Hewson's View | The long and the short of policy challenges

In the short-term politics of today, policy challenges tend to be kicked down the road and left to drift, rather than solved, or managed effectively. 

Ironically, this is usually a populous response, stemming from a desire to avoid rocking the boat, politically, and to remain popular. However, the cost of doing so is usually that the issues soon become crises that are much tougher to fix, taking longer, costing much more, with considerable and sustained electoral fallout.

Populism always fails in the longer-term.

PROTEST: As the electorate grows resentful of the major parties' lack of action, the defection to smaller parties will increase at the next election. Photo: Andrew Meares.

PROTEST: As the electorate grows resentful of the major parties' lack of action, the defection to smaller parties will increase at the next election. Photo: Andrew Meares.

Our recent experience throws up many, too many, examples. The big ones are issues such as housing affordability, energy policy, childcare, budget repair, climate – indeed, there are examples across most areas of public policy.

Moreover, the disruption of short-term politics to what we would consider good policy and good government is compounded by a tendency to mishandle distractions – internal party wrangling and leadership issues and, in recent days, the same-sex marriage (SSM), and dual citizenship issues. Again, neither of the latter was dealt with effectively, allowed to drift in a sea of political point scoring and blame shifting.

Given the overwhelming evidence from a succession of polls, over many years, of support for SSM, voters were annoyed that the issue wasn’t simply settled immediately by a conscience vote in Parliament, rather than all the nonsense about plebiscites and postal surveys, still leaving a potentially divisive parliamentary debate and vote.

Similarly, voters are annoyed that the issue of dual citizenship wasn’t addressed effectively and immediately. When the issue emerged, why wasn’t there an immediate accounting of the status of all members and senators, referring those as necessary to the High Court as a batch, and organizing one super-Saturday by-election if required? Again, we have ended up with a lingering mess, as political points are scored, and blame is shifted, and good government dies the “death of a thousand cuts”.

In the mean time, issues fundamental to the cost of living  have been left to drift. With most of these, there are now no quick solutions, no silver bullets. They will take time and cost.

The housing affordability crisis, where now a generation of our young people are unable to afford a house in Sydney or Melbourne, has been decades in the making, driven by neglect and ineffective, band-aid responses by a succession of both state and federal governments. An effective solution will take many years and run over several governments.

So too with energy – neither state nor federal governments have had an effective energy policy for many years, and no response to the closure of coal-fired power stations and the emergence of renewables, with the result that both electricity and gas prices are now running away, becoming unaffordable for many households.

So too with the bigger issues such as budget repair – we have been promised a budget surplus for the last eight or nine years, yet neither side of politics has been prepared to make the essential policy adjustments to achieve one, while continuing to make large, unfunded commitments for the next decade or so in areas such as the NDIS, defence, school and health funding, tax cuts, and so on. 

Voters have been clearly ignored and left behind. Their only response is to register a protest at elections, increasingly ignoring the major political parties.

 – John Hewson


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