Editorial: not just for Christmas – getting the government we deserve

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In his last appearance on the 7:30 report before the election, John Howard warned Australians against flirting with change for change’s sake:

‘It’s not like a Christmas present you didn’t want and you can take it back at the Boxing Day sale, it’s not like that.’

And with that, a popular political maxim bit the dust – it is possible to lose an election by underestimating the intelligence of the voting public. At the time this rather patronising comment seemed to symbolise a Prime Minister who was becoming out of touch with voters as they turned away from him. But Mr Howard is not alone in his low opinion of how seriously Australians take their politics.

Cynics like to say we get the governments we deserve, and to an extent this is true. When we stop paying attention to politics, we make it a lot easier for politicians to stop paying attention to us. If we vote for the political equivalent of the crazy warehouse guy (‘All the services you want at half the price!! Why pay more?’), we shouldn’t be surprised when we get policies built to fall apart as soon as we rip open the wrapping paper.

Yet it is also true that governments get the citizens they deserve. Treat elections as a marketing campaign and expect people to shop around for the best deal they can get for themselves. Speak only to swinging voters in marginal seats and expect the rest of the population to stop listening. Portray yourself as a Strong Leader who will relieve voters of the burden of making hard decisions, and expect them to be unforgiving when the decisions you’ve made (or avoided) on their behalf go awry.

In the first edition of InSight for 2008, Ian McAuley looks at the nature of political leadership and argues that the last thing Australia needs right now is another Strong Leader. Responding to Judith Brett’s recent Quarterly Essay Exit Right, which he describes as ‘a demolition of the stereotype of the clear-eyed and determined visionary who leads from the front, who sees what must be done and does it’, McAuley argues that Kevin Rudd will need to learn from Howard’s mistakes. Chief among these was a tendency to deal with difficult issues either by denying their importance (as with climate change) or by making sudden, top-down decisions, often in the face of broad public opposition (as with Iraq and WorkChoices).

The new government will not have the luxury of avoiding difficult issues, but it must also avoid the temptation to play Santa and drop policy solutions on the populace like packages down a chimney:

‘A process which engages with the community, which explains the difficult tradeoffs facing the people, and which acknowledges the possibility of pain, is more likely to result in enduring change. It may be slower than quick, decisive action, but it is more effective in the long term.’
Howard was right – governments aren’t just for Christmas. It will take much more than a three year term to solve the complex problems Australia faces – but the actions we take now will have consequences far into the future. It’s often said that decisions are made by those who turn up. If it can exercise true leadership by speaking honestly about hard issues and inviting us to look for common ground, the Rudd government will find that a much broader group of people start turning up, and the decisions it makes will be better as a result.

Also in this edition

Exit polls taken after last year’s election showed that economic growth alone is no longer enough to guarantee votes. In Progress and wellbeing: more than GDP and tax cuts, John Langmore and John Wiseman argue for the new Labor government to adopt broader measures of progress than its predecessor.

In What’s Super about Labor’s new GP clinics? Jennifer Doggett, author of the CPD paper A New Approach to Primary Care for Australia, revisits the arguments for investing in primary care and looks at what will be involved in implementing Labor’s election policy on ‘GP Super Clinics’.

Regulation can be beneficial, but only if it is responsive and flexible, writes Nicholas Gruen in Regulating for innovation. He argues that Australian governments need to adopt a post-Taylorist approach, harnessing the ideas of the regulated and relieving firms that can demonstrate their own excellence from the more onerous requirements.

CSR expert Susan Mac Cormac looks at alternatives to regulation from a different perspective – how can we make life easier for companies that combine profit-making
with a social mission? How can we make boards responsible to a wider
group of stakeholders? Mac Cormac reviews the options in The emergence of new corporate forms.

And on climate change, John Perkins has an idea on how Australia can outpace the Kyoto process without having to go it alone in Global warming and the case for a coal tax, and Kellie Tranter explains why Australian governments at all levels are in danger of being sued if they don’t act fast in Climate change litigation: the heat is on

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