Launch of the Centre for Policy Development



On Wednesday May 23, 2007 a crowd of supporters gathered in Sydney to celebrate the launch of the Centre for Policy Development.

CPD Chair John Menadue AO, Board member Julian Burnside QC, and Director Miriam Lyons spelt out the scope of our work and the urgent need for us to make our voice heard. As MC and chief traffic controller, Charles Firth kept the audience on their toes.

Of course, now that we’re officially up and running the real work begins – we’ll be diving straight into policy debates on health, education, climate change and the future of Australia’s economy. Please point friends and colleagues to our website, and encourage them to demonstrate their support by making donations or becoming members.

Speeches from the launch of the Centre for Policy Development

We have established CPD because we believe there is a serious policy vacuum in Australian public life. CPD has grown out of the policy portal of New Matilda.

In recent years, political opportunism has pushed policy development aside. Almost everything is political. We have too much politics and not enough policy. Even war, and the plight of refugees, is a political opportunity.

Focus groups replace rigorous policy analysis. Managerialism has become more important than values. We have allowed the economy to become detached from its social purpose. In the ‘labour market’, the weak and vulnerable are increasingly exposed. We have an economic boom alongside a social recession. We are more wealthy, but less happy.

We have short-term economic success at the cost of running down our capital. We are eating the seed wheat. We are depleting our shared assets – not just hard assets like roads, rail, water and the environment, but also our soft assets, like our public institutions, behaviour in public life, our trust in one another and the quality of family and community life.
A central issue in reclaiming our common wealth is the key relationship between markets and society. We assert that markets are valuable but society is paramount.

Markets have important roles to perform and we clearly see the benefits of markets around the world. Today, the major response to global warming, water shortage and peak oil must be the market, with its price signals.

But the demands of the 24/7 market are placing unsustainable pressures on our planet and human relationships. Advertising intrudes into so much of our private and social lives. Our ‘commons’ – our shared assets – parks, beaches, airwaves and even the air and sky are being steadily enclosed and eroded by the market. The process of ‘enclosures’ didn’t cease in rural England in the 19th Century.

We are all guilty of despoiling our ‘commons’ – pure air and water being the most obvious.

At CPD, we believe that governments have an important role to perform. We do not see government as the enemy. Neither do we see markets as the enemy. Public policy must be about the appropriate balance between markets and society, and the fence that governments should place around markets for the sake of society. The primacy of society must be asserted – the social question. Markets and the economy are not an end in themselves.

We need to know what political parties and governments stand for – their values and principles. That is so whoever wins the next election. It will even be more important if there is a change of government.

In my experience, government officials are technically able and fair, but it is not their role to espouse the values and develop the principles that should guide policy and its implementation. That is the role of political parties and ministers. Unless those underpinning values and principles are clearly and publicly stated, ministers will remain susceptible to populism, short-termism, and election gimmicks.

The issue for the future is not about the size of government. It is not about the ‘third way’. The issue is how markets and society relate to each other. In the end society and its values must be paramount.

We do not see ourselves as a conventional ‘think tank’. Our enterprise is about doing as well as thinking. Advocacy must be linked to policy development. What we do will be unique – developing alternate policies and advocating them. We want to persuade decision-makers and opinion-leaders that we need a rebalancing between society and markets.

The charter that describes our aims is Reclaiming our Common Wealth: policies for a fair and sustainable future. Our Common Wealth is basically about values. Our objective in the CPD is to realise in public life, the values set out in Our Common Wealth.

We seek partnerships with people and groups who share our values. We seek financial support from business, unions, foundations and individuals. Please join us.

This is an edited transcript of a speech given at the launch of the Centre for Policy Development, Sydney, May 23 2007

It is a pleasure, but also a surprise, to be asked to speak at the launch of a new think tank.

It is a particular pleasure that this think tank is one of those rarities: a place for consideration of that missing part of the spectrum – the part now called the left, but which sits modestly, not on the right where most other think tanks are, but covering a wider territory: genuinely liberal. It is a lonely place these days.

