How Australia can restore its ‘success mojo’

public seminar
  • Published Date: 29 August 2019

Public managers need to think boldly if they are to return Australia to its tradition of being a global innovator in policy, according to an ANZSOG-curated panel of experts.

The discussion – ‘Has Australia lost its success mojo?’ - was held in Melbourne as part of the Victorian branch of the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s Public Sector Week.

ANZSOG Associate Dean Gill Callister moderated the panel to examine some of Australia’s past policy successes and whether we have new policy underway that would qualify as a future embedded success.

There is a widespread agreement that Australia has failed to create and implement good policy over the past decade, in areas such as climate change and social and economic reform.

The panel coincided with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call for public servants to focus on delivery and be more responsive to their political masters.

Monash University Professor of Public Sector Management Michael Mintrom said that there were clearly missed opportunities for policy reform in contemporary Australia, made harder by instability in political leadership at the federal level.

Professor Mintrom is one of the authors of the recent ANZSOG/ANU Press book Successful Public Policy: lessons from Australia and New Zealand, said that it was important to recognise the successes of public policy, rather than simply focus on failures.

The book analyses 20 cases of good policy from Australia and New Zealand – including Medicare, Australia’s success in combatting the spread of HIV/AIDS, and New Zealand’s KiwiSaver retirement program.

“We need to ask what does success look like? Our criteria said it was not enough to be a flash in the pan, policies needed to have delivered widely recognised social value and survived ‘regime change’,” he said.

Grattan Institute Health Program Director Stephen Duckett said that major reforms in health had stalled since the introduction of Medicare in the 1980s - a reform driven by the federal government with the support of the states.

He said that one of the keys to success was that many of the people involved were part of design and implementation of the system.

“One set of knowledge strengthens the other,” he said.

He said it was up to public managers to push for reform, and that there were areas where this could be done without running up against partisan electoral politics.

“There are a lot of areas in health where the politics are not partisan, but are stakeholder politics, and that gives opportunities for public servants to take the lead. It is an excuse to say: ‘oh it’s because of partisan politics we are not seeing any innovation’.”

Returning to our innovative history

La Trobe University Associate Professor in History Dr Clare Wright, author of Forgotten Rebels of Eureka and You Daughters of Freedom, said that in the years immediately after federation in 1901 Australia became the first country to enshrine female political rights, including the right to stand for Parliament. This was accompanied by a range of world-leading social legislation and reforms including food safety legislation, maternity allowance, widow’s pensions, aged pensions, the living wage, and arbitration and conciliation for industrial disputes.

“In the early years of federation there was a clear sense that we were going to lead the world, but we no longer seem to have that sense,” she said.

“As a nation we no longer look back beyond the mythology of Gallipoli, but the decade of policy achievement before that had been substantial. It is not true to say that World War I was the first time that Australia had proved itself on the world stage.”

The panel agreed that governments had become more risk-averse, making it increasingly difficult to create good policy.

“Everyone thinks they have a veto power, which stymies development. I think part of this is the role of a 24/7 media cycle in picking up negative claims and no matter how minor they are they become amplified out of proportion,” Dr Duckett said.

Professor Wright said that there was a lot more timidity in policy and a lot more rules than there had been 30 years ago.

“This is a less radical and less activist age than 30 years ago, there is more fear in general and insecurity.”

Professor Mintrom said that one of the contemporary challenges for governments was that technology and a more skilled workforce had given them a huge potential capacity to do things, but there was a disjunct between this and what was happening on the ground.

“More needs to happen in the ways that the government interacts with citizens, or taps into citizens voices – not just on policy but across the board.”

He said that his advice for public servants was to ”build that relationship with your minister” because that was the best way for people with experience to have influence on policy.