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Four eyes: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By Colin Chapman

Once upon a time the four English-speaking countries with red white and blue in our flags were regarded as having fairly even democratic standards and being good places to live. Now all the ratings have changed; they should be reclassified as ‘the good of the bad and the ugly’.

In the raft of global indices those that should concern politicians, decision makers and opinion formers relate to governance and transparency. Governance is a ‘catch-all’ that encompasses the rule of law, political stability, violent crime rates, effective regulation, general well-being and fairness.

Based on a variety of reliable such indices, Australia is on the slide, as is the United Kingdom. Trump’s America is no longer the land of the free, but the ugly sister. The rising star is our neighbour across the Tasman, New Zealand.

In a recent summary of publicly available statistics, including the World Bank’s Governance Index and the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, the BBC listed New Zealand as the second-best run country, behind Denmark. New Zealand also comes second in CEO magazine’s top 31 countries for expatriates to live in. Australia comes sixth; neither the UK nor the US make it to the top 20.

New Zealand
Australia

Worryingly, three of the four countries have dropped out of the top ten in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index. Once again New Zealand is # 2, behind Denmark. 

Little wonder that Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, was in joyful mood last week when she spoke on governance in Melbourne. “Good government matters, because government affects everything”, was her headline message. The detail of her address had useful messages for Canberra’s policymakers, particularly treasurer Josh Frydenberg and his boss, Scott Morrison. 

Ms Ardern began with an anecdote that highlighted the disillusionment people in the ‘red, white and blue countries’ feel for their politicians. She recalled an incident from her first election campaign: “I was walking down the main street of town when I came across an old school friend’s sister. We stopped to chat. She asked me what I was up to now. Once I overcame the small blow this created given she clearly had no idea I was attempting to run for office in a matter of weeks, I tried to pivot towards a conversation about the election. “Oh that” she said. “I don’t think I will bother voting, it doesn’t really have anything to do with me.”.

Hearing this reminded me of that telling picture in The Guardian of a lanky college student standing outside the college in Wales which he attended, built mostly with European Union grants. He would not vote in the Brexit referendum. “The EU has got nothing to do with me”, he said.  Apathy, and disengagement, as much as anger, explains why politics is such a mess.

While New Zealand’s prime minister did not mention them by name, she rejected the populist onslaught by Donald Trump and Boris Johnson on international institutions and the public service for today’s ills. “This is one answer that is available to people – and that some are signing up for”, she said.. “After all, fear and blame is an easy political out.”

“I reject this answer because there is another response. Instead of turning inwards, we can improve the institutions that have helped hold together this long period of global peace that we live in.

“Instead of austerity measures that only stretch the rich-poor divide, we can offer meaningful support – and more than just financially – to those at the bottom. Instead of tearing down what works about our societies, we can build the system back up. We can acknowledge the areas where public policy hasn’t met the challenges of economic change, and do better.”

Unlike many leaders, Ms Ardern offers more than rhetoric, which probably explains her popularity in Australia. She has made solid strides towards reducing child poverty in New Zealand, a problem that needs attention in Australia and has reached crisis levels in the UK and the US. Professor Richard Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur said on a visit to Britain that children had told him about hunger and the shame of poverty, about not being able to afford trainers, TV or food, and about foodbanks.

Ms Ardern’s most significant initiative has been the introduction of what is termed a Wellbeing Budget, whereby a portion of the income gained from economic growth is allocated to a set of measures designed to improve living standards across society, rather than splashing what cash is available on straight tax cuts. 

The concept is also being extended across a set of reforms to New Zealand’s public service, designed to inculcate a ‘putting people first’ mentality into all who work for them, not just departmental heads. 