It is interesting, and alarming, to consider just how far the dominant conversation has moved to the right during the past 12 years. The so-called Liberal Party has made it clear that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser is no longer a welcome member of the party he once led, and I suspect that the Australian Labor Party would see him as a bit too far left to be electorally useful. I imagine that if Sir Robert Menzies were alive today he would be refused membership of the party he founded, despite the natural advantage of an Imperial knighthood, such a welcome adornment in a party so indebted to Queens and all things monarchical.

On balance I think Menzies would be excluded from John Howard’s Liberal Party, and he would probably not wish to join it. He was, after all, a man of principle, a true liberal. When it comes to policy development, no principle is so fundamental that it cannot be subverted or debased by John Howard. To add insult to injury, the betrayal of principle is dressed up in dishonest rhetoric so as to maintain the misleading appearance of the values the Liberal Party once stood for.

So, the indefinite detention of children is squared with family values by dressing it up as border protection; jail without trial and based on secret evidence is passed off as necessary to preserve democracy; the abandonment of an Australian citizen in Guantanamo Bay is fudged as a prelude to a fair trial on a retrospective charge and hearsay evidence obtained by coercion. Ministerial responsibility, one of the pillars of the Westminster system which Howard promised to honour, has disappeared without a trace, until its brief reappearance when practical politics required Ian Campbell to be sacrificed in an attempt to skewer Rudd for meeting Brian Bourke.

Global warming was ignored, doubted or scorned until suddenly, 6 months ago, it snapped into policy focus as Howard deftly recognised the plain facts science had been proclaiming for a decade at least.

In place of policy founded on principle, we get platitudes larded with rhetoric. Remember John Howard’s speech on the 50th anniversary of his fan magazine Quadrant. He again disparaged the ‘black armband view of history’. Ignoring the plain facts uncovered by the HREOC report Bringing Them Home, he hides behind the notion that what has happened in the past is no part of this generation’s heritage or responsibility. This from the man who increasingly exploits the tragedies of an earlier generation who died at Gallipoli.

In the same speech he rejoiced in the ‘ideals of democratic freedom and liberty under law’. This must have had a hollow sound to David Hicks as he languished in Guantanamo Bay after being sold to our ally America by the Northern Alliance. Hicks was denied the rights accorded to criminal suspects, denied the rights of a prisoner of war, held for 5 years without charge, held in solitary confinement in a concrete box for most of his time and denied access to lawyers for the first few years of his incarceration. During all this time, the Australian government did nothing to secure his freedom, on the curious pretext that he had not broken the law.

The ‘ideals of democratic freedom and liberty under law’ must seem a remote prospect to those who are sentenced to two weeks’ preventative detention after a secret hearing which they are not allowed to attend. When arrested and taken into custody, the person concerned is not allowed to know the evidence which was used against them.

The ‘ideals of democratic freedom and liberty under law’ must have slipped Mr Ruddock’s mind when he ran the case of Mr al Kateb who had come to Australia seeking asylum. He was held in detention while his application for a protection visa was considered. The Migration Act says that a non-citizen without a visa must remain in detention until they get a visa or are removed from Australia. Mr al Kateb was refused a visa and found conditions in detention so awful that, rather than appeal the decision, he asked to be removed from Australia. But he could not be removed because he is stateless. Rather than amend the Act to deal with an anomaly, Ruddock argued that Mr al Kateb – innocent of any offence, not suspected of being a risk to Society – could be held in detention for life. That the senior law officer of the Crown could consider making such an argument is a disgrace to the office he holds and a stain on the government he serves. Not much ‘democratic freedom and liberty under law’ for al Kateb.

The children who, broken and desperate in detention, tried to harm or kill themselves would not readily distinguish between the cruelty of the Taliban and the Liberal Party’s family values.

