Can a .pdf change the world? The prevailing wisdom is it can. When Australia has a problem, this is how it responds:

  1. Get an old man, grey-haired, preferably the kind on a really generous fixed benefit superannuation scheme; and
  2. Get him to make a very clever .pdf.

That’s the approach that got us the Henry Tax Review. Slight variations on the theme got us the Harper review and the Commission of Audit.

These reviews had different amounts of merit. In my view, the Henry and Harper reviews harbour excellent ideas. But they are uniform in the amount of impact they’ve had.

Which is none.

The .pdf model of policymaking is broken. A fat review with an old man’s name on it is no longer enough to change the world.

If whomever becomes PM thinks he should start a new term simply by calling for a bunch of reviews, he will end his term bereft.

O, Ken Henry!

The review model, anyone would concede, served us well in the past: Asprey and Dawkins and Garnaut and Hilmer. They were good people and good reviews and they made a difference. But something has changed and we need to recognise that if we are to move forward.

This topic is especially current because Australia’s pre-eminent penner of eponymous reviews has just broken his silence on them. Former Treasury secretary Ken Henry published a piece in The Australian reflecting on the achievements of several of his reviews.

“When I was in the federal Treasury I spent a lot of time coaching people in the development of policy advice … above all else, I would emphasise the importance of narrative: policy advice had to tell a story that was absolutely compelling.

“In that last respect, the intergenerational reports, the tax review and the white paper failed completely. Their messages have not been found sufficiently compelling.”

This is a big admission,  and I praise him for it. But despite his focus on narratives, he goes on to misdiagnose why they weren’t compelling.

He blames politicians for not understanding the problems were immediate, and for not sticking to the treatment plan.

“Australia’s politicians do not want the discipline of pathways. They prefer the freedom to wander.”

Is it the politicians’ fault? One hesitates to stand up for such a reviled and capricious group of people. But ultimately they are the servants of our political system. The reason we see so little variation in behaviour among politicians is the system. It requires they act in a certain way or lose their seats.

In this context blaming them for not sticking their necks out is not only unfair but worse — unhelpful.

So.

Making change of the controversial type will be hard. (It’s worth remembering our Parliament passes many uncontroversial laws in a bipartisan fashion to keep things ticking along in a range of domains).

Reviews of reviews of reviews

The terms of reference for the most recent competition review said this:

“… make recommendations where appropriate, aimed at ensuring Australia’s competition regulation, policy, and regulatory agencies are effective …”

Nowhere did it say that the review must focus on outcomes and not think about the real challenges to achieving them. But, of course, that is what the review did.

The final report has an implementation section yes, but it focuses most on who should write the new laws. Very little thought goes into getting to that point. Where there has been thought, it recommends more reviews. On intellectual property reform, the review recommends a new review, to be followed by a productivity commission inquiry. I wish I were joking.

In almost any field of endeavour, experts can easily describe a better approach than the existing one. Normally, they then decry the people that didn’t make it happen. The bigger challenge is almost always understanding why the better policy hasn’t happened already and overcoming those obstacles.

Harper’s competition policy review was essentially silent on the politics of implementation. It had a media section on the website that shows five media releases, five speeches and a press conference allied to the review process.

[Harper Review: outsourcing services, but not responsibility, in health]

That’s manifestly not enough, but the big question is not how to force-feed the public solutions. It is how to make the public hungry for them.

Without a widespread sense something is a problem, of course, we have no interest in a response. Henry talks about this:

“Economic historians will tell you that the most compelling reform narrative describes a ‘burning platform’. That was the narrative that motivated Australia’s economic reform program in the last 15 years or so of the 20th century.

“The difficulty with the challenges identified this century is that they are seen as distant. Our political leaders, from their vantage point, appear confident that the platform is not on fire. But it is, and most Australians know it.”

He’s wrong about most Australians. We don’t see flames licking at our feet. And waving a plan to cut spending at us doesn’t change that.

Whatever the solution you’re pushing, you need to convince Australians there’s an important job for it to do.

Otherwise, we might just get suspicious you are pushing it for reasons other than the one you claim.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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