasses on both sides of politics so we can’t recognise the party, which one would you vote for when confronted with the failures on these KPIs? It wouldn’t matter to me whether it was Labour or LNP, any Government that so comprehensively failed to achieve a reasonable score on the KPIs would have to be sent off.
Of course there are party loyalists on both sides who will stay ‘loyal’ to their party, even when it’s an odious mess and when it is driving the country over the financial cliff. (If you run out of money, you can’t help the disadvantaged. On planes, you are advised to put on your own oxygen mask before doing so on your child…) No country can afford misplaced party loyalty; political parties are not sporting teams.
But there’s more: it was Julia Gillard’s Cabinet ministers Stephen Conroy and Nicola Roxon who led the Government’s efforts to have legislation passed that alarmed the entire media with its draconian measures that were dressed up as new laws to regulate media and to safeguard citizens against being offended – but in practice would have seriously attacked freedom of speech. Among other things, it reversed the onus of proof; those accused of offending would have had to prove their innocence. The ramifications would be socially destructive, not to mention completely undemocratic.
The attempt failed, but the mindset is still there.
By contrast, I admire Abbott’s sincere commitment to continue living in remote Aboriginal communities for a week a year as he has done for the past 10 years; to include them in the constitution; and to take Aboriginal affairs under his own wing in Cabinet and have Aboriginal spokesman Warren Mundine (the recent Labour party executive) as his senior adviser. This approach goes to his character and decency. This is Abbott policy, not Coalition policy; it’s his personal agenda and it isn’t ‘feel good’ politics but deeply sincere.
He recently gave a speech in which he made the point that even politicians he opposed were sincere in their intent for a better Australia. This is an undervalued but crucially important mindset. Respect for his opponents is not reciprocated.
But I won’t be voting for Tony Abbott. I won’t be voting for Kevin Rudd, either. I’ll be voting for what I believe is in Australia’s best interests, based on the past experience and current profile of the respective teams.
* Emission abatement as a tool to fight global warming may be vaguely defensible if the entire world adopted some sort of serious abatment action. It hasn’t and won’t. I prefer the humane and economically responsible approaches advocated by Bjorn Lomborg.