How effectively does Australia’s government develop strategic policy solutions and foster dialogue in the process?
The Management Index assesses a country’s capacity for reform. Three categories examine the ability to plan and implement policies. Accountability assesses the extent to which non-executive actors are included in the political process.
The Commonwealth public service makes extensive use of committees to undertake strategic planning, and these committees are generally geared towards their peak of activity immediately before and after the transition to a new government, and in the pre-budget period. The public service also maintains a single department, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, with the aim of coordinating and directing strategic planning across the government as a whole.
The Labor government elected in 2007 appears to have increased emphasis on strategic planning, thus commissioning numerous reviews, inquiries and committees in 2008 on a range of policy domains, including pensions, taxes and climate change. The Labor government has also emphasized a “whole of government” approach to policy-making and service delivery. In response, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet prepared a detailed set of recommendations in a discussion paper “Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration,” which is currently under consideration. The paper has 28 recommendations focused mainly around the provision of effective service delivery, strategic planning, and creating a skilled and responsive public service.
Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration. Available at http://www.dpmc.gov.au/publications/aga_reform/aga_reform_blueprint/index.cfm#blueprint. Accessed 21 April 2010.
Since the late 1990s, and particularly since 2007, the federal government has funded a range of specialist centers and institutes aimed at undertaking fundamental research and planning, the findings from which feed into government policy. Examples include government support for regulation and compliance centers at the Australian National University, with the Regulatory Institutions Network (RegNet), and the establishment of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government, which is a postgraduate faculty set up by the Australia and New Zealand governments, and by the state governments in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.
Despite these formal mechanisms, academic influence on government decision-making is relatively limited, although there have been some indications of greater receptiveness to “evidence-based” policy formulation under the Labor government, with the Prime Minister having called it a key element of the government’s agenda for the public service.
Regulatory Institutions Network (RegNet). http://regnet.anu.edu.au/
Australia and New Zealand School of Government. http://www.anzsog.edu.au/
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is the most powerful Commonwealth public service department. The secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is also the head of the federal public service. In its role of co-ordinating government policy and ensuring a consistent and coherent legislative program, the Department has the capacity to return any item it considers conflicts with the government’s overall policy agenda. However, it is unlikely that occasion would arise, since the Department would be involved at an early stage in assisting with the drafting of any significant policy initiatives, so it would not reach an advanced stage without Department approval.
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is always involved at an early stage in assisting with the development and drafting of any significant government policy and the resulting legislation. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the relevant department would have to both agree on a policy before it could be tabled in cabinet or considered by the relevant minister or ministers.
Non-major policy initiatives do not need to be presented to the cabinet if all relevant ministers agree to its implementation.
In line with the other established democracies, the scope and complexity of government policy has increased dramatically in recent years, making the use of cabinet committees crucial to effectively manage government business. Most items are considered by subcommittees of cabinet prior to full cabinet discussion, some of which are ad hoc (such as a committee charged with handling a national disaster, for example) others (such as the Security Committee or the Expenditure Review Committee) being semi-permanent standing committees.
Much of the more minor government business (such as statutory appointments and routine decision-making) is dealt with outside cabinet by the relevant public servants and junior ministers, and the decisions tabled as an addendum to cabinet papers. They are rarely, if ever, raised for discussion, though the opportunity exists for cabinet members to do so. Public servants, led by the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, are responsible, in consultation with the prime minister, for drawing up cabinet agendas. Confidentiality of cabinet meetings and their preparation means it is not possible to determine the precise proportion of agenda items that are prepared by senior public servants. However, public servants clearly play an important role in the development of many policy proposals and also filter out or settle many issues.
There is generally a high level of coordination between line ministry public servants. In most cases this must involve, at a minimum, the Department of Finance and the Treasury, since they are responsible for resourcing any new policy developments, and these must feed into the government’s spending and budget cycle. Where there are legal implications, there must be coordination with the Attorney-General’s Department. Departments least likely to coordinate their activities across the government portfolio are Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade, since their activities have least implications across the other portfolios.
Coordination is especially effective when proposals are driven by the political leadership, but is less effective on policy matters initiated at the level of the minister or department, in part reflecting greater uncertainty among civil servants as to the support for the proposal from the political leadership.