None of these things is good policy. None of these things conform to any of the ethical principles on which the Liberal Party was founded. None of these things provoked even a murmur of concern from the Labor Party. The stinking hypocrites of the Right have been well served by the gutless toadies of the disappearing Left. The policy conversation was left to the margins: the activists who might occasionally get a letter to the editor published, the bloggers obsessively talking to each other in a closed circle, and a former Liberal Prime Minister who seems radicalised and transformed, but whose position on these same principles has remained unchanged for 30 years.

What is wrong with this picture? The scenery has shifted so far to the right that nothing remains on the left but a vacuum into which noble hearts are drawn and disappear. The vacuum of ideas of the Left means that there is no adequate conversation about the dominant ideas of the Right. I do not mean to say that ideas from the Left are always correct – far from it. But ideas which stand unchallenged are likely to be flawed. It is in the contest of ideas that we have the best prospect of reaching something like sound policy.

With the birth of the Centre for Policy Development, the conversation can begin. It will help fill the vacuum. It will provide a focus for discussion where principles can be discussed without embarrassment or hypocrisy. It might, just might, spark a discussion in which the poverty and dishonesty of Howard’s policy positions will come to be more widely recognised. The possibility is so important that the wager is worth it. As a natural conservative in the Menzian tradition, I welcome the arrival of the Centre for Policy Development and declare it duly launched, with the hope that it will help Australia regain the good and valued things this country has lost.

This is an edited transcript of a speech given at the launch of the Centre for Policy Development, Sydney, May 23 2007

“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under”
HL Mencken

If there’s one thing that defines progressives it’s a belief in progress – that the societies we live in can and should be better than they are. Even if Australian politics was in much better shape than it is we’d probably still be gathered here, pushing to improve it further.

But of course, you don’t start a think tank because you think things are pretty good as they stand, and one of the major motivations for starting the CPD is a belief that politics-as-usual is failing us.

In a time of record government surpluses, when there’s an urgent need for investments to put our economy and environment on a sustainable footing, we’re treated to the spectacle of Peter Costello and the self-described ‘Scrooge McSwan’ in a budget weight-loss competition reminiscent of ‘The Biggest Loser’.

In other areas, such as health and education, Australia seems to be in pretty good shape, but the long-term trends are worrying:

• If you take a snapshot of our current health statistics we measure up pretty well, but we’re moving rapidly towards an American-style ‘two tier’ health system – which is unfair and expensive for Americans, and costly to American business.
• The average performance of our school kids is first-rate compared to the rest of the OECD, but on equity we’re near the bottom of the class. 70 per cent of the difference between Australian schools is due to the differences in the social backgrounds of the students – which means that a child can only be sure of getting a good start in life if they’re lucky enough to be born to the right parents.

And on natural resources, the fact that short term political expediency has overridden long-term sustainability is directly responsible for the poor state of our water and energy policies.

A few years ago Costello announced ‘debt free day’ – the day the government cleared its deficit. But the black hole he was so happy to be rid of has turned up in the bank balances of Australian households.

A large part of Australia’s productivity growth has been built on the grave of the Aussie long-weekend. Australia’s culture of overwork is taking a toll on our relationships – but what ordinary worker, geared to the eyeballs, can take the risk of swapping their spending money for more ‘spending time’?

In years of political manoeuvring based on false either-or equations (either the environment or the economy; either jobs growth or fair wages and conditions) we’ve been wasting the opportunity to put in place a considered and strategic industry policy.

This has been particularly hard for responsible employers. We need public policies that reward companies for doing the right thing, instead of pushing them into a race to the bottom. We need to know that our governments have a viable plan for dealing with climate change – a policy which will allow companies to plan for their future energy costs, and which will reward innovators who are ahead of the market on emissions cuts.

Many of these policy failures are actually based on flaws in the basic assumptions made by today’s policy-makers:

• An unbalanced view of human nature, which divides the whole mysterious and complex species we call humanity into the good who deserve their rewards, and the bad who deserve to be punished.
• An ungenerous view of human motivations, which recognizes only our self-interest and not the other, equally powerful impulses of love, care and compassion.
• A blinkered view of the economy, which fails to recognize, for example, that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not vice versa.

