In recent years we’ve seen a number of colossal Government policy failures, including the National Broadband Network and the home insulation scheme, which is now being investigated by a Royal Commission. These failures have resulted from poor policy development processes at the centre of Government, representing a failure to fully adopt the push toward evidence-based policy in the 2000s. Given the risks that bad policies can pose to the economy, we need to reconsider at least two rules that operate in both Commonwealth and State Governments. These rules are:
- Cabinet documents are not released to the public for 20-30 years, and
- Election commitments are not to be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as other policies, as confirmed in a recent guide prepared for Commonwealth Public Servants (see Abbott’s push to reduce red tape by $1 billion per year, and note that this rule has also been applied by previous Governments).
The first rule protecting Cabinet documents means that Governments have got away with some pretty bad policy because the policy development process hasn’t been transparent to the public. The policy development processes around the NBN and home insulation scheme were apparently weak, and this would probably be obvious if the Cabinet documents were accessible to journalists and the public. In this case, knowing that they might be exposed if the evidence for policies was weak and the public would find this out, Governments might push for better policy development and implementation plans. The protection of Cabinet documents only serves the public interest in the case of national security matters or where documents would truly reveal Cabinet deliberations – i.e. in the case of minutes of the meetings recording which Minister said what (if not protected, Ministers might be less than fully frank). Otherwise, there should be a presumption that documents should be released to the public in the interests of transparency and promoting evidence-based policy.
Regarding election commitments, it seems silly to me to suppose that just because a Government has been elected a majority of the people approve of every single one of its policies. Governments have substantially greater resources to research and develop policies than Oppositions, and hence it should naturally be expected that election commitments should be subject to fresh scrutiny after an election. The Commonwealth Government should certainly review its Paid Parental Leave policy, to investigate whether it could be delivered in a lower cost and, arguably, more equitable fashion.