ESSA

ESSA

Great Expectations: Converting nimbleness and agility into policy


James Maccarrone

By

May 2nd, 2016


Late last year, ESSA correspondent James Maccarrone attended the Economic and Social Outlook Conference, hosted by The Australian and the Melbourne Institute and attended by Australia’s policy elite. Held in the early days of the Turnbull government, the theme of the conference was the road to reform, and a sense of optimism pervaded proceedings thanks to a new Prime Minister regarded by many as a breath of fresh air. Now, a day out from the Turnbull government’s first budget, read James’ reflections from the conference on the lessons for reform that emerged from the conference. Will tomorrow’s document fit the brief? Or are James’ great expectations yet to be met?


Don Watson, in his compendium ‘Worst Words’, defines nimble as ‘agile, deft, quick, balletic, like a mountain goat, etc’.

If you don’t think about it too much, it’s not hard to be wooed by its connotations of effortless advancement. Nor is it difficult to be seduced by the melodious outpouring of ‘innovation’ and ‘agility’ that has emanated from Canberra most recently. It’s all too easy to be enticed, rather like Odysseus upon hearing the siren’s song, into an unthinking stupor.

Some may feel that we had enough lofty rhetoric, new age terminology and glossy press conferences to sink all of Odysseus’ fleet, and it is now time to concretise such sweet-sounding sentiments.

As the dust settles after a turbulent year of politics, Australians seem to once again look forward to a public policy discourse that returns to first principles.

It was before a backdrop of booming consumer sentiment, in a week where the Westpac Melbourne Institute Index of Consumer Sentiment rocketed by 3.9% and the national zeitgeist buzzed with the promise of new government, that the Economic and Social Outlook Conference 2015 (ESOC) co-hosted by the Melbourne Institute and The Australian newspaper rekindled the spirit of pragmatic, evidence-based policy debate.

Just as spirits were high in the markets (the Westpac index predicted a sugary hit of a seven-year high retail sales turnover over the Christmas period), so too were they high at the conference. ESOC focused with palpable excitement on evidence-based policy for economic and social performance beyond the ultra-short-run.

The conference presented an array of keynote addresses, panel discussions and lively debates ranging from near-perfunctory discussions of fiscal responsibility and vertical fiscal imbalance to a forensic examination of competition policy in the wake of the recent Competition Policy Review.

From the A-list cast of Australia’s public policy elite and media bigwigs came a palpable sense of momentum. Over the course of the conference a large number of topics were rigorously interrogated – from the merits of a broad-based land tax to pricing regulation of the tertiary education sector. But, upon reflection, the final session of the Conference is most pertinent to the current Australian experience.

Presciently titled, ‘The challenge of implementing a new policy agenda’, the session, chaired by The Australian’s Economics Editor, John Uren, saw Michael Thawley (Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) and Paul Kelly (Editor of The Australian) present memorable lessons on the basics of governing the country. There is little new in what they have said, but they warrant repetition at a time when Australia’s policy licence has been renewed. Both speakers’ main points are repeated below.

Thawley’s Three

Thawley’s first gripe is what he dubs the ‘law of unintended consequences’: hasty or ill-conceived ideas which have not been interrogated sufficiently lead to huge waste, inefficiency and exhaustion of the public’s reserve of goodwill through backfires and implementation failures. Best avoided. See, for example, infrastructure plans which lack the right pricing structure or modeling, amounting to nothing more than an expensive gambit to worsen congestion, or certain vocational education policies.

Thawley’s second point, the importance of data, speaks to the importance of being able to make cross-country comparisons, and to measure and quantify progress. See for further reading a recent Productivity Commission report which substantiates further this contention.

Thirdly, Thawley emphasises the importance of policy and structures; that is, working to outcomes. This makes digital capabilities in government particularly important. This is consistent with initiatives such as digital service standards.

Kelly’s Nine (antithesis of Herman Cain’s)

Kelly laid out a nine-point plan for the Turnbull government, enumerated below (verbatim attempted):

First, explain Australia’s problems.
Second, engage with the community, negotiate with stakeholders to forge deals which get policy design right.
Third, do not make cheap media guarantees, governments must be flexible and revise positions. Convince the media that policies must change or be created, in the way that Paul Keating worked with broadcaster John Laws (see Mabo in 1992).
Fourth, pursue growth with equity.
Fifth, listen to independent analysis which has grown in relevance.
Sixth, policy must sound reasonable and be founded on principles.
Seventh, the team must be united; there must be a particularly strong relationship between the Prime Minister and Treasurer with both working together.
Eighth, build up political capital.
Ninth, most reforms involve winning a political battle, mostly via an electoral contest.

This eminently sensible prescription is non-partisan and universal.

On Budget-Eve the above advice is as relevant as ever. As analysis of the budget flows with the accompanying defense of the document – it may be worth keeping in mind the above checklist to assess whether the ‘sounds and sweet airs’ are matched by solid policy.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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