Yet strangely, those who are concerned about the influence of this narrow worldview on Australian public policy find it hard to get a word in edgewise in Australian public debate.

This is partly the result of years of being on the back foot – too much time and energy has been spent saying ‘no’, and not enough articulating what ‘yes’ might look like. More effort has gone into trying to turn back the clock than developing new ideas for change.

The CPD will address this by developing a positive, viable agenda for fair & sustainable policy change. But our aim is not to replace one blinkered view of reality with another. In a world grown too complex for simple ideologies, the CPD will not be governed by an ‘ism’. In place of isms we’ll offer values and principles. Rather than wasting time on tired debates about big versus small government, diversity versus social cohesion, or that old chestnut ‘greens versus jobs’, we’ll be basing our policy development on the search for a better balance between markets, governments, society and the environment: what’s the right mix of market mechanisms, taxes, subsidies, and regulation for any given portfolio area? Where risks affect all, how much of the burden of risk should be carried at an individual, government or business level? What kind of policy processes do we need to ensure that the widest possible number of citizens have a say in deciding where that line is drawn?

Our approach could perhaps be summed up as ‘pragmatic idealism’ – radical in our hopes, but more concerned with the everyday realities of implementation than either the neo-conservatives and neo-liberals of the present or the socialists of the past.

Together, we’ll be drawing on the ideas of an eclectic group of thinkers – from economists to scientists, sociologists to systems theorists, from seasoned wonks to emerging writers and academics. It’s significant that launching the CPD here tonight we have Julian, a proudly conservative small-l liberal, John, a seasoned public servant with a social democratic bent, and myself – an upstart ideas junkie with a thirst for social change. This is a group of people who may in fact have little in common except a commitment to shared values and a concern that Australia is growing increasingly less sustainable and less fair.

When we talk about values, we’re not jumping on the ‘Australian values’ bandwagon that has been driven around Canberra so much recently. (Some would argue that we gave up any claim to Australian values when we decided to hold our launch on State of Origin night!)

Precisely because they are both vague and ambiguous but deeply felt, values can be easily exploited, and in Australian politics that’s exactly what happens. Values become nothing more than a marketing exercise. We have a commission on minimum wages with the word fair in its name but not in its terms of reference, or talk about ‘family values’ which seems to have nothing to do with valuing families and everything to do with turning private issues into public issues at election time.

Rather than seeing values as something we have already, to be jealously guarded against those who might take them away from us, we see values like freedom, fairness, stewardship and citizenship as qualities to aspire to – markers of progress on a journey with no fixed endpoint.

We don’t have all the answers. But we will keep asking difficult questions, seeking out interesting ideas, collaborating with creative thinkers, and building powerful alliances.

The launch of the CPD is a sign of the times – a time when critics of the status quo are getting smarter about how we work, and clearer about what we’re working towards.

Although our focus is on good policies, we also recognize the need to democratise the policy-making process itself. I’ve spent most of my twenties trying to find creative ways of involving ‘unusual suspects’ in political debate– and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt it’s that people who disagree on almost everything else can agree that they have the right to be heard, and that this right is under threat. The perception that all the big decisions are made behind closed doors or over boozy lunches between old boys is a large part of many people’s disillusionment with politics.

It’s for this reason that the CPD aims to be more than just an ivory tower of ideas. Instead we will be a ‘think and do tank’, providing the missing link between concerned citizens, experts, and policy makers.

Archimedes once said ‘give me a place to stand, and I shall move the earth’. Even though the CPD is only launching tonight, we already have 20 fellows, hundreds of authors, and thousands of members. We hope to give them all a place to stand.

This is an edited transcript of a speech given at the launch of the Centre for Policy Development, Sydney, May 23 2007