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Policy off a Long Run

Critics of the superannuation policy process don’t understand that you can have a long policy run-up, or less of the damaging speculation, but not both.

Jim’s article was published by The Age, The Brisbane Times and The Sydney Morning Herald on 11 April 2013.

In today’s tightly-contested politics, landing a difficult policy change is more difficult than ever.  Doing it while maintaining the support of all sides is near-impossible.  Not even during the halcyon days of Hawke-Keating was reform uncontested.  When it comes to reform that benefits one part of society at the expense of another, consensus politics, as Mark Latham has recently argued in his Quarterly Essay, is largely a myth propagated by the nostalgists.

The beauty of Keating’s golden age of economic reform is not that everyone agreed on the way forward.  It’s that he was able to push through despite the determined opposition of those who made wild claims about things like the introduction of a new rent tax on petroleum or a bold new system of compulsory retirement savings.  It is conviction, not consensus, that won Keating the big economic dividends and the admiration of the True Believers.

More than twenty years passed between the introduction of compulsory super and the tweaks announced by Wayne Swan and Bill Shorten last week.  In that time the political system has become unrecognisable from that dominated by Keating.  Twenty-four hour media, the culture of complaint and the rise of Tea Party-style politics have all changed the game for the worse.

Now the dust has settled on the Swan-Shorten superannuation announcement and only the most committed critics of the Gillard Government maintain their bizarre accusations of class war.  As the respected Labor thinker Dennis Glover wrote for the Chifley Research Centre blog, this class war rubbish is an electoral strategy propagated by conservatives for electoral purposes with little connection to actual policy announcements.

The superannuation debate has also revealed something far more important.  That one of the most costly consequences of the changing nature and deteriorating quality of our democratic discourse is the demise of the long policy run-up.

In an ideal world, policy would be developed by experts based on consultation, a clear understanding of the challenges in any given policy area, and their impacts on real people in real communities.  A general direction would be flagged publicly, or a problem would be identified alongside a Government’s stated commitment to address it.

A public debate would ensue, which teases out alternative points of view and helps point a way forward.  There might be a panel of experts drawn from the relevant industry, to meet roundtable-style over a long period, to help nut out the possible options.

Options and recommendations would then be provided by officials to ministers and their staff, for deliberation and further development.  Ministers would then debate policy directions with their colleagues, and consult further with experts and peak bodies to get the policy just right.  It would then be announced, with detailed costings, and taken to an election.

This is the ideal that so much of the commentary in the media seem to be pining for.  Its perceived absence was one of the central criticisms of the process around the development of the mining tax.  That is, that too much detail was announced as a fait accompli before more fulsome consultation.

Calls for a longer policy run-up abound.  That is, until the Gillard Government executes one, satisfying each of checkboxes above in the development and design of the super reforms which will make the system a bit fairer and more sustainable.

In this case the challenges of sustainability and fairness were identified and articulated, there was more than a year of policy development involving experts, roundtables and proper consultation, it was discussed and debated by senior ministers, costed and announced, budgeted, and flagged for the election contest.

In cricketing parlance, it was policy off the long run; exactly what the critics had earlier called for.  Instead of recognising this, many reported speculation as fact, wrote the phoney class war accusations of the Liberal Party as the biggest news, and in the wash-up obsessed over the process instead of the substance when it is only the substance that matters to their readers.

In just one short article, one commentator railed under a headline “Madness” against a Government which “provoked damaging speculation”, had been “mauled by the press over the lack of available detail”, and hadn’t “yet decided exactly what they intend to do”.  This sort of criticism, combined with the risk of leaks, are the costs of the same long policy run-up that many of these same commentators had called for.

Now that all of this commentary is fish and chip wrapping, and the policy is locked down, this still matters.  One, because an inconsistent and confusing focus on process denies Australians a proper discussion of the substance of the alternative policies of the major parties.

For example, few would have heard or read that the Swan-Shorten policy adversely affects around 0.4 percent of retirees while the Abbott-Hockey alternative would mean less money for 30 percent of the working population. A stunning comparison missed in the phoney class war.

Two, in calling for a long run-up yet making it more difficult, today’s politics makes it more likely that policy surprises will be sprung on an unsuspecting population, denying Australians the necessary time to become accustomed to big changes.

And three, pretending you can have more warning AND less damaging speculation is a recipe for bad policy guided by the real or likely fallout, and not the national interest.  In today’s politics, you can have one or the other, but not both.

About Jim Chalmers

Jim Chalmers

Jim Chalmers MP is Shadow Minister for Finance, and the federal Labor Member for Rankin. Prior to his election he was the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre and, before that, Chief of Staff to the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer. He has a PhD in political science and international relations and a first class honours degree in public policy. His book Glory Daze was published in July 2013 and he tweets as @JEChalmers .

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