It is not difficult to think of ways where Australia’s governance has fallen down badly, and where attempts to improve have fallen short of expectations. Some of these issues need to be explored in more detail, and Australian Strategieswill attempt to do so in later columns. Here is a short list:

  1. Miss-selling, corruption and overcharging in the financial sector. All four major banks – and many other institutions and their agents – should bear much of the responsibility. The ineffective Turnbull government must also take a share of the blame for dithering over a royal commission, which eventually produced a useful report. Its findings need to be fully implemented. Until now the regulators have been far too slow in initiating prosecutions against bank employees at all levels. There needs to be more competition with the big four banks. The move by Queensland’s Heritage Bank to take them on, discussed by the ABC’s top business journalist, Peter Ryan, is to be welcomed.  The treasurer Josh Frydenberg seems to be allowing, sometimes urging, regulatory bodies such as ASIC and APRA to take on sweeping new powers without a proper debate in Parliament and relevant committees. The move is anti-democratic.
  2. Former ministers’ conflicts of interest. We await the report the prime minister ordered on former foreign minister Julie Bishop and former defence minister Christopher Pyne to establish whether they broke the ministerial code by taking up new jobs in the private sector. We think they did. Regardless of the verdict, the government should follow the example of Britain by banning ex-ministers from becoming lobbyists for two years, and insisting that any job offers be vetted by an independent committee.
  3. Energy policy. Both the Turnbull and Morrison governments have made a complete mess of energy policy. Within the last 15 years Australia has gone from having cheap power to among the most expensive, an indictment of poor strategy and implementation. The Coalition government’s attack on renewables is laughable, given the potential availability and scope for their development across all states. Despite access to natural gas, UK is fast developing renewables, which have now reached over 30% of total output. Most large filling stations now offer chargers for electric vehicles.
  4. Education.Standards have been slipping in Australian schools and further education, despite above-inflation increases in education budgets. Weaknesses in the further education system are certainly one of several factors behind Australia’s serious slippage in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness league table. Money alone is unlikely to solve the problems, although the technical sector, an area that is so strong in the world’s most competitive countries, is seriously underfunded.  Our educational aspirations were listed in the Australia in the Asian Centurywhite paper, and need revisiting. 
  5. Both individual and press freedoms are being eroded. It was understandable that the Turnbull government should promote a number of anti-terrorism laws, despite fears these could violate human rights. As so often is the case, there was insufficient and inadequate parliamentary debate, and some of the worst fears have been realised. Arguably the worst example was the recent raid by Australian Federal Police on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, an act universally condemned at the recent London international conference on press freedom. Australia has fallen behind other English speaking democracies and it is time for the Morrison government to undertake a complete overhaul of freedom laws.

©Copyright Colin Chapman.2019

By Colin Chaman

Once upon a time the four English-speaking countries with red white and blue in our flags were regarded as having fairly even democratic standards and being good places to live. Now all the ratings have changed; they should be reclassified as ‘the good of the bad and the ugly’.

In the raft of global indices those that should concern politicians, decision makers and opinion formers relate to governance and transparency. Governance is a ‘catch-all’ that encompasses the rule of law, political stability, violent crime rates, effective regulation, general well-being and fairness.

Based on a variety of reliable such indices, Australia is on the slide, as is the United Kingdom. Trump’s America is no longer the land of the free, but the ugly sister. The rising star is our neighbour across the Tasman, New Zealand.

In a recent summary of publicly available statistics, including the World Bank’s Governance Index and the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, the BBC listed New Zealand as the second-best run country, behind Denmark. New Zealand also comes second in CEO magazine’s top 31 countries for expatriates to live in. Australia comes sixth; neither the UK nor the US make it to the top 20.

Worryingly, three of the four countries have dropped out of the top ten in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index. Once again New Zealand is # 2, behind Denmark. 

Little wonder that Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, was in joyful mood last week when she spoke on governance in Melbourne. “Good government matters, because government affects everything”, was her headline message. The detail of her address had useful messages for Canberra’s policymakers, particularly treasurer Josh Frydenberg and his boss, Scott Morrison. 

Ms Ardern began with an anecdote that highlighted the disillusionment people in the ‘red, white and blue countries’ feel for their politicians. She recalled an incident from her first election campaign: “I was walking down the main street of town when I came across an old school friend’s sister. We stopped to chat. She asked me what I was up to now. Once I overcame the small blow this created given she clearly had no idea I was attempting to run for office in a matter of weeks, I tried to pivot towards a conversation about the election. “Oh that” she said. “I don’t think I will bother voting, it doesn’t really have anything to do with me.”.

Hearing this reminded me of that telling picture in The Guardianof a lanky college student standing outside the college in Wales which he attended, built mostly with European Union grants. He would not vote in the Brexit referendum. “The EU has got nothing to do with me”, he said.  Apathy, and disengagement, as much as anger, explains why politics is such a mess.

