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The right & wrong way of high level decisions

The electoral track record of governments operating according to ideology is dismal. The more contentious and difficult the decision, if it is based upon party ideology or orthodoxy the more likely it is the political class will hesitate before imposing it

'Opening of the first parliament’ in Canberra (Painting by Tom Roberts  1903)
'Opening of the first parliament’ in Canberra (Painting by Tom Roberts,1903)


ADELAIDE - Phil Fitzpatrick is writing a new book, this one on the Aboriginal Heritage Branch, an important and often controversial segment of South Australia’s public service for which he worked some years ago.

In his critique of the Branch (now the Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Division) Phil correctly described some of the many elements that influence decision-making in the operations of a government department.

He perhaps could have made stronger reference to the impact of political party apparatchiks and the now ubiquitous ministerial advisers.

These influential people are, in their turn, influenced by other players from within or outside the public service.

These Sir Humphrey Appleby type figures referenced by Chips Mackellar in tribute to the Yes Minister television series of 40 years ago, are essentially a relic of history, mostly because of the way departmental CEOs are now employed.

Being no longer protected by the shield of 'permanency' in their jobs, they cannot operate with the impunity that once allowed powerful and influential Australian federal public servants like Dr HC 'Nugget' Coombs, Sir Lenox Hewitt or (as Chips’ nominated) Sir Arthur Tange, to dominate policy development.

That said, there are still a few bureaucratic positions that carry a lot of weight, including the Federal Under-Treasurer, the Governor of the Reserve Bank and the Secretaries of Defence and of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The incumbents of these positions tend to be people with significant relevant credentials, long experience and established credibility.

They tend not to be ideologues because, frankly, it is dangerous to appoint ideologues to such positions of power and most governments are wise enough to understand this.

Phil might also have drawn attention to the power of the judiciary. Examples of this include the Mabo and Wik decisions of the High Court which utterly changed the policy environment in Indigenous affairs.

And more recently we received the Federal Court's scathing assessment of the previous federal government's immoral, unethical and, as it turned out, illegal Robo-debt policy which fraudulently penalised people on welfare, driving some to commit suicide.

Within any working democracy, the decision-making process is frequently accompanied by a lot of disputation and even uproar. Some of this is contained within the bureaucracy and some is so febrile it escapes to the broader public domain.

Generally speaking, the more contentious and difficult the decision, if it is based upon party ideology or orthodoxy the more likely it is the political class will hesitate before imposing it.

The electoral track record of governments operating according to ideology is dismal.

The Howard government's ill fated Work Choices legislation is a case in point. Liberal prime minister John Howard’s attempt to rein in trade unions eventually led to his party’s election loss which included Howard losing his own seat.

Likewise, the recent Liz Truss-led British government's epic policy fail in trying to impose a manifestly ideological but hopeless budget package.

Both of these examples will be burnt into the memory of the political class as classic examples of what not to do.

Curiously, the US Republican Party seems to have forgotten this great political truth as demonstrated by its rabid anti-abortion stance, its open hostility towards gay and lesbian people and its continuing effort to disenfranchise people whom it thinks might vote for their Democrat opponents.

The prominent US commentator, Michael Moore, has gone against the prevailing orthodoxy and predicted that the Republicans will suffer serious electoral damage from this behaviour.  I sincerely hope that he is right.

Thus, in a democracy at least, the search for some sort of consensus is always the preferred way to make political decisions.

It may be a long and painful process, but the likelihood of a successful outcome and broad public support is much greater this way.

And the consensual approach will always involve the minister and senior public servants as well as various interest groups and more than a smattering of public opinion polling.


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