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Opinion article

Good public policy: Is anybody home?

CEDA Chief Executive, Professor the Hon. Stephen Martin discusses the current failure by politicians to lead public opinion and implement policy reforms.

There is considerable debate and angst in Australia as to why governments seem to have abrogated responsibility for developing and advocating good public policy.

The very real economic and social issues stemming from a major restructuring of the economy are not seeing major reform proposals emerge and enacted. This is raising genuine concerns as to whether policymakers really do understand how to tackle these problems.

There is little doubt that in the current uncertain policy environment the community seeks solace and comfort from leaders who can demonstrate strength and purpose.

Good public policy is about what and how.  It requires strong and engaged leadership, an ability to guide public opinion to a required outcome and importantly close engagement with all stakeholders. 

While the specifics may vary, convictions, internal and external engagement, good internal process management and effective communication skills are prerequisites for model leadership and for policy development.

Public Policy

In the lead up to the September 2013 Australian Federal election, CEDA produced a policy perspective Setting Public Policy. It drew on the insights of a number of former Prime Ministers, Premiers and senior public servants to develop a guide for the incoming government on developing good public policy.

Let me draw on its findings to make some important points. 

While Australia’s two-decade long economic expansion has been enabled by public policy settings that encouraged flexibility, efficient resource allocation and innovation there is widespread belief Australia’s recent policymaking has not been to best practice standard.

Some reasons given for the presumed decline in quality of public policy debate and execution are:

  • Governments’ heightened emphasis on opinion polls and responding to perceived popular opinion;
  • Changes in the media landscape and its influence on public information; and
  • Issues in the relationship between the public service and politicians.

While these issues have not stopped important policy development such as the Henry Tax Review, the Asian Century white paper, financial sector reform, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and discussions about the Federation, many implementable reforms and policies suggested have been considered too difficult or politically unpalatable to pursue.

Real policy work should not be measured by the number of broken promises political parties are judged on. There may be valid reasons why a proposed policy or reform is not proceeded with.  Equally there may be cynical exploitation of broken promises.  But there should also not be major surprises, dressed up for example as a fiscal crisis, for which no groundwork has been laid with the public.

For these same reasons it is also true that political parties should not get trapped in a mandate fetish. It should not be seen as a badge of dishonour if a government has to implement policy changes because of changed economic circumstances. Although there are enduring legitimate arguments about its size, nature and duration, former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s response to the Global Financial Crisis comes to mind.

In a democracy you get the quality of government you deserve or vote for not what you might subsequently desire.  Notwithstanding, it is vital Australia rediscovers its ability to identify and implement challenging economic and social reforms.

Drawing on the past and applying lessons learned to the future, how can good public policy be at the centre of Australia’s sustainable future again?

Model Leadership

Past successful economic and social reform in Australia was aided by strong political leadership.

Today, state premiers seem to be leading the conversation on major policy reforms such as the GST and Federation.

In contrast the apparent inability on both sides of national politics to lead public opinion is a major flaw in modern Australian politics.

The best leaders are just in front of where they believe public opinion could be moved. Their principal role is to identify the challenges, articulate a strategic approach to address these, and convince the public of their vision.

In contrast, politicians focused simply on winning and retaining power fail to achieve the consistency required to introduce and implement meaningful economic reforms.

Careful preparation by government for introducing reforms is also critical, as is effective leadership, communication and consultation.

There are five key stages that governments must manage for policy reform to be implemented:

  1. Creating a sense of urgency about the need for reform including developing internal political will and broad-based community acknowledgement. For example, prime minister Bob Hawke credited the Economic Summit he convened as a successful mechanism for developing widespread community understanding of Australia’s need for change.
  2. Forming a coalition of interests that support the change. For instance, prime minister John Howard acknowledged the support of the business community and the Australian Council of Social Services for a GST as beneficial in introducing the tax system.
  3. Developing the change vision including describing the reform outcomes and why it is necessary. For example,  tax reform because it can help develop a dynamic and vibrant economy.
  4. Communicating the change vision by establishing key narratives that link to a cohesive vision for Australia. This skill is one of the fundamental capabilities of government and important for bringing people along with any change.
  5. Empowering others to act. The public service provides a critical bridging role between political decision-making and the wider community engagement. For example, the Australian Tax Office made large capacity investments in systems and guidance provision to make sure the private sector could introduce the GST.

A common characteristic of effective reformist politicians is good internal process management. This is through effective use of cabinet protocols or through the public service’s professional capabilities.

However, there is a recent trend for quality public sector advisers in Ministerial offices to be replaced by political apparatchiks, more concerned with staying in government than governing.

Additionally when a change in government occurs senior dedicated public servants are terminated, and others holding the same view as government appointed. 

Government is now so complex that no minister can have the technical ability or insight to develop a big policy reform package alone. Therefore it is critical the public service provide advice that is frank. fearless and unbiased.


Good public policy should not result in absolute winners and losers.  Any country’s future economic and social structure must be underpinned by policy that is for the greater good, that is transparent, that sustains productivity and enhances our international competitiveness.

In developing and implementing good public policy governance frameworks and ethical behaviour must be an integral part, both for the political class and public sector.

About the authors

Stephen Martin

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Professor the Hon. Stephen Martin
Chief Executive, CEDA

Professor the Hon. Stephen Martin has had a long and distinguished background in the Australian Parliament, academia and the private sector.

Read more about Professor the Hon. Stephen Martin.

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