Show Us Your Evidence, Kevin

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Is the Rudd Government’s decision to continue the Northern Territory Emergency Response the worst example of policy-making since the Regional Partnerships Program?

A large and expensive review — staffed with experts and resourced with millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money — runs for months, visits 31 Aboriginal communities, takes more than 200 submissions and issues a 130-page report.

Just 10 days later the relevant Minister, Jenny Macklin, comprehensively dismisses that report on the basis of flimsy evidence about increased sales of fresh vegetables and a couple of conversations with the women of Wadeye, "some of whom I’d have to say have pleaded with me to keep compulsory income management."

What is going on in Macklin’s office? This is hardly an example of what Kevin Rudd was calling, in the run-up to last year’s federal election, "evidence-based policy". In the case of the NTER, the evidence was gathered — and then ignored.

Journalists commonly call this kind of thing "policy on the run". In the Rudd Government just now there’s an awful lot of public policy being made at a brisk jog.

Let’s take as an example the ever-evolving federal bank deposit guarantee. Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan have at least some excuse for this, as the rollercoastering global financial crisis (or GFC as some pundits have taken to abbreviating it) has left little time for careful deliberation. Even so, the flight of funds from non-bank lenders, such as mortgage funds, to government-backed lenders like banks should have come as no surprise to anyone who had followed the situation in Ireland and other parts of Europe when similar guarantees were introduced just weeks ago.

Now, a few days of bad headlines have forced Rudd and Swan to throw extra cash at the financial services regulator, APRA, to get it to sort out the confusion.

You don’t need to buy into the theory that Kevin Rudd is a control freak with a chaotic office to find plenty of examples of disorganised policy making in his Government. News Ltd journalist Glenn Milne is clearly a critic, but he makes a good point simply by tallying the rapid turnover in the personal and ministerial staff of the Government. According to Milne, some Ministers have seen 50 per cent of their staff leave since taking office.

It certainly seems as though some Ministers are beginning to find their duties onerous. Penny Wong’s performance on ABC1’s 4 Corners two weeks ago, for instance, revealed a stunning lack of preparation on the topic of water policy. Do yourself a favour and watch as journalist Sarah Ferguson forensically dissects the obvious inconsistencies in Wong’s water buy-back scheme. Wong has a lot on her plate — with responsibility for Australia’s mooted Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme — but her performance was not reassuring. Water policy is a perennial hostage to infighting among the states and territories. It needs an engaged minister to drive through policy reforms. Instead, the first deadline for "cooperative federalism" in water policy is about to be missed.

Another Minister who has given a less than stellar performance to date is Stephen Conroy in media and communications. His strategy to deal with tough issues has generally been to duck them altogether. Perhaps that’s not surprising given the hash he has made of the internet filtering issue, over which a member of his staff reportedly tried to heavy an Internode network engineer who had been critical of the Government’s plan to censor the internet. Meanwhile digital TV switchover has been delayed until 2013 and an inquiry into public broadcasting was announced. But what’s happening with the national broadband network rollout? Not much, apparently.

Another emerging problem for the Rudd Government might be termed "inquiry fatigue". The sheer weight of the various reports and inquiries commissioned by Rudd and his ministers appears to be affecting their ability to respond to them. An important national security inquiry by former Defence Department Director General, Ric Smith, on whether Rudd should create a Coast Guard and a US-style Department of Homeland Security was commissioned in February. It was delivered on 30 June, according to a Senate Estimates hearing last month, but the Government is yet to respond to it. Perhaps Rudd plans to hold it over until an even more comprehensive defence review, the upcoming Defence White Paper, is completed.

Media policy, meanwhile, got caught so far back in the logjam that it has taken until recently to even announce the forthcoming review of ABC and SBS. News of the inquiry was broken by Margaret Simons back in June, but, according to Simons, "the whole thing got caught up in Kevin Rudd’s office". Sound familiar?

None of this is to suggest that the policy process under Rudd is any worse than under his predecessor. It’s certainly better than the worst excesses of National Party pork, such as AusLink and the Regional Partnerships Program. Indeed, the mere fact that community expertise is being obtained and consultations are ongoing is a welcome improvement from the highly centralised later years of the Howard Government, when it seemed that one of the most powerful policy advisors in Australia was the Prime Minister’s wife.

But it does suggest there is a grain of truth in the line that Rudd’s critics are beginning to take: that, in Milne’s words, "dealing with the PM’s office mean[s]trying to reason with a bunch of cranky, sleep-deprived individuals".

So far, Rudd’s judgement and that of his senior staffers, like recently promoted "wunderkind" Alister Jordan, has been largely sound. But the Government will run into trouble with its disorganised approach to policy, and the victims will inevitably be the people whose lives are affected by Government decisions — such as irrigators in the Murray-Darling basin and the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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