Five things we can do to legislate against weasel-wording politicians
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Five things we can do to legislate against weasel-wording politicians

Speaking truth to people 

The Albanese administration’s recent surprise announcements about superannuation — like its predecessor’s failure to admit the flaws on robodebt program until it was too late — highlight the need for governments to speak truth to people. 

While public servants are expected to speak truth to power, to give frank and fearless advice to their ministers, too little attention is given to the need for governments speaking truth to people.  The failure of governments — and oppositions — to speak truth to people, to not take us into their confidences, or share their dilemmas and the challenges facing the nation, explains our declining trust in the political system.  

We get shocked by the policy surprises, wary of the weasel words, upset by the lies, confused by the sudden u-turns and frustrated by the interminable politicking, point scoring and blame shifting. Speaking truth to people means admitting what can and cannot be done; not just in terms of resources but, in a federal system like ours, constitutionally … where powers are shared and responsibilities confused. We saw this during the pandemic. And we see it every day on issues from the environment to school funding.  

Speaking truth to people means governments explaining that expert advice is often ambiguous and that consequently elected governments have to take responsibility for difficult decisions reflecting multiple concerns.  It even means saying ‘no’ in some cases to the demand for more government action that might be against the wider public interest and fiscal responsibility. It also means just ‘doing something’ so as to ‘kick the can down the road’ till it has all been forgotten —which is ultimately wasteful and ineffective.    And please, can incoming governments stop playing the blame card on the previous regime for all our woes. We have heard this cliched script before. Just get on and run the country. 

Speaking truth to people means neither sugar-coating the seriousness of an issue nor creating a false sense of crisis for political advantage.   Speaking truth to people means parties neither over-promising during an election and then not delivering, nor having such a low profile as to have no mandate to do anything as we are currently witnessing.    

Can talking truth to people ever happen?  Admittedly, it is hard; given our adversarial political culture, opposition sniping, the media’s ‘gotcha’ moments, the insatiable demands of interest groups and the complexity of modern policy issues.  The current Charter of Budget Honesty might ensure the pre-election release of forward estimates and costing of election promises, but its remit is limited.  Election costings need to be done earlier.  

One suggestion which the Robodebt royal commission has highlighted is to modify some Westminster conventions like cabinet solidarity and confidentiality, which allows ministers to avoid speