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November 14th 2015 print

Geoffrey Luck

Consult-a-rama

There was a time when the political class laid policies before voters and accepted the consequences. These days the trick is to canvas each and every interest group, chart the easiest political course and, ultimately, exalt in the refusal to shoulder the responsibility of genuine leadership

babelA funny thing is happening on the way to the election, whenever it is announced. An excessive zeal for consultation – conversation, public input, engagement, collaboration, call it what you will — is turning the constitutional relationship between a government and its citizens upside down.

Once upon a time, politicians  and their parties put forth policies and ideas as to how the nation should, and should not, be governed. The people politely cast their ballots, sat back and watched what progress the winning mob made towards their stated goals over the next three years, then decided whether to reward or punish them. Now, the idea of delegation has taken such firm hold in Canberra that no government, no prime minister or minister, would dare institute a policy or introduce legislation before submitting to the scrutiny of every vested (and un-vested) interest for permission to proceed. This is proclaimed as a virtue, but in reality it’s an attempt to buy insurance, open an escape hatch and blame everyone else.

Take the budget process. As the ABC’s (only) economics and finance correspondent forty years ago, I sat through many tedious hours in the notorious budget lockups.  Armed with my sandwiches, paper, pens and calculator (the PC hadn’t been invented) we were admitted to the vast noisy room at 2pm.  In six hours we had to digest the import of new economic policy and tabulate for both radio and television the significance of tax, tariff and other financial changes.

Even in the 1970s, the budget work had moved well beyond the joke of the simple “Beer, Cigs Up” headline. The Whitlam and early Fraser budgets were so complex that I negotiated to take Professor Warren Hogan of Sydney University (then fighting a trench war against faculty  Marxists) with me to calculate the economic impacts.

It was John Howard who started flying kites ahead of budgets. As more (warning: mixed metaphor) trial balloons went up, there were fewer and fewer surprises on budget night. The Treasurer’s speech became an opportunity for boring self-congratulation, instead of revelation.

It’s easy to blame improved communications, the internet, e-mails and social media for the torrent of comment and opinion unleashed on any proposal; someone’s toes are sure to be trodden on. But instead of those screams being heard after policy is announced, they are now given air time ahead, to warp decisions. Is anyone more satisfied? The loudest screams come from those who want to veto ideas and stop projects.

Governments of all stripes have created a situation in which it is all too easy to run scared.  Just look at what is already happening to Josh Frydenberg’s modest step to examine six sites for harmless nuclear waste disposal, development of the Galilee Basin coal-export project or, indeed, tax reform. The Turnbull government felt compelled to distance itself from what it criticised as a lack of consultation and proper cabinet process, under Tony Abbott and his “Captain’s Calls”. Fair enough, but is it appropriate to trawl through the undergrowth of public opinion for help in crafting taxation policy?

Keen eyes spotted the Prime Minister giving a nod and a wink to Deloitte’s Chris Richardson during his speech to the recent economics conference in Melbourne.  Lo and behold, a few days later, the government was approvingly running Richardson’s suggestion of what is a sliding scale of tax on superannuation contributions, according to income level. Is this how a government communicates policy? Or is it how it thrashes around to define policy?

Canberra has hordes of competent economists, statisticians and policy experts in Treasury and Finance, buttressed by computing power thousands of times that which put men on the moon. Yet, like Whitlam, who went to the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research for advice because he didn’t trust Treasury  the Turnbull government is unloading on the public the responsibility for defining and detailing policy.

If this is to be the future, we have wrought a significant change in our democracy.

Geoffrey Luck was an ABC journalist for 26 years