While New Zealand’s prime minister did not mention them by name, she rejected the populist onslaught by Donald Trump and Boris Johnson on international institutions and the public service for today’s ills. “This is one answer that is available to people – and that some are signing up for”, she said.. “After all, fear and blame is an easy political out.”

“I reject this answer because there is another response. Instead of turning inwards, we can improve the institutions that have helped hold together this long period of global peace that we live in.

“Instead of austerity measures that only stretch the rich-poor divide, we can offer meaningful support – and more than just financially – to those at the bottom. Instead of tearing down what works about our societies, we can build the system back up. We can acknowledge the areas where public policy hasn’t met the challenges of economic change, and do better.”

Unlike many leaders, Ms Ardern offers more than rhetoric, which probably explains her popularity in Australia. She has made solid strides towards reducing child poverty in New Zealand, a problem that needs attention in Australia and has reached crisis levels in the UK and the US. Professor Richard Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur said on a visit to Britain that children had told him about hunger and the shame of poverty, about not being able to afford trainers, TV or food, and about foodbanks.

Ms Ardern’s most significant initiative has been the introduction of what is termed a Wellbeing Budget, whereby a portion of the income gained from economic growth is allocated to a set of measures designed to improve living standards across society, rather than splashing what cash is available on straight tax cuts. 

The concept is also being extended across a set of reforms to New Zealand’s public service, designed to inculcate a ‘putting people first’ mentality into all who work for them, not just departmental heads. 

It is not difficult to think of ways where Australia’s governance has fallen down badly, and where attempts to improve have fallen short of expectations. Some of these issues need to be explored in more detail, and Australian Strategieswill attempt to do so in later columns. Here is a short list:

  1. Miss-selling, corruption and overcharging in the financial sector. All four major banks – and many other institutions and their agents – should bear much of the responsibility. The ineffective Turnbull government must also take a share of the blame for dithering over a royal commission, which eventually produced a useful report. Its findings need to be fully implemented. Until now the regulators have been far too slow in initiating prosecutions against bank employees at all levels. There needs to be more competition with the big four banks. The move by Queensland’s Heritage Bank to take them on, discussed by the ABC’s top business journalist, Peter Ryan, is to be welcomed.  The treasurer Josh Frydenberg seems to be allowing, sometimes urging, regulatory bodies such as ASIC and APRA to take on sweeping new powers without a proper debate in Parliament and relevant committees. The move is anti-democratic.
  2. Former ministers’ conflicts of interest. We await the report the prime minister ordered on former foreign minister Julie Bishop and former defence minister Christopher Pyne to establish whether they broke the ministerial code by taking up new jobs in the private sector. We think they did. Regardless of the verdict, the government should follow the example of Britain by banning ex-ministers from becoming lobbyists for two years, and insisting that any job offers be vetted by an independent committee.
  3. Energy policy. Both the Turnbull and Morrison governments have made a complete mess of energy policy. Within the last 15 years Australia has gone from having cheap power to among the most expensive, an indictment of poor strategy and implementation. The Coalition government’s attack on renewables is laughable, given the potential availability and scope for their development across all states. Despite access to natural gas, UK is fast developing renewables, which have now reached over 30% of total output. Most large filling stations now offer chargers for electric vehicles.
  4. Education.Standards have been slipping in Australian schools and further education, despite above-inflation increases in education budgets. Weaknesses in the further education system are certainly one of several factors behind Australia’s serious slippage in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness league table. Money alone is unlikely to solve the problems, although the technical sector, an area that is so strong in the world’s most competitive countries, is seriously underfunded.  Our educational aspirations were listed in the Australia in the Asian Centurywhite paper, and need revisiting. 
  5. Both individual and press freedoms are being eroded. It was understandable that the Turnbull government should promote a number of anti-terrorism laws, despite fears these could violate human rights. As so often is the case, there was insufficient and inadequate parliamentary debate, and some of the worst fears have been realised. Arguably the worst example was the recent raid by Australian Federal Police on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, an act universally condemned at the recent London international conference on press freedom. Australia has fallen behind other English speaking democracies and it is time for the Morrison government to undertake a complete overhaul of freedom laws.

©Copyright Colin Chapman.2019