Former Cairns MP Gavin King’s just published Campbell Newman biography Can Do (which includes two quotes from me on p. 220 and 267) makes an important contribution to the economic reform debate in Australia. After telling the story of Campbell Newman’s life and political career, Gavin considers the implications of the Newman Government’s election loss for the future of economic reform.
I particularly liked Gavin’s reference to the concept of the “tyranny of the status quo”, identified by Milton and Rose Friedman a few decades ago and which now appears even more powerful. Any reform proposal, such as the leasing of government assets, now provokes a noisy and aggressive response from affected interests, making policy change extremely difficult, particularly given the benefits of reform tend to be diffused across the wider community, who are not motivated to demonstrate in support of change.
The book includes some heavy criticism of the media’s role in the political process, particularly from the former Premier. This is balanced by the inclusion of some other perspectives. Gavin notes that the right personality and political skills are essential to selling reform, and Mike Baird in NSW shows it can be done (although Gavin notes Baird had a better starting position than Newman because he had not suffered politically from having had to make previous tough decisions).
Marketing expert and Gruen Transfer regular guest Toby Ralph is quoted in the book as noting that “The trick of leadership is not to develop great strategy or cunning tactics; it is to get people to understand what must be done and why, then walk in lockstep toward that reform.” This is consistent with what I was trying to say in one of the quotes from me in the book, regarding the Government’s Strong Choices campaign on privatisation:
…Strong Choices was a missed opportunity for the Government…to really sell the privatisation agenda. I think the Government was poorly advised on how to go about it. I would have liked to have seen a green paper and a white paper, a more traditional public service process whereby it’s communicated to the public what the issues are and the likely impacts and having that conversation. I was a bit concerned that Strong Choices didn’t communicate at the right level. It was just a bit too slick and it didn’t allay the public concerns. (from p. 267)
So reform is possible, but it is obviously very challenging, as the Can Do biography makes very clear. Hence we perhaps should not get our hopes up that there will be significant progress on the major reform issue identified in the book: federal-state financial relations.
I would recommend this book to readers interested in Queensland politics and to those interested in economic policy issues in Australia. While the author’s political views come through in the book, so critics may argue it is not completely objective, Gavin has nonetheless reflected critically on the successes and failures of Campbell Newman, and hence he has made a valuable contribution.