Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Economics and media cycle driving the political debate

Bernard KeaneGreetings from the Political Academy ANU where
Bernard Keane, Crikey’s Canberra correspondent, is speaking on "Politics behind the Scenes", at the Australian National University in Canberra (audio available). Bernard started by commenting that Lindsay Tanner is one of the ALP's most effective people and will be missed. Tanner commented that the current short media cycle made discussion of issues more difficult. Bernard then traced the rise of economics into the political debate during the Hawk/Keating government and its domination of media commentary. He then commented on the government funding of political parties with the Hawk/Keating government. This allows parties to continue to operate without grass-roots support, provided they get votes and therefore funding. He also mentioned the role of "above the line" voting, which favours larger parties.

One insightful point from Bernard was that lobbyists understand the process by which policy is made, without necessarily having special access to key decision makers. During the 1980s former public servants set up private sector consulting companies, such as Access Economics. These consulting companies are assumed by the media to be more independent and more expert than the public service. Just about any policy proposal needs to be accompanied by an independent economic model.

Under the Howard government the emphasis changed to the political impact of government policies. Policy proposals had to be tested using polls to see how the public would react. This process was parodied in the ABC TV comedy "The Hollowmen" (I experienced it first hand in a government Focus Group on web publishing).

Bernard claimed that the polls were of limited practical value. He used an example of economic modelling as propaganda with the Kyoto protocol: if modelled over just a few years the cost of reducing carbon emissions is very low, so the projects were extended to the far distant future to create a large cost to argue against adoption.

Bernard argues that Australia now has a professional class of several thousand politicians, made up of MPs, former MPs, lobbyists, consultants and commentators. This provides a template to oppose economic reform:
  1. Get consultants to model a policy,
  2. Leak the report to the media saying the policy will cost jobs.
Bernard commented that the ABC has difficulty providing useful input, as it is required to provide a "balanced" view.

The most worrying part was that Bernard claimed that Australia was developing a "lobby-orarachy" with firms such as Ernst and Young providing a complete package of services, with development and analysis of policy and lobbying which does not count as official lobbying.

Bernard argues that groups such as environmental activists need to get their own economic modelling to counter the claims of other vested interest groups.

At question time Bernard was asked about think tanks. He said they are overrated, there are few, mostly conservative, have limited impact and do not have much impact in the media.

Bernard commented that focus groups were used in the last election to track the views of the electorate in swinging seats in great detail. The audience then asked where is the balance between a responsive government and one just reacting. Bernard responded that politicians have to be prepared to propose reforms which are unpopular in the sort term.

I asked if the hung parliament would allow for political reform, which Bernard agreed with. He pointed to Andrew Leigh, former ANU Professor, as an example of a person with a background outside politics who is now involved.

Asked for advice for a journalism student, Bernard commented that more are being trained than needed. He suggested that journalists needed to be flexible. There will be few specialised jobs, such as just "industrial relations". He commented the media industry is in flux and the underlying processes are in ferment.

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