Policy obfuscation – and the need for explanation

STONE the crows! If there is a public service plot to stop us understanding what they are up to it’s working.

This time last week, anybody contemplating domiciles for the decrepit was wondering what the new aged care package meant. Or, in the case of the Crows, hoping somebody might explain it.

Because, after reading the weekend papers, the Crows had no idea about the implications in Ageing Minister (that’s a job title not a description of the bloke) Mark Butler’s plan for his parents.[i] While not the brightest of birds, they had already worked their way through the Productivity Commission report that Mark Butler was responding to, and were across the issues.[ii] And yet, they were still hazy on how the new system will work.

To their credit, journalists Sally Patten and John Wasiliev had another go at explaining the financial aspects of the new arrangement – well, it was the Fin – but there is more to aged care than money and trying to work out how one’s parents will manage is still very hard indeed. [iii]

And then there is the emissions trading scheme – scheduled to start in 2015 when it will replace the imminent carbon tax which isn’t, according to Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, actually a tax. “It”s not a tax. It”s (an) emissions trading scheme that starts with a fixed-price period. Let”s just get that straight again from the start,” Greg Combet said earlier in the month.[iv] Everybody clear on that?

What the Crows want to know is, who decides how much the pollution industry will pay to emit? When Kevin Rudd’s (who?) carbon pollution reduction scheme (the what?) was on the agenda, the plan was to set emissions cap by regulation at the minister’s discretion, in the context of formulas and international agreements. [v]

Under the Gillard Government’s Clean Energy Act, the government still sets the cap with help from the Climate Change Authority, which will make “recommendations to the government on pollution caps and on any national emissions trajectory or carbon budget.” [vi]

Okay. But, assuming any of this survives the next election, what do we need to know about the CCA? The act establishing the authority is equally airy on what the chief scientist and a bunch of other boffins who will sit atop the CCA will do and how they will do it.

The CCA has to be equitable, economically efficient and environmentally effective.[vii] Now, this could end up translating into a specific goal, such as the inflation emphasis agreed by the governor of the Reserve Bank and the Treasurer.[viii] Or it could mean whatever a powerful CCA board or a manipulative minister wants it to mean.

The information is out there in both cases but finding, let alone interpreting, it isn’t easy. It took the Crows an hour or so to dig it out on Saturday, time anybody with a life could have better spent.

The obvious answer to why important information is hard to find is – it’s the media’s fault; that while they report policy, comprehensively, they don’t do it in enough detail.

Up to a point Lord Copper.

Certainly there are endless pieces on the politics of carbon and the papers of 21 April were awash with analysis of the aged care package. But, with the honourable exception of Phillip Coorey, there was not much explanation of how the new arrangement will affect people planning for themselves and their parents.[ix]

But dumping enormously complicated packages on the press on Friday, for reporting that night and the following morning, does not give hacks a hope of getting across it. Nor, as anybody who has ever sat through the budget lockup will attest, are official briefings much help.

Journalists want to know what a policy will cost and who would win and lose under it – the very information officials are anxious not to offer, lest it upset the minister’s office.

Sure, draft legislation comes with buckets of bumf on departmental websites. But it provides information underpinning an act rather than makes it easy to understand.

The same pattern applies to public sector media contacts. They are there to protect their department and the minister not to help hacks with information. Some years ago, a Defence media spokesman told the Crows he could not possibly comment on RAN armaments but, off the record of course, suggested I check Janes Warships, where the information appeared.

But does it matter if it is hard to find the detail on policy proposals? Damn right it does. Obfuscation and the absence of easily found and understood information is bad for good government – it reduces citizens’ scrutiny of the state and erodes their trust in public administration.

So what is to be done?

The Crows see three solutions. The first is to hope the media and independent policy observers (and the Crows mean independent, which excludes special interest pleaders funded by the state) keep at it.

