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Review: Political Amnesia – How We Forgot How To Govern

The Conversation

Nicholas Barry, La Trobe University

The importance of history and memory is at the heart of Laura Tingle’s stimulating new Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How To Govern. Tingle’s central claim is that a lack of historical knowledge is one of the main problems in contemporary Australian politics.

This “growing political and policy amnesia”, Tingle writes, is a key reason for Australian politics becoming:

… not only inane and ugly but dangerous.

Why has this happened?

This amnesia is the result of a variety of institutional changes, including the declining influence of public servants on policy formulation and the increasing power of ministerial advisers.

Tingle points out that the presence of ministerial advisers is not in itself a problem. In the Hawke government, for example, advisers had an important role. But the relationship between ministers and the public service was more balanced and effective:

Hawke insisted his ministers should have bureaucrats in their offices, specifically as chiefs of staff. It kept open the links with the public service in both directions. Ministers’ offices understood the public service. The public service understood their ministers.

Black Inc

However, various other developments have upset the balance between ministers and public servants. Senior public servants do not enjoy the security of tenure they previously did. Tingle suggests that the Howard government’s “night of the long knives” – when the new prime minister sacked six departmental secretaries – was a crucial turning point.

In addition, public servants now more frequently face attack in parliamentary committees. The end result is a “toadying culture” in a “cowed” public service.

Even if public servants were in a position to be giving “frank and fearless” advice, though, it seems unlikely that ministers would welcome it. Tingle quotes a former senior public servant who describes the Howard government’s approach to the public service in its later years as:

We’ll do the thinking, you just implement it.

The result is that ministers make decisions without the benefit of proper advice.

These developments have been exacerbated by a loss of expertise and institutional memory in the public service as a result of cutbacks, redundancies and contracting out. One indication of this is that “the median length of service of ‘ongoing’ public servants in mid-2014 was 9.4 years”.

This means that governments – and younger and less experienced public servants – lose the accumulated wisdom and knowledge of senior figures who can remember what happened not just under the last government, but governments before that.

Changes in the media have also contributed to the problem of political amnesia. Tingle is at pains to emphasise that partisan coverage and populism are not new features of the media landscape. However, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the speed with which information can be communicated have led to a focus on immediacy and getting the “inside story” rather than in-depth reporting of policy issues.

This problem is exacerbated by the tendency for press gallery journalists to be generalists, rather than specialists concentrating on a particular policy area.

What effect has it had on politics and policy?

Many of the institutional developments Tingle highlights will be familiar to followers of Australian politics. But her essay demonstrates an impressive ability to tie these developments together to explain recent political events.

Kevin Rudd was criticised for a highly centralised policymaking approach.
AAP/Lukas Coch

One of the essay’s most welcome features is its focus on the deeper structural forces at work. It is easy to blame the leadership instability and sometimes-chaotic approach to policymaking in recent years on the personality faults of the key figures involved – Kevin Rudd’s focus on control, Tony Abbott’s unrelenting oppositional stance.

The greater worry, though, is that our leaders’ personalities are not solely responsible for these developments; deeper structural forces are contributing to these problems. That leadership instability has also occurred at state and territory level, which Tingle does not cover in her essay, seems to add support to this view.

As with any essay on contemporary political events, there are some points of contention. In particular, Tingle argues that commentators were misguided to draw parallels between Julia Gillard’s challenge to Rudd in 2010 and Malcolm Turnbull’s challenge to Abbott five years later.

Tingle highlights important differences between the two cases. This includes the role of relatively inexperienced factional chiefs in the move against Rudd and the speed with which he was replaced, in contrast to Abbott’s more drawn-out demise and that senior Liberal frontbenchers primarily drove his ousting. Turnbull was also able to explain immediately why he had challenged.

Nonetheless, there are also clearly important similarities between the two deposed first-term prime ministers. Given Tingle’s overall argument, these similarities may well be more important than the differences. Both Rudd and Abbott adopted highly centralised approaches to government and were criticised by colleagues for failing to follow proper processes.

These problems reflect the broader trends Tingle highlights, which pre-date both leaders. However, the problems seem more pronounced in the cases of Rudd and Abbott than they did with John Howard and Gillard.

This is not to claim that a thorough policy process was always followed under Howard and Gillard, or to deny that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wielded enormous power under both leaders. But their approach to the procedural aspects of policymaking did not seem to attract the same degree of criticism as Rudd and Abbott faced.

This might be regarded as a small positive. It suggests that the personal approach adopted by individual leaders can still make a difference to the way government operates, despite the structural forces Tingle outlines.

