National Policy for Sale?
27 September 2018 at 7:45 am
As long as the richest and most powerful have the greatest influence over national policy, the interests of our communities will be poorly reflected in many areas of national policy making, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie.
One of the most frustrating aspects of being a charity is the sense that our views, expertise and knowledge of what works are so often dismissed, ignored or treated with disdain. The influence of charities on the national policy agenda is relatively insignificant. Charities struggle to get the issues that are of major concern to their communities on the national agenda. Even when the issues of concern to charities are being addressed, it is often the most economically and politically powerful that drive the outcomes.
This week the Grattan Institute published a detailed analysis of policy making in our governments around Australia concluding that: “Who’s in the room – and who’s in the news – matters for policy outcomes. Powerful groups have triumphed over the public interest in some recent debates, from pokies reform to pharmaceutical prices, to toll roads and superannuation governance. Stronger checks and balances on policy influence are needed, to make Australian politics cleaner and fairer.” (Who’s in the Room – Access and Influence in Australian Politics, Danielle Wood and Kate Griffiths)
Most of us know that policy making in Australia is not clean or fair, that each policy option will not be considered on its merit, that evidence about effectiveness and benefit or even best practice may or may not be considered. Support for certain policies is often driven by political and economic interests rather than what is in the longer-term interests of all Australians.
How else can you explain the restrictions on who can operate a pharmacy and where, or the payment of over $3 billion a year of taxpayer money to unnamed pharmacy owners in a closed agreement between the government and Pharmacy Guild? The economic and political power of the Pharmacy Guild means they extract benefits at the expense of better access to medicines for all Australians.
This Grattan report highlights some of the ways in which policy-shaping influence is exercised including; meetings with ministers, hosting dinners and fundraising events, conducting politically motivated research, direct political donations and jobs for politicians once they leave office.
Not surprisingly the report identifies major vested interests and industries like mining, gambling, alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceutical, for-profit superannuation companies, toll road builders and others as playing a major role in our public policy formulation, often to the detriment of public interest.
The report highlights many issues, but perhaps more importantly, it proposes solutions through eight recommendations for reform. One of these recommendations specifically addresses the issue of how governments develop policy and the capacity of community groups to have input.
Time and again I hear governments say they have consulted in developing their policies, but the charities working in the specific policy areas have often had no say, or had their say watered down through a compliant consultancy firm hired to provide the government with the answer it wanted.
In many cases, what the government describes as consultation is a very targeted approach of listening to those who have political and economic power and ensuring the powerful groups are onside with whatever policy change the government intends to adopt.
On the rare occasions when policy is partly informed by broader consultations with charities and the communities they serve, the consultation process is often no more than a sham tin-eared tick the box exercise in confirming what was going to happen anyway.
The Grattan report argues that to deliver better decision making in the public interest we need to “boost countervailing voices through more inclusive policy review processes and advocacy for under-represented groups to give politicians and public ofﬁcials better information with which to adjudicate the public interest”.
This recommendation is consistent with positions CCA has long advocated. It is not a new idea. Some governments argue they have taken the need for better consultation on board and are trying to implement more of this co-design and community driven approach. Despite this rhetoric there is very limited evidence that existing government consultation practices are improving.
The recommendation to better enable broader policy input does not sit alone in terms of the reforms advocated to “level the playing field” of influence in national policy making. The Grattan report argues that we also need to cap political expenditure: “Cap political advertising expenditure by political parties and third parties during election campaigns to reduce the imbalance between groups with different means to broadcast political views and limit the reliance of major political parties on individual donors.”
Major political parties have a real advantage during elections because they can outgun any minor party through their bigger advertising and electioneering expenditure. Major parties spend tens of millions of dollars on their campaigns, money smaller political parties just do not have. It is difficult to see major political parties agreeing to limit their advantage in the interests of a stronger democracy, but there would be some upsides for all involved in the political process if election spending caps meant our politicians and prospective candidates did not have to invest so much of their time raising money for their party or their campaign.
There are six other recommendations in this Grattan report that address the core issues of; “improving transparency in policy making” (this includes publishing ministers’ diaries) and “strengthening policy making accountability” (this includes an integrity or anti-corruption body).
CCA believes that for as long as the richest and most powerful have the greatest influence over national policy, the interests of our communities will be poorly reflected in many areas of national policy making. If we want to build flourishing communities, if we want to create the kind of Australia we want to live in, we need to reform the policy-making process to ensure the needs of our communities are the primary factor in national policy decisions.
The Grattan report recommendations are a great starting point for the reforms to national policy making that Australia desperately needs.
For those interested, CCA will be co-hosting a national roundtable in Canberra to discuss the Grattan report recommendation for reforms with a view to adopting all eight recommendations as core policy. You can contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in participating.
Full copies of the Grattan report Who’s in the Room – Access and Influence in Australian Politics by Danielle Wood and Kate Griffiths can be downloaded here.
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.