Good govt requires more than mere memories - Canberra Times

Good govt requires more than mere memories, Canberra Times, 2 February

A little over a century ago, GK Chesterton wrote that ‘Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.’[1]

Well told, history is always more exciting than the present. In her latest Quarterly Essay, ‘Political Amnesia’, Laura Tingle demonstrates how a fine wordsmith can skip the dull bits, and compress the achievements of decades into a handful of pages. We’re treated to the best insights of the post-war economic policymakers known as the ‘Seven Dwarfs’. We hear about the creation of capital gains and fringe benefits taxes, over the objections of the naysayers. I challenge you to read Tingle’s description of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating’s achievements, and not want to carve their faces onto the side of Mt Ainslie.

As these stories unfold, we are treated to some gems. We’ll never know precisely how much money was lost by the Howard Government’s decision to sell dozens of government buildings and then lease them back. But it should have been obvious to any economist that if you know you’re going to occupy a site, then ‘sale and leaseback’ makes little sense. When Australian property prices doubled, taxpayers footed the bill for the Howard Government’s ideological frolic.

The essay also delivers the pithiest epitaph I’ve yet come across for the two years after the 2013 election: ‘Instead of a government that went about its business delivering sensible, articulated policy, voters got broken promises of a spectacular magnitude and a politics of three-word slogans which seemed perpetually stuck in the mode of opposition.’ Try producing a better summary of the Abbott Government than those 37 choice words.

Like Chesterton’s ‘democracy of the dead’ quote, there is much to love about Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay. And yet, both leave me feeling slightly uneasy.

One reason for this is that Tingle’s critique of the present sometimes overlooks aspects of the past. Casting an eye down the reference list, I was surprised to see that over half were 2015 publications – a surprisingly young set of citations for an essay that urges its readers to take history more seriously.

As the saying goes, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Tingle puts considerable emphasis on leadership turnover in recent years. But if you look across all major political leaders – state and federal, opposition and government – it turns out that the big rise in instability was from the 1960s (when only 16% lost their jobs every year) to the 1980s (when 27% lost their jobs every year).[2] Taken as a whole, Australian leadership turnover today isn’t much higher than it was in the 1980s.

Similarly, when it comes to public servants, Tingle bemoans the fact that the median length of service in 2014 was ‘only’ 9.4 years (p.37). But what she doesn’t tell us is that in 1985, it was 7 years.[3] On this measure, the typical public servant has one-third more institutional memory today than a generation ago.

Related to this, it’s hard to think of a significant Australian reform from which the public service has not been central. In 2012, the Grattan Institute named ten major reforms over the past four decades that have underpinned our prosperity: Medicare; floating the dollar; tariff reduction; government enterprise privatisation; setting interest rates through the Reserve Bank; national competition policy; superannuation; broadening the income tax base; the GST; and changes to the structure and funding of the higher education sector. Every single one of them has been underpinned by the public service.

The same goes for the big reforms in the years since: the National Disability Insurance Scheme and our nation’s short-lived emissions trading scheme. More generally, it’s hard to imagine Australia could have implemented a world-leading gun buyback in 1997 or a fiscal stimulus package that averted recession in 2009 without the deep engagement of the public service.

Of course, Tingle is right to bemoan the gutting of the Department of Finance in the late-1990s, the partisan firings of senior public servants in 2013 and 2014, and the severe cuts to Treasury in recent years. But Australia’s public service remains a force to be reckoned with.

Laura Tingle is spot on when she says our public service, parliament and media could benefit from ‘learning to remember’ as a way out of what can sometimes seem like a Mobius loop of crisis. But I can’t help feeling a little too much Chesterton through the essay – a sense that the hand of history sometimes presses a little too heavily. Just as Chesterton is too quick to dismiss the electorate as ‘those who merely happen to be walking about’, Tingle’s idealised world seems to have too many mandarins and too few mandates. Our political and policy institutions must reflect the challenges in front of us, even as they draw strength from the legacies that lie behind.

What, then, is to be done?

First, Laura Tingle is right that a great public service is critical to Australia’s future. When people claim that we have too many public servants, it’s worth recalling that 18 percent of Australian workers are employed by the public sector, well below the OECD average of 21 percent.[4] When right-wing think-tanks claim that bureaucrats are overpaid, it helps to remember that the average level of education is significantly higher in the public service than the private sector. It’s time to draw the curtain on talk of ‘meat axes’ and ‘bloated’ public services, and recognise that Australia has fewer federal public servants than we did eight years ago, despite the population being one-fifth larger. Whether you’re a progressive who believes in the power of government to improve lives, or a conservative who honours institutions, the public service merits the respect of both sides of politics.

Second, we need to build a better feedback loop. At present, many evaluations of government programs are of such low quality that the taxpayer would be better served by not conducting them in the first place. While many other advanced countries are expanding their use of randomised evaluations, Australian evaluations rarely compare the intervention to a credible control group. It is one thing to remember that a program was piloted a decade ago. But if no high-quality evaluations were ever conducted, then there is little of practical value worth remembering. By contrast, early childhood policy across the world continues to build on high-quality randomised trials conducted in the United States in the 1960s, such as the Perry Preschool Program, the Abecedarian Early Intervention Project, and the Early Training Project.[5] High-quality evaluations that show programs to be ineffective are equally useful. Unless we learn from the mistakes of the past, we’ll keep making them – and at great public expense.

Third, our institutions need to be more porous. Public servants benefit from international exchange programs, secondments to academia, and stints in business. In my own case, a six-month secondment from the Australian National University to the Australian Treasury allowed me to bring in academic ideas, and take back practical experience to inform my research. Both sides of politics ought to take a more relaxed approach towards public servants who have been seconded to work for a minister on ‘the other side’. The public service could also make better use of expert advisory groups – with signed confidentiality statements where necessary – to engage on complex challenges. This will typically be far cheaper than outsourcing policy work to consultants, and helps strengthen the policymaking capacity of the public service. The public service also needs to continually build up its capacity to engage with the electorate, through a more open approach to data, publishing reports in formats the average voter might actually read, and placing fewer restrictions on the use of social media by public servants. 

Yes, we need a polity that remembers. But we also need one which respects institutions, evaluates policies properly, and engages in a deeper conversation about the great Australian project.

Andrew Leigh is a parliamentarian and writer. His latest book is The Luck of Politics.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, in “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy (1908), p. 85

[2] Andrew Leigh, 2015, The Luck of Politics, Black Inc, Melbourne, p.88

[3] Public Service and Merit Protection Commissioner, 2000, State of the Service Report 1999–00, Australian Government, Canberra, p.60 (available at

[4] OECD, 2015, Government at a Glance - 2015 edition, OECD, Paris.

[5] See for example L.J Schweinhart and D.P Weikart. 1980, Young Children Grow Up: The Effects of the Perry Preschool Program on Youths Through Age 15. High/Scope Press, Ypsilanti, MI.

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  • commented 2016-02-06 22:46:26 +1100
    I’m intrigued in your statistic about the median term of service in 1985. It would be interesting to tease that out a bit – was it the lower levels or the higher levels that were moving? Were people being promoted in the same area? – in which case the claim about greater corporate memory would still be true. Was this before the structural change into “bands”, which meant that people could increase their salary without changing jobs?

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