The internet has made it much easier to analyse public policy to an extent impossible 20 years ago. The work of George Megalogenis from The Australian, Julie Novak at the Institute for Public Affairs, Alan Mitchell at the AFR and John Quiggin of the University of Queensland demonstrate what independent experts, with the ability and inclination to search government stats, can accomplish.

And the public policy coverage in The Australian and The Australian Financial Review is substantial and serious. There is nothing both papers prefer than running graphs of economic indicators.

But, as it stands, they have to dig out information before they can analyse it. Information the public sector should provide through policy papers that describe the context and content of major government programs.

Which leads to option two.

Though it pains the Crows to contemplate this, we need more public servants – in this case educated and expensive ones paid to explain the policy process and analyse issues.

Fortunately, the model for such a program already exists, in the estimable research services provided by the Commonwealth Parliament Library. “The Parliamentary Library researchers regularly write short, sharp, factual pieces on issues of current interest to the parliament,” its web site states [x]

These librarians are far too modest. Their range of publications, from policy analyses to notes on the content and background of bills, is bipartisan and comprehensive and we need more of it dealing with issues before the parliament now or likely to come before it.

But their work should be more of a community resource than just a service for backbenchers and shadow ministers. For example, Library staff could provide analysis of the interpretative memoranda departments write on all substantive legislation. What we get now from agencies is fine on the facts but provides no context.

There are three ways of doing this – expand the Library’s staff and resources so that it can effectively provide a considered, continuous commentary on government, is the easiest.

Alternatively, outsource Library researchers to line departments with a specific brief to write about legislation and policy debates on their patch.

The first would expand what the Library does now, but it would create a large centralised research service and MPs may not like to lose a think tank which is very much theirs first and the community’s second. This is the main problem with the $110 million pa US Congressional Research Service, which does not release all its reports.[xi]

The second would increase the level of detailed analysis on policy issues, but would drive bureaucrats nuts and require researchers with very thick skins who did not mind members of the SES writing file notes on their lamentable independence.

The third is more expensive and probably more appalling for ministers or wannabes. This would be to create the equivalent of the Productivity Commission covering all of government. An independent agency taking briefs from the executive but also setting its own research agenda could provide the level of detail, which journalists and community members need to ask the questions that go unasked now.

Of course, this new agency would need to be different from the Productivity Commission in one crucial way – its staff would have to be able to write. And nobody would ever accuse PC reports of being clear.


[i] Julia Gillard and Mark Butler, “More choice, easier access and better care for older Australians,” April 20 @ http://www.health.gov.au/internet/ministers/publishing.nsf/Content/mr-yr12-mb-mb032.htm recovered on April 28

[ii] “Don’t bet the house on aged accommodation reform,” Stone the Crows 59, January 31 2011 @ www.thesydneyinstitute.com.au/issue-59/ recovered on April 28

[iii] Sally Patten, “Your guide to new aged-care rules,” John Wasiliev, “Costing home help,” The Australian Financial Review, April 29

[iv] Malcolm Farr, “It’s not a tax. It’s an emission trading scheme,” Herald Sun April 2

[v] Parliament of Australia, Senate, “Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, 2009: Revised Explanatory Memorandum”, 23,78,80 @ http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/legislation/ems/r4127_ems_70ed28a9-faab-47d6-aa74 recovered on April 28

[vi] Parliament of Australia, House of Representatives, Clean Energy Bill, 2011, 31 www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/C2011B00166/Download recovered on April 28

[vii] Australian Government, Com Law, Climate Change Authority Act, 2011 @ www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/C2011A00143/Html/Text#_Toc308781233

[viii] Reserve Bank of Australia, “Statement on the conduct of monetary policy,” December 6 2007, @ www.rba.gov.au/monetary-policy/framework/stmt-conduct-mp-4-06122007.html recovered on April 29

[ix] Phillip Coorey, “Aged care revamp will make users pay,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 20

[x] Parliament of Australia, Parliamentary Library, www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library recovered on April 28

[xi] Congressional Research Service @ www.loc.gov/crsinfo/ recovered on April 28, Open CRS, http://opencrs.com/ recovered on April 28