climate change

We’re robbing the future, and we know it. Not just in this country but everywhere. There are many examples, like infrastructure and investment in research, although climate change is the most obvious one.

The decisions that must be taken are obvious. The political structures that would let us take them are absent. Short-run electoral cycles and long-term decisions are not compatible.

So I worry about the future. I worry often. I was worrying just the other day, in fact, around lunchtime. What happened next was unexpected. I had a strange idea. It arrived quickly, like a bird landing in a tree.

What if, I found myself asking, instead of dividing Australia’s levels of government geographically, we divided them temporally?

(This is hypothetical, as you shall soon see.)

Long and short run governments

Some people bleat about creating “a new era of politics” in which we all consider the long-term, but they seem to assume society will suddenly come to its senses. There’s no sign of that happening. We need structural change.

Let’s indulge in a flight of imagination for a moment. Instead of state and federal governments we could have:

  • a right-now government that is re-elected, say, every two years; and
  • a look-to-the-horizon government that faces the electorate, say, every 12 years.

The former would focus on the issues of the here and now while the latter would deal with the long-term.

The long-run government could be given the responsibility for all those things we currently tend to put off dealing with. Like climate, infrastructure, basic research investment, tax adequacy, preventative health, etc.

The short-run government could deal with pressing risks to national security, the day-to-day administration of the systems set up by the long-run government, emergencies, acute fiscal responses to economic downturns, etc.

Australia already has two main levels of government, state and federal.  They already operate on different electoral timetables, and although the four-yearly drumbeat of the state four year cycle is not dramatically slower than the staccato of our triennial federal elections, some differences can already be perceived in the ways they operate.

This is stupid

Oh, I know.

Objections to this plan suggest themselves immediately. The split between short and long-run is entirely arbitrary. Managing fiscal responsibilities would be a nightmare. The long-tenure politicians could grow fat and lazy. Their short-run colleagues would be frenzied and absurd. The cost of change would be immense.

And I am not a crazy person. I understand perfectly that chucking out our federal system of government is not inside the “Overton window” of acceptable policy options. It’s not just outside the window — it’s over the hill and a million miles away. Publishing one article on an independent website — no matter how terrific that website might be, does not change that.  

So why discuss it? Because considering hypotheticals can give us clarity.

We’re already considering long vs short term, just badly

Inside our governments, we make many choices designed to shield certain types of decision from the pressure of the political cycle.

  • The Reserve Bank of Australia is independent, for example, because governments might be tempted to push interest rates down to give the economy a costly short-run boost.
  • Infrastructure Australia and Infrastructure Victoria are meant to be independent because we know governments like to promise long-term projects in order to reap short run electoral gains.
  • The EU has fiscal rules that control how governments may spend in the short-run, in order that the long-run not be forgotten.

Some of these work well — our independent central bank is a shining light — but there is no system for deciding which kinds of processes should be taken out of the churning insanity of the electoral cycle. It is ad hoc. That leaves some long-run decisions — funding basic research in universities, say, or investing in preventative health — unloved.

Risks

The idea I sketched out above — two levels of government with very different horizons over which their success should be judged — could of course morph into a gargantuan failure.

The primary risk is that the short-term focus of our polity in fact has nothing to do with the electoral cycle. Perhaps myopia is instead an inherent bias of homo sapiens in 21st century form. This would be an … expensive way to discover that.

Other things might go wrong. The long-run arm of government could taken over by fiscal conservatives who decide to “starve the beast,” running the government into the ground – even if we change our minds about that.  Or the linkages from long-term to short-term could be far too complex to divide like this, and we might have no idea which government to which we should assign responsibilities.

Thinking about these problems could be precisely the point though.

What’s the point of fantasising about change?

Letting democracies settle into their ruts does not seem very helpful. Parties get entrenched, politicians learn how to bend the rules to their benefit, and after a while that becomes your political culture. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues, stable systems are fragile.

If changing the way we govern ourselves would be useful for re-setting standards and improving politics in our country, then even considering hypothetical changes to the way we are governed could also help lift expectations and standards, ever-so-slightly.

Would this work? Write to [email protected] and let us know.