The PM’s ‘here to change the country’, but is he changing it too fast?

Why does the Productivity Commission never measure the productivity of our elected representatives? Sure, it messes around discussing how the bureaucracy and government-funded sectors like health can be more efficient. But what about the actual stars of the show? We have no benchmark for what constitutes political best practice.

Given the pace at which the Albanese government is governing, a bit of benchmarking could be quite helpful. In 2013, the Guardian gave it a go, measuring the amount of legislation passed. According to this measure, Julia Gillard was our most productive PM. Almost half of all the bills she put up were voted through, despite not having a parliamentary majority.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says he’s “not here to occupy the space” but to “change the country”.

Alex Ellinghausen

By contrast, our most recent prime minister Scott Morrison was widely noted for lost bills and reform aversion. He passed up the opportunity presented by his enormous political capital in the first year of the COVID pandemic to change a system mired in sclerosis.

Not for Labor this Liberal torpor. They govern infrequently and with great vigour. It may be that the vigour of Labor governments causes them to govern infrequently, but the lesson they’ve taken is to redouble their efforts to compensate for governing half as often. When Prime Minister Albanese says he’s “not here to occupy the space” but to “change the country” it’s because he knows there’ll likely be limited time on the government benches, but a lifetime on a post-prime ministerial pension to defend his legacy.

So, it’s full steam ahead with all the plans and projects that have seemingly sprung from nowhere since he told the electorate he’d be safe change. But it’d be helpful to get a steer on whether it’s a good way to govern.

For a start, without the help of the Productivity Commission, the government is just improvising on the talk-to-action ratio. Nobody will accuse this government of getting bogged down debating the detail, but would a little bit more help?

Scott Morrison and successor Peter Dutton in 2018.

Alex Ellinghausen

Since last year, when Albanese announced the wording for the Voice at the Garma Festival, there has been a clear desire in the community to discuss how the Voice would work in practice. But the government was reticent to chat, leaving the wording dangling in the wind for eight long months, while doubts accumulated like flies on a carcass.

Without the government as interlocutor, a toxic slanging match started over whether detail is racist. Now the Voice working committee has released wording which, while reportedly representing a happy result for the attorney general and Indigenous leaders, is very strangely framed. It is hard to see a question drafted in convoluted English, which will still need to be translated for multicultural communities, getting up in a referendum. In this case, perhaps more detail and a lively public conversation could have generated a better result.

Similarly, the multi-employer bargaining bill, which the government passed at the end of last year. In the vein of “never ask a question you don’t want to know the answer to”, the treasurer ran a Jobs and Skills Summit which was more or less a closed shop. One of the results was the “Secure Jobs, Better Pay” legislation with very little input from people who run businesses (as opposed to Canberra-based business lobbies).

Chalmers’ “national conversation” on superannuation looks like it might follow a similar pattern. With everything else the government has going on, there’s not much of a public conversation taking place. Unless you are immersed in the news, you could be forgiven for thinking the change to the tax concession, which only affects the already well-to-do, was the whole chat. It’s not, of course, but while we’re distracted, the “national” conversation has turned into a discussion between eggheads. The public won’t have any input until the review is complete, at which stage it’s too late.

The AUKUS submarine acquisition announcement occupied the news for at least a whole week, but that was mostly because former prime minister Paul Keating let loose on it with verbal missiles. If it hadn’t been for this masthead’s Red Alert series, many people would hardly have been aware what the submarines are for. After a short time in the news, the subs were once again submerged, while the defence establishment was left scratching its head over where the “efficiencies” to pay for them will come from. The uncertainty has led to defence holding back projects while it works out where the cuts will be. It would be stupid if a half-finished conversation were to leave Australia less safe in the near term.

Albanese’s Housing Australia Future Fund could and should be part of a bigger discussion. The two other pillars of Labor’s housing policy, a new National Housing Supply and Affordability Council to provide independent advice on addressing these challenges, and a National Housing and Homelessness Plan, also deserve attention. But attention is a commodity we’re just about out of.

The question is whether, in working so fast, the government is prioritising quantity of legislation over long-term success. There are many great ideas on the go, but as the problems with Gillard’s National Disability Insurance Scheme are showing us, even great ideas need careful design for effective delivery. The problems besetting the NDIS were not unforeseeable, but now they’re entrenched they are proving intractable.

There’s yet another project the government is planning: an overhaul of the Productivity Commission itself. Perhaps this is the opportunity to ask the economists if prolific policy is the most productive way to govern. Should it slow down so that important policies don’t end up suffering from a severe case of attention deficit disorder?

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