The demise of Rudd and Abbott also highlights the political dangers facing prime ministers as a result of these structural changes.

Prime ministers now have the ability to dominate the government’s policy agenda in a way they previously did not. However, this power is highly contingent on their personal popularity. Colleagues are likely to put up with a highly centralised approach if a prime minister has recently led the party to a major election win and is doing well in the opinion polls.

Malcolm Turnbull has promised a more ‘consultative’
approach to governing. 

But once a leader’s popularity drops, this ceases to insulate them from their colleagues’ resentment. Their control over the government also means they are likely to bear the brunt of responsibility for major policy failures.

It is worth pondering whether the problems resulting from the structural changes Tingle identifies extend beyond political amnesia to a basic failure to properly think through policy in advance and expose ideas to debate.

The centralisation of power in the PMO, insecure tenure for senior public servants and increasingly superficial reporting in the mainstream media have made it easier for those in positions of power to avoid engaging in serious critical discussion and debate over the policies they are putting forward.

The problem is therefore not simply about a lack of institutional memory. It is a broader failure to recognise the value of debate and dissent.

Debate, serious discussion and deliberation are valued highly in a democracy not just for their own sake, but because they are considered essential to testing the quality of ideas and arguments.

Increasingly, decision-makers in Canberra and beyond seem to have forgotten this age-old lesson of democratic politics. The quality of policymaking in Australia may be strengthened if they begin to remember it.

The ConversationNicholas Barry, Lecturer, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Political leaders ask how gunman was on the loose

The Conversation

By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

When Tony Abbott was asked what he’d say to people wondering how Sydney’s siege had been allowed to happen given gunman Man Haron Monis was well known to police, the Prime Minister said cabinet’s National Security Committee had posed that very question.

“How can someone who has had such a long and checkered history not be on the appropriate watch lists and how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community?

“These are questions that we need to look at carefully and calmly and methodically, to learn the right lessons and to act upon them. That’s what we’ll be doing in the days and weeks ahead,” Abbott told a joint news conference with NSW Premier Mike Baird after briefings on Tuesday.

There are two issues, involving different institutions and agencies.

First, why was Monis out on bail when the criminal allegations against him were so serious? He was charged with being an accessory to his ex-wife’s brutal murder and with multiple counts of indecent and sexual assault.

Second, given his extremist political views were well-documented, why did security agencies – ASIO and the police – not use their powers to keep track of him?

Like Abbott, Baird was posing questions. “We are all outraged that this guy was on the street,” he said.

“We need to understand why he was. We also need to understand why he wasn’t picked up and we’ll be working closely with the federal authorities together with our own agencies to ensure what we can do better.”

Pressed on the bail, Baird said that he had already strengthened the law – although on police advice the new law was not being implemented before the end of January.

In the end the bail issue came down to court decisions.

The siege was a “lone wolf” attack, the sort ASIO fears most, in that it is hardest to detect beforehand because it doesn’t involve the “chatter” and multi-person planning that can give away elaborate operations.

While he invoked ISIL, Monis was not part of it, or in the mould of the young people who set out to fight with it.

For the national security agencies, a person like Monis presents a particular challenge in assessing whether his known radical views are likely to translate into violence.

If they have that fear, the agencies then have to decide how to proceed.

Police can seek a control order to monitor or regulate the person’s activities – which requires making a strong case of links to the threat of terrorism to get judicial approval.

Telephone calls can be monitored – not of great help if the lone wolf doesn’t engage in “chatter”.

There is the option of surveillance – but that takes very substantial resources if maintained over time, and is no absolute guarantee.

Abbott himself said that even if “this sick and disturbed individual” had been front and centre on watchlists and monitored around the clock, “it’s quite likely, certainly possible, that this incident could have taken place, because the level of control that would be necessary to prevent people from going about their daily life would be very, very high indeed”.

What to do about someone like Monis involves a complex balancing by the agencies of risks, rights, and resources. It is not a matter of powers – the authorities already have enough of those, especially with the new security legislation and more in the pipeline – but of judgement. What is the likelihood of this person turning extremist views into extremist action?

In retrospect, we know the answer in Monis’ case and the horrifying consequences of that answer. We can say that more should have been done to watch and investigate him. The point can also be made that a possible link should have been intuited between Monis’ alleged criminal violence and the potential for politically motivated violence. But then hindsight can always give a clearer view of how agencies should have assessed and prioritised risks and allocated resources.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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