In the lead-up to this year’s federal election plenty has been said about trust (or lack thereof) in the major parties and their leaders. While ideas will play a role, with Labor and the Coalition focusing on their versions of Australia’s future, the election will be hard-hitting and adversarial — and sadly, it seems that little will be said about how we are governed.

The decline in political trust has created difficulties for governments needing to address complex and controversial issues related to productivity, social inclusion and climate change. The reasons for this are complex, and it would be wrong to call it a crisis. The best explanation of the problem, says Andrew Leigh, is “falling interpersonal trust, a trend towards post-materialist values and the changing role of the media”. Whatever the cause, it has placed a significant weight on the shoulders of governments keen to change agendas and policy priorities.

What is to be done? A national plan would introduce a new layer of accountability that would be focused on whole-of-community outcomes and, secondly, it would facilitate the entry of more professionalism (and evidence) to the policymaking and implementation process. These are, of course, matters that are given attention in politics today, and there are many players involved both within and outside government — the Auditor-General, the Canberra press corps and royal commissions come to mind.

However, what is missing is a framework and structure that institutionalises a process that sets objectives, outlines the policies, programs and partnerships needed to achieve them and creates mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation. It’s what many companies and NGOs do and, importantly, it’s what local and state governments in Australia have been doing.

By incorporating these elements into their practices governments would be required to be clearer on what and how they wish to achieve specific outcomes and to define more clearly what would indicate success or failure in its implementation. Add to that the obligation to ensure independent monitoring and evaluation of performance and what we might call the politics of ideas is being complemented with the politics of evidence.

In saying all of this, it has to be acknowledged that the politics of planning aren’t easy. Voters do expect governments to perform on their promises quickly and decisively, and for their part governments will have some priority issues that are matters of principle. However, there are many aspirations and policies that are still in the embryonic stage at elections and which would benefit from the discipline of planning that defines the outcomes desired, initiates policies to achieve them and sets up independent monitors to report on progress. Good policy does need time and a formalised planning process does provide more of it than issue-by-issue politics.

It is also true to say that it would be a more complicated affair for the Commonwealth than it is for the states, territories and local government. Canberra needs to have the other levels of government on side and in agreement on the outcomes being sought. Federalism doesn’t preclude the setting of national objectives, but it does make their implementation a testing exercise, and despite trying for some time Canberra does not have the same quality of institutions and agents on the ground as the other levels of government do. As we have seen with the Council of Australian Governments reform agenda it is the mentality of facilitation rather than control that is needed, but that doesn’t come easily in a system soaked in the politics of blame. For their part, the states are constitutionally protected and keen to be seen as acting on behalf of their citizens, even if that means what others call bloody-minded and unco-operative behaviour.

To make a national plan work, the government would need to make a commitment to medium- and long-term processes, to be willing to build constructive partnerships in many areas and in many places, to be more open to what the evidence is telling it about how to achieve better outcomes for the community, and to be comfortable with genuinely independent monitoring of performance. Some new institutions will be needed, such as we have seen in South Australia with the Community Engagement Board and the Audit Committee. More work will be needed when it comes to the definition, collection and dissemination of information.

It’s a big call. However, what we have been seeing is declining trust in politicians and government. Politicians are seen as cynical and governments as ineffective. While it’s true that the practice of government can’t just be rational and technical, the evidence tells us that it is possible to find a better balance than we currently have between system and purpose on the one hand and politics and flexibility on the other. Incorporating a process of strategic planning into the work of the Commonwealth may lead to the conclusion that there is more that different parties agree about than they have ever imagined.

Politics isn’t just about values like “equity” and “efficiency” but about how values are to be realised in the real world, and when evidence is brought to bear we often find that the two sides are closer together than might initially appear.

*This is an edited chapter in a upcoming publication Pushing Our Luck from the Centre for Policy Development

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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