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Good government

27 February 2015

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Former Federal Opposition Leader Dr John Hewson AM is Professor and Chair in the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute at Crawford School of Public Policy.

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John Hewson writes that good government is about policy, leading, addressing issues and solving problems.

Today is supposed to be Day 19 of the ‘good government’ that Tony Abbott promised when granted a lifeline by his Party Room. So far, most are surprised that he hasn’t grasped the nettle more decisively, even though he clearly recognises that his best hope to survive is if he delivers ‘good’, that is bold, yet balanced and fair, electorally acceptable, policy outcomes.

He certainly has the opportunity to do so, with several significant, independent reports on electorally important issues on his desk, such as the Productivity Commission’s Report on Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, and the McClure Report on Welfare Reform, and with the opportunities provided by his recent statement on national security, the May budget, and his major reviews of our federation and tax system underway.

He also has the opportunity to fix some outstanding issues in health and education, to deliver on election commitments such as the Renewable Energy Target, and to move onto a positive foot on climate change where, under this year’s Paris process, the Government is committed to set realistic targets for future emissions reductions, especially following the APEC lead by the US and China.

To seize these opportunities he will need to, in a sense, rise above himself, particularly his sometimes loose language, and also step above the daily media frenzy that now seeks to interpret every nuance in remarks or ‘leaks’ by backbenchers and others, as well as unfolding events, through the prism of his leadership.

His hallmark in Opposition was ‘discipline’. Indeed a maintenance of discipline that surprised all – probably even himself. However, while much of Opposition was about politics, good government is much more about policy, and actually governing, leading, addressing issues, solving problems.

He is obviously having trouble making this transition, made more difficult by Shorten and his Opposition now seeking to emulate Abbott’s negativity that made him such an effective Opposition Leader.

An important challenge will be to not just simply announce a ‘new policy initiative’ without strategy or explanation, as was done with the Medicare co-payment, in the absence of an overarching health policy, and university fees, without and overarching higher education policy.

In both cases, the relevant constituencies had not been consulted, the broader electorate was essentially caught by surprise, and both were easily seen as unfair.

Abbott and his Ministers, will need to begin, by getting broad-based acceptance of the nature and urgency of the issue, and especially by the relevant constituencies, then laying out alternative policy options, before seeking to choose, promote, and defend one as the Government’s policy response.

They should also seek early consultation with both the Opposition and the cross-bench Senators, in the hope of reducing early partisan opposition, perhaps even developing a degree of bi-partisanship, preferably before they finalise their policy position.

Finally, Abbott, and his Ministers, will need to make a concerted attempt, probably via a series of key speeches and media performances, to spell out an overarching narrative that seeks to clearly identify the major objectives of ‘good government’, and then to pull together the various individual policies, explaining how they collectively will deliver against these objectives.

Yes, he still has it all to do.

Read more about Government and governance at Policy Forum. Good government was published at – the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society.

This piece was first published in Southern Highland News.

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