In an article published on his blog last Sunday Jim Belshaw argued that risk management by governments has come to focus too heavily on political risk avoidance because of concerns that a more balanced approach would be too difficult to sell to the public. As a generalization, I think the point is correct. It is possible to cite a few examples of recent Australian governments taking excessive risks (e.g. the infamous home insulation and school hall construction programs). In my view, however, the Hawke, Keating and Howard governments showed stronger leadership than those that have followed and were less prone to allow focus groups, polling and brainstorming on talk back radio and twitter to set the political agenda.
That is just a personal impression. It is difficult to cite hard evidence. Mike Steketee provided some examples in support of the view that poll-driven policies have become more common in an article in ‘The Australian’last year. In my view the strongest point he made, however, was to quote Rod Cameron, a veteran pollster, who has observed that politicians are now more inclined to accept the prejudice and narrow-minded bigotry coming out of focus groups as a basis for policy, rather than to seek to neutralize such views.
Irrespective of whether Australian governments have become more poll-driven in recent years, the temptation for governments to opt for politically safe options rather than those requiring courageous political leadership exists in all countries in which public opinion counts for anything. In many instances, of course, the politically safer option is much more risky in the longer term. In my view that makes it preferable to have a system of government in which it is clear which political parties are accountable for the decisions that are made or not made by governments, rather than proportional representation, in which responsibility is shared by the centre right and centre left - and the only parties that have clean hands are the extremists at either end of the political spectrum. I have in mind the situation in Greece, of course, but I am straying from the topic I want to write about.
Coming back to the importance of political leadership, I remember a conversation that I had with a wise person about 20 years ago. I made the point that Australia needed more courageous political leadership to pursue economic reforms. I expected the wise person to agree, but his response was that those who want governments to pursue economic reforms need to accept that governments don’t lead, they follow. The point he was making was that it is important to keep in mind that political leaders can never get far ahead of public opinion. The leader who prepares the ground for reform by attempting to raise the level of public discussion of an issue will often be more successful in promoting reform than the one who shows great courage in attempting to forge ahead ignoring ill-informed public opposition.
So, how should those who aspire to leadership seek to raise the level of public discussion of issues? One method that has had some success in Australia is the system of independent policy advice provided by the Productivity Commission and some of its predecessor organizations. The strength of that system - as Gary Banks, the chairman of the Commission, pointed out in a speech last year - has been the independence of the Commission, the process of public scrutiny of underlying research and analysis before the advice is submitted to government, and the educative role of the organization in helping to promote a broader understanding of issues and advocating initiatives to the public and parliament.
However, it has not been possible for the Productivity Commission to be as effective as it should be. In an interview with Alan Mitchell in the Australian Financial Review a couple of months ago (10 March) Bill Carmichael, member of the Tasman Transparency Group and former chairman of the Industries Assistance Commission, suggested that the Rudd and Gillard governments had sidelined the Productivity Commission as an independent advisor on microeconomic reform:
‘They have created a plethora of carefully selected inquiries and institutional arrangements designed to minimize bothersome critical analysis and produce outcomes more to their liking’.
The report of the interview ended with Bill Carmichael suggesting that political leadership is ‘a quality that has been missing from the present debate about economic reform’. An element of leadership is clearly required to move forward on difficult issues, even with the help of sensible public inquiry processes.
So, could citizen’s juries help to compensate for weak political leadership? According to Nick Gruen, in the transcript of an ABCbroadcast in which he spoke about ‘deepening democracy in the internet age’, a citizen’s jury or consensus conference is ‘a small jury-sized randomly selected group’ which ‘deliberates at length’ on policy issues. The body hears evidence from professional experts and advocates, and its conclusions are published.
It seems to me that the potential benefit of such a system would lie mainly in helping to lift the level of public debate on contentious issues, by providing members of the public with a point of view that they might consider more trustworthy than the partisan views of political leaders, or judgements of experts who might seem to be out of touch with the values of ordinary people. Citizen’s juries would certainly not be a substitute for sensible public inquiry processes, but they might help avoid policy development being placed at the mercy of focus groups and political point scoring. Citizen’s juries could perhaps be particularly helpful in development of policies that involve important value judgements e.g. deciding appropriate levels of immigration.
I will write more about citizen’s juries later.