Friday, July 22, 2011

Do Australian political leaders lack vision?

I ended my last post asking why the major political parties in Australia seem to be finding it more difficult to promote sensible policies. One possible explanation I hear quite frequently is that our political leaders lack vision. The argument seems to be that the policies of the major parties are too easily blown around by powerful interest groups because the leaders are no longer anchored to a set of values that their parties stand for.

The argument is expressed most often about the prime minister. I often hear people ask: Who is the true Julia? What does she really believe in? What does stand for? (A recent example is in the remarks by Paul Gardner here.)

I am not about to become an apologist for the prime minister, but it seems to me that those questions are unfair. Julia Gillard tells an authentic story about her origins, the use she made of the educational opportunities available to her and the values she holds relating to opportunity and responsibility. Why can’t more people accept that she means what she says when she argues that ‘Labor's modern mission’ is ‘to spread opportunity with a matching sense of responsibility’?

One of Gillard’s problems is that her espousal of opportunity and responsibility seems vague and out of kilter with the leftist views she is known to have held in the past. Some people might feel that she is using the language of opportunity and security as a cover for statism and wealth redistribution.

The leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, has a somewhat different problem stemming from his background. Abbott makes no secret of the fact that in his youth he was strongly influenced by Bob Santamaria, a catholic political ideologue, who was a particularly divisive figure in Australian politics. The problem that poses for Abbott is that some people think the values he has espoused are a cover for paternalistic conservatism.

So, what values has Abbott espoused? In his book, ‘Battlelines’, Abbott poses the question: “How can Australians, individually and collectively come closer to being their ‘best selves’ and what can the Liberal Party do to bring this about?” (p79). That question seems to me to imply a strong set of values relating to individual aspirations. The doubts that some people have about Abbott stem from the possibility that he may be inclined to impose a social conservative’s view of what it means to be ‘one’s best self’ rather than respecting the rights of every individual to live according to their own views of what it means to be ‘one’s best self’.

It seems to me that the claim that our political leaders lack vision is garbage. The values that Gillard and Abbott currently espouse deserve to be recognized and considered on their merits, even if there are be grounds for suspicion that both are still influenced by their respective ideological histories.

There should be more focus on the similarities and differences between the values that Gillard and Abbott espouse . It seems to me that Gillard’s ‘opportunity and responsibility’ is closely allied to allowing and helping people to come closer to being their ‘best selves’. The difference is that Gillard puts more emphasis on spreading opportunity while Abbott would probably put more emphasis on encouraging greater productivity and individual excellence. There is still potential for the major parties to compete for votes on the basis of their emphasis of different values even though the old political divide based on attitudes toward the role of the state have greatly diminished.

So, if lack of vision is not the problem, what is? The prime minister has failed to ensure that ‘opportunity and responsibility’ are reflected in policy development outside of education and social welfare. For example, the national broadband network seems to be as much about reducing opportunity for people in the big cities, by restricting competition, as it is about expanding opportunities for people in regional areas. Health policy seems to be more about attempting to reduce risk factors through greater government regulation, rather than encouraging individuals to take greater responsibility for their own health.

The leader of the opposition has adopted a small target strategy. Rather than promoting new policies to encourage greater productivity, he continues to recite the mantra he took to the last election about ending the waste, repaying debt, stopping the new taxes and stopping the boats.

What are the incentives for politicians to adopt small target strategies? What role does the media play in this? Why don’t journalists do more to hold political leaders to account for lack of consistency between their high ideals and the policies they adopt? Is there anything that ordinary people can do to raise the level of political debate in this country?

Jim Belshaw - an historian, economist, management consultant and blogger - has suggested in a comment below that there is a lack of good policy ideas and that people like me (and himself) have something to answer for in that regard. Jim has also posted a more extensive comment on his blog.


Anonymous said...

Your gripe appears to be with the PM framing responsibility as anything other than individual responsibility, and perhaps using the word 'collective' as a non-pejorative. Just my take on your take. You'd be right at home in America.

Winton Bates said...

If you take a look at the context in which the PM talks about 'opportunity and responsibility' I think you will find that she is talking about individual responsibility. My gripe is that these values are not reflected in policies outside of social welfare and education.

Jim Belshaw said...

I have always been cautious about the use of the word vision, especially since it lost so much meaning through mis-use in an organisational sense. You know, our vision is.....

While accepting that both the PM and Opposition Leader do in fact have values and principles, I would also argue that there is a core policy and political problem that I would simply describe as lack of ideas.

Policy has become so mechanistic that we have lost sight of the role played by ideas in developing new approaches. We talk a lot about efficiency and effectiveness, but for what purpose? We talk about standards or competencies, but fail to recognise the limitations built into those concepts. We talk about statistics and use them to set key performance indicators, but fail to ask what the statistics actually mean.

If you take education policy as an example and break it into its component parts, it's all about process, standards, incentives, measurement, regulation. To the degree that the purpose of education is discussed, it's all about national efficiency.

Perhaps you and I as economists have something to answer for?

Winton Bates said...

Jim, I had some difficulty understanding the point you were making. My initial reaction was that there is no lack of policy ideas. The main problem seems to me to be that politicians are reluctant to raise new ideas publicly in a form in which they can be readily discussed because politicians who put forward new ideas can easily be made to look foolish in the media. So, we tend to have vague statements of values that most people seem to find difficult to consider seriously, or statements to the effect that the government/ opposition actually proposes to do x, y or z without prior public discussion of the objectives or the relative merits of policy options.

However, you are suggesting that people like us should be doing a better job of throwing ideas into the ring and you raise education as an example. I have to resist the urge to be defensive. I have did some work on education policy some time ago. My emphasis was on choice, competition, incentives and measurement of performance of teachers/schools. I see education as a market much like any other market that should ultimately be about giving consumers what they want and are prepared to pay for. Some people think that is a bit crass, but it seems to be much less crass than what emerges from a centralized bureaucracy. If people are prepared to pay to have their kids learn the classics then I think it would be great if we had a system that could still deliver that. I don’t like the tendency to try to run education like the military with standardization - uniform curriculum and all that – in the name of efficiency. When people talk about efficiency in education they seem to focus excessively on things like qualifications, meal tickets and meeting skill shortages rather than on learning.

So, in the end, I am agreeing with you.

Winton Bates said...

I also 'have did' some education a long time ago, but apparently not enough to learn to read what I have written before I publish!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton, and thanks for for the addendum to your post.

I didn't want to make you defensive!Mind you, I do also want to challenge some of your impicit assumptions!

Yesterday here in Sydney Joe Hockey's Earle Page College speech about young people received a fair bit of coverage. It did so because of the point you were making in your first para. A polly who canvassed ideas and principles.

Now in your second para you put togther several things. You could argue, I think wth justices, that in official jargon on choice tech conflicts with what is actually done. It's all about control.

That still leaves open the question of the degree to which "market based choice" is in fact the best way to go.

I suppose I should say at the outset that I have a general presupposition towards market based choices. But how do we accommodate externalities? Further, in considering externalities, how do we manage the broader role of education in social terms?

Winton Bates said...

I acknowledege that there are some important externalities in education, Jim. There are spillover benefits when kids get educated (and not just from keeping them off the streets and out of mischief). For example, I think there are particularly strong positive externalities in learning English. Societies tend not to work too well when people speak different languages.

A lot of the relevant considerations can be fitted into an opportunity-responsiblity framework. Hopefully, the federal government has been asking itself what is the best way to ensure all kids get more than a minimal education.

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