Information coordination procedures exist at the level of the party, where informal soundings on policies take place on a regular basis to sure that the party leadership supports the government’s direction; this occurs regardless of which party is in office. The federal system, and the division of responsibilities between the federal government and the state and territory governments, means that informal coordination is always an important component of any policy that may involve the states. These procedures are ad hoc, and take place at two levels, among ministers from different jurisdictions, and at the level of senior public servants.
The federal government and the state and territory governments require the preparation of Regulation Impact Statements (RIS) for significant regulatory proposals. An RIS provides a formal assessment of the costs and benefits of a regulatory proposal and alternative options for that proposal, followed by a recommendation supporting the most effective and efficient option. Regulation Impact Statements are thus not assessments of socioeconomic impacts of regulatory proposals, although implicitly such impacts are taken into account as part of the process. Moreover, RIS do not apply to draft laws that are not of a regulatory nature - for example, changes to tax and transfer policies. Indeed, they are generally only applicable to proposed regulations affecting businesses.
Since many government functions and responsibilities are shared between the federal government and the states, these shared activities are coordinated through the Council of Australian Governments, which is the body that brings the federal and state governments together to decide policy. The procedures for the preparation of RIS proposals differ between the federal government and the Council of Australian Governments. Most states and territories have their own requirements for RISs that apply where a regulation will have effect in only a single state or territory. At the federal level, RISs are managed by the Office of Best Practice Regulation, which is part of the Department of Finance and Deregulation.
For regulations affecting businesses, Australia was one of the first countries to pioneer Regulation Impact Statements in the 1980s, and since then the procedures have become very formalized. The preparation of a RIS follows a standard procedure which gathers the information that will enable the policymakers to evaluate the extent to which the proposed regulatory changes will result in a net benefit to the community.
RIAs are now a well-established procedure in the state and federal public services, and recent changes have strengthened the depth involved in the process. The Commonwealth government – and most of the state and territory governments– require RIAs to be robust and transparent. The RIAs do evaluate on an evidence basis the cost and benefits of alternative options, as well as the feasibility of non-legislative options so as to reduce the compliance costs.
Traditionally, Labor governments have been more amenable to consultation with trade unions and Liberal governments have been more amenable to consultation with business groups, but governments of both persuasions are capable of engaging in extensive consultation on one policy, and no consultation on other policy. For example, recently, the Labor government has been heavily criticized for not consulting with mining companies prior to proposing a new profits-based mining royalties regime. At the same time, the government has engaged in a vigorous effort to engage local communities on various policy issues by hosting the Australia 2020 Summit, holding numerous Community Cabinet Meetings and hosting jobs and training summits.
Australian governments have made considerable efforts to align their policy priorities with the messages that they communicate to the public. This has been aided by very strong discipline across all the major political parties (perhaps the strongest among the Westminster democracies) and a tradition of suppressing dissent within the parties (often by the threat of de-selection at the next election); strong adherence to the Westminster doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility; and an activist mass media and political opposition which will seek to exploit any apparent policy divisions within government.
Focusing on the Labor government elected in 2007, the government has a majority in the lower house of Representatives, but not in the upper house, the Senate. This has posed a problem for the government in passing major pieces of legislation. For example, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme was passed by the lower house but was defeated in the Senate in December 2009; the measure was designed to combat climate change and was a major plank in the government’s 2007 election platform.
One further complicating factor in some aspects of the government’s legislative program is the relationship with the states and territories under the federal system. While the Commonwealth has the power to override the states and territories in many areas, it endeavors to implement legislation that affects the states through agreement. In some areas, such as Indigenous affairs, water resources, a national school curriculum, and the funding of health, this has proved to be problematic.
Strong party discipline and adherence to the Westminster doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility ensure that ministers have strong incentives to implement the government’s program, rather than follow their own self-interest. In addition, the increasingly predominant role of the prime minister in all parliamentary systems, and not least Australia’s, has increased this tendency.
There is strong central oversight of the line ministries by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which reports directly to the prime minister. The Commonweath public service, while independent of the government, is strongly motivated to support the government’s program and that level of compliance has arguably increased over the past 10 years.
There are a large number of government Commonwealth agencies which have some degree of autonomy from government; in 2004 there were 160 such agencies. Since 1996, the government has sought to ensure that these agencies act more directly to support government policy and remain accountable to ministers. A major report, the “Review of the Corporate Governance of Statutory Authorities and Office Holders,” also called the “Uhrig Review,” recommended in 2004 measures designed to strengthen the link between such agencies and the relevant minister. Recommendations made in the Uhrig Review are currently in the process of being implemented, and a range of agencies have been either abolished or amalgamated, or their functions absorbed by the relevant department.
