It feels like a while since any substantial discussion has occurred involving policy and the business of government more broadly. Lately we’ve been stuck on constructing and deconstructing personalities and political parties. We’ve also been debating what should or should not be said as part of the usually robust, but recently vitriolic public discourse. Today is the day we must again begin focusing on policy and the business of government, looking above and beyond the easy analysis of people and personalities.
During all the hubbub a milestone went by almost undetected, with only a brief passing mention in the political media as the sexism and misogyny debate accelerated.
The Gillard Government, often wrongly accused of not getting on with the business of government, announced to the media that they had managed to have passed through the parliament over 400 bills. That much legislation passed over 2 years is certainly not, by any stretch of the imagination, not getting on with the business of government.
There was probably much back-slapping and the brief mention smacked of pride. Why wouldn’t the government be proud of that achievement? That much work making it through the parliament, a minority government occupying the benches, would not have been an easy task, made both easier and harder at different junctures since the August 2010 federal election.
But is all this work necessarily a good thing? Will all this work lead to less government and bureaucratic interference in the lives of individuals and businesses? Will it make life in Australia a smoother process? Finally, what is better, new rules and regulations and processes to follow or new or beefed up penalties for existing or newer forms of wrongdoing ?
The answer to the first question is an emphatic ‘no’. Having passed 400 bills is not something to crow about. Yes, there will be legislation now in force among the new laws which will be beneficial. But that does not mean the overall number of bills passed is a good thing, it is not. But of course, for a government struggling to be able to take credit for work they have actually done, well, you cannot really blame them.
The problem with passing over 400 bills through the parliament is that it inevitably means there will be more government, not less and that the level of bureaucratic interference in the lives of individuals and businesses will of course be higher. There will be more rules to follow, more forms to fill out in your personal life and in the life of businesses and that is never a good thing for time or money.
So life in Australia as a matter of course, with over 400 new bills passed will not be smoother in a broad sense. Again, there will be, in that immense stack of paper, some legislation that might serve to make life easier in some narrow sense. However, with the sheer amount of bills that have been made into law being so high, those act’s of parliament making life easier, will be drowned out but extra rules and regulations in other areas of life.
What should governments focus on when engaging in the business of lawmaking? Should they have a predisposition toward business and people going through more regulatory approval, having more forms to fill out? Should the focus instead be on increasing penalties for wrongdoing rather than more oversight aiming to stem bad behaviour? Or is it the case that administrations need to focus on repealing laws?
The answer is a combination of the above. What should be first and foremost when thinking of amending or even introducing legislation is a focus on the penalty side of the good and wrongdoing equation. This means that those behaving appropriately are rewarded with less time needed for bureaucratic nonsense and more to do the business, personal or otherwise that they need to do. At the same time it punishes those few that do the wrong thing.
There should be little or no focus at all on increasing rules and regulations. Extra rules, read for breaches of law, should only be introduced to deal with wrongdoing that evolves or emerges, whether that’s for new technology or new practices which develop.
More red-tape is, in just about every case, an absolute no-no. Bureaucracy must be avoided at just about any cost. Businesses and people, both time-poor, just do not need extra time and pressure to apply for or get approval for aspects of their businesses and lives. There will of course be times where it is necessary.
Ideally, there should be a predilection toward actually cutting approval processes, forms and other time-consuming activities where practical and that means actually repealing some legislation or parts thereof. Stupid offences too, and there are certainly plenty of those, should also be on the legislative chopping block.
So really, the ALP might be happy with their work and so too the cross-benchers closely linked with the government, but the question is, should we the people and should the businesses of this country be jumping for joy too?
The Prime Minister often remarks, particularly in the parliament that her Labor Government are “getting things done” and the number of bills passed obviously does bear out this argument, although this does equal more regulation and “red tape” for business and the individual. It can also, by implication mean that policies and programs are being rushed and established processes not being followed correctly as has been alleged on a number of times over the period of both the Rudd and Gillard Government’s.
This argument is also borne out in the case of the Australia Network tender process which was deeply flawed, rushed, changed and awarded to the ABC in perpetuity despite recommendations to the contrary.
Today the Auditor-General released a report into the botched tender process which does not make for good reading for a government that is trying to gain a foothold to climb the gap that exists in the polls just under 18 months out from the next federal election.
The tender for the Australia Network was for a $223 million contract to broadcast news content overseas, an important form of what is termed “soft diplomacy”- in short, displaying through various media the Australian culture, values and policies which we think will make our nation an attractive place to continue to visit and conduct business with.
Initially, the process was under the purview of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and its minister at the time, Kevin Rudd, with departmental recommendations saying the government could extend the ABC contract or put the contract out to tender, with the department arguing to keep the contract with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs subsequently decided that the contract should be put to tender, with the winner of the contract granted a long contract to provide the news service.
The audit found that before the tender was awarded, that both the Prime Minister’s office and that of the Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy were aware of which party would win the tender.
Then the weirdness escalated- the government began seeking advice as to whether the final nod of approval could be transferred to the Communications Minister from the DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson and it was.
The tender then underwent significant changes and the leaks began in earnest. These leaks revealed that twice the tender board recommended Sky News be awarded the contract. They were not.
The Government walked away from the tender process after the leaks were reported in the press and then proceeded to award the contract permanently to the ABC which had previously been the broadcaster of the Australia Network.
This flawed process could legitimately be seen as both a symptom of a government in trouble politically and electorally, floundering in the polls and trying to rush to “get things done” and also as a result of a toxic relationship between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, whose department should have had the final say on the award of the sizeable contract.
As a result, the government have had to pay compensation for a failure in managing a process and even managing internal relationships between MPs who should be seeking to achieve the same ends regardless of conflicts in personality. Not only that, but the ALP Government have added another failed process to the list of mistakes only adding to the poor perceptions of Prime Minister Gillard and her MP’s.