It’s an outrage. One of the most crucial economic issues in the country, that affects virtually every household, which could send hundreds of thousands of Australians spiralling into penury and bankruptcy, is controlled not by democratically elected politicians but by unelected bureaucrats who act without regard to what Australians want, placing their own elitist judgement of what the country needs above what the electorate might believe.
Welcome to monetary policy as conducted by our independent Reserve Bank, put in place by the Howard government.
The RBA isn’t completely independent, of course; the government appoints the board and the governor. Tony Abbott was thankfully ousted before he could fulfil his threat to impose an external, right-wing figure to replace Glenn Stevens. But other than Abbott, senior politicians not merely leave the RBA alone but even avoid commentating on monetary policy.
Central bank independence has been one neoliberal idea that has been almost a complete success in Australia, despite its anti-democratic foundations. Objections to elitist bureaucrats wielding monetary power are few and far between, partly because the bank has played an important role in maintaining economic growth, allowing it to build up credibility. No one wants to go back to the days when the RBA was under the direction of the government, when a treasurer might boast that he had “the bank in my pocket”. We believe monetary policy is too important to be left to politicians.
Similarly, despite the constant whining from the right, the ABC is by far Australia’s most trusted media institution. It is independent of the government because, like monetary policy, we think broadcasting, and especially news-gathering, is too important to be left to politicians.
The principle that, in our democracy, there are things too important to allow democratically elected figures to control them, thus seems well-entrenched. The legal industry has always been kept separate from the political process in Australia, following the UK tradition. We don’t allow regulatory bodies to be controlled by politicians. Everywhere you look, we keep the tribunes of democracy out of stuff we know they can’t be trusted with.
There’s even been a de facto acceptance that governments need genuinely independent advice as the Australian Public Service has become more politicised. Governments routinely now commission the Productivity Commission, or panels of eminent experts, to undertake major policy reviews, understanding that the independent Productivity Commission’s views, or those of high-profile experts, command a respect that the advice of departments no longer does, and provide a platform for policy debate that just another media release will never do.
Which gets us to the question: is energy, like monetary policy, like administering regulations, like news-gathering, too important to be left to politicians? We’ve already had the independent advice — from the review led by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, rather than the PC, which had had multiple goes at climate and energy policies already. But the government has decided that its interests lie in disregarding the Finkel review, and instead in perpetuating policy uncertainty, rather than providing a clear policy that will give investors, business and the community a clear idea of the path to emissions abatement targets that Tony Abbott agreed and Malcolm Turnbull signed up to.
This is the energy equivalent of a government deciding to lower interest rates ahead of an election in the hope a grateful electorate will reward it, i.e. the placement of political advantage over Australia’s economic interests.
A framework in which politicians choose the country’s emissions abatement targets, and independent bodies design and implement the transition without political interference and with economic efficiency as the policy guide, would replicate monetary policy, where Parliament establishes the purpose of the Reserve Bank and the government of the day agrees to an inflation target and leaves the bank to it.
Of course, once you do it for energy, where would you stop? Infrastructure is in urgent need of freeing up from politicians; an independent body that controlled infrastructure investment would end boondoggles like the inland rail project and direct investment to the roads, ports and rail lines that would yield the best returns on investment. But that’s a problem for another day.