In part designed to mitigate the continuous conflict between the Commonwealth and the states and territories over funding, the Commonwealth government introduced in 2001 the consumption tax (the Goods and Services Tax, or GST), with all of the funds collected by the GST being passed to the states to fund their responsibilities. In return, the states agreed to abolish their small, inefficient taxes. The states and territories have a mixed record in abolishing these taxes and the disputes between the Commonwealth and the states and territories over the funding of their local services have remained. In 2010 there was a major dispute over the funding of health and hospitals. Ultimately, all but one of the states agreed to transfer responsibility for public hospitals to the federal government in return for an increased level of funding.
The responsibilities of the Commonwealth and of the states and territories are clearly laid out in the Australian constitution. However, they have been subject to judicial review over the course of the century, and this has resulted in the increasing centralization of executive power. In turn, the policies of the major political parties have been to increase this centralization in the interests of fiscal and administrative efficiency. The states and territories have sought legal redress through the courts on the occasions when they have felt that their authority has been diminished by the Commonwealth government.
The federal government has also on a number of occasions used its superior financial position to coerce state governments to relinquish powers or adopt favored policies of the federal government, which has had the effect of subverting their constitutional scope of discretion. Most recently, in April 2010 the federal government took control of the public hospitals in all but one state in return for increased funding.
The Commonwealth has a strong commitment to providing uniform national services and considerable efforts are committed to ensuring that program delivery, particularly in health and education, are as uniform as possible across the country. This is necessarily complicated by distance, and the larger states (Queensland and Western Australia) are given additional funding to deliver their services, simply because of their huge geographic size. Recommendations on funding across the states, and the allocation of goods and services tax revenue, is the responsibility of an independent statutory authority, the Commonwealth Grants Commission.
A particular problem with relation to national standards, which has defeated all governments whatever their political complexion, has been the special problem of providing national standards of service to Indigenous communities.
Successive governments have had a strong commitment to adapting domestic political institutions so that they conform to accepted international standards, and to the treaties and conventions to which Australia is a signatory. Perhaps the only major treaty in recent years to which Australia has not been an initial signatory, and which has therefore not affected domestic political institutions, is the Kyoto Agreement on climate change. The Labor government elected in 2007 ratified the Kyoto Agreement, just hours after being sworn into office by the Governor-General.
Reforms to government structures themselves are, however, generally driven by domestic considerations, since there have been few international developments in recent times perceived as requiring modifications to the organization or cooperation among ministries or between national and state and territory governments.
Australia has been an active participant and instigator of various international conventions, forums and activities. Areas of particular interest for the Commonwealth have been security, defense, crime, the environment, human rights and economic development. In all these areas Australia has been a leader in furthering international cooperation to deal with the problems that arise. Australia has been particularly active in the World Trade Organization in seeking an end of tariff protection among the affluent countries and to liberalize international trade.
During the review period, the government’s predisposition towards participation in international cooperative efforts has heightened, following the election of the Labor government in 2007 under the leadership of Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat with a strong interest in international affairs. The Labor government has actively promoted Australia as a regional leader. In March 2008 the government announced that it would seek a non-permanent seat in the United Nations in 2013-2014, and the government has also promoted the idea of a regional economic forum, in order to coordinate economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.
There are few formal mechanisms for regular ongoing monitoring of institutional arrangements of governing, but the Commonwealth has had periodic investigations into the appropriateness of various institutional arrangements. These have involved the operation of the public service, as well as reviews of the legal arrangements governing statutory authorities (the Uhrig Review, see Monitoring Agencies), reviews of defense procurement and capability, and more specialized reviews of particular aspects of departments or events. A major review of the taxation system began in March 2008 and will report in May 2010 (the Henry Review, see Budgetary Policy). On climate change, a major review was set up in 2008, and reported in 2009.
For the most part, recommendations made by reviews of government have been accepted and implemented. These investigations have covered all aspects of government responsibility including, finance, taxation, social welfare, defense, security and the environment. There have been frequent structural changes made to the main Commonwealth government departments, sometimes to respond to changing demands and responsibilities, but sometimes these changes are made simply for political purposes that serve no strategic purpose, and may indeed be strategically detrimental. For example, the main department that is responsible for health has changed its name at least five times in the past two decades in response to changes made in its responsibilities.
The Australian Election Study (AES) surveys, which have been conducted since 1987, show a high level of policy knowledge on socioeconomic issues, which forms the main area of conflict between the main parties. Voters are also relatively well informed about environmental issues, which have been widely canvassed in recent elections. This is especially true of the 2007 federal election in which climate change and the policy response to it were major issues. Issues that are not regularly debated by political elites, such as immigration, defense or foreign affairs, are less well understood by the public.
Parliamentary committees have the power to require people to attend, including ministers; the power to require that evidence be given; and the power to require that documents be provided. These powers derive from the Constitution. Since 1987, certain powers, privileges and immunities of parliament have been codified in the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987. In practice, committees can obtain what government documents they require, except in instances where documents contain matters that are commercial-in-confidence, and certain aspects of national security.
Ministers must attend if summoned and are required to answer questions from committee members. By convention, ministers are never summoned, but it is rare for a minister to decline an invitation or request to appear before a committee.
There is a close congruence between the areas of responsibility of government departments and the standing committees of parliament. The pattern is slightly complicated by the fact that each house has its own set of committees, as well as a third set of committees which are “joint” standing committees composed of members of both houses, although these also cohere with department areas (for example, defense, foreign affairs, health and so on). If standing committees of the lower House of Representatives are considered, the congruence is very close.
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) is an independent statutory authority responsible to parliament The Auditor-General is responsible, under the Auditor-General Act 1997, for providing auditing services to the parliament and public sector entities. The ANAO supports the Auditor-General, who is an independent officer of the parliament. The ANAO’s primary client is the parliament. The ANAO provides parliament with an independent assessment of selected areas of public administration, and assurances about public sector financial reporting, administration, and accountability. This is done primarily by conducting performance and financial statement audits.
The position of Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office was established in 1977, with the ombudsman being appointed by parliament and charged with representing the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints reported by individual citizens. Its services are free of charge.
Reporting and discussion within the mass media concerning government decisions and policy varies between the various types of media. In the commercial electronic media, reporting tends to be superficial, although the government does go to considerable lengths to try and improve the quality of information by having ministers and the prime minister regularly appear on talkback radio shows, for example. The Liberal government from 1996 - 2007 was particularly effective at this type of media use, and the Labor government elected in 2007 has also emphasized the use of talkback radio to disseminate its policies to the electorate.
In the publicly funded electronic media, there is considerably more discussion and debate about political issues, which is generally of a high quality. The situation in the newspapers is similar to the electronic media, with the popular newspapers providing superficial coverage and the quality broadsheets providing balanced, in-depth coverage and discussion.
The electoral platforms of the two major parties, Labor and Liberal-National (treating the Liberal and National parties as a single entity since they have been in almost permanent coalition) are coherent and plausible. The platforms focus almost exclusively on socioeconomic outcomes (though more recently security issues have also emerged) and as a result are focused towards practical policies designed to achieve the desired outcomes.
The major interest associations run by the employers and business groups and the trade unions all propose practical, plausible policies. The main explanation for this is that there is a long history of involvement and policy consultation with most of the groups (business groups are closely allied with the Liberal Party, for example, farmers’ and rural groups with the National Party, and trade unions with the Labor Party).
Many elected representatives have, at some point in their career, been a member of one of these groups, further cementing relations with the interest groups. There are also considerable formal and informal networks linking the various groups to the major political parties, further consolidating the development of practical and coherent policies.
A number of social interest groups, environmental groups and religious groups take responsible and well-considered positions and are therefore taken very seriously by government, although there are also groups that take extreme positions. The extent to which the proposals are well thought-out and feasible correspondingly varies considerably. In general, the proposals from mainstream interest groups are of high quality in part because of the reasons given under Association Competence, but in part also because many elected representatives are drawn from these groups, or have had considerable contact with them prior to their election. The proposals also tend to be high quality because of the expertise of the groups themselves, and their narrow (often single-issue) interest which means the groups can focus exclusively on a single problem and the ways in which it can be resolved.
Governments in charge
SGI 2011 review period (May 2008 to April 2010) is outlined. Shown are: Prime minister or president, type of government, and ruling parties. Asterisks indicate national parliamentary or presidential elections.
Country scores and texts were produced by the country coordinator, based on comprehensive assessments by two country experts.
Prof. Aurel Croissant University of Heidelberg
Prof. Ian McAllister Australian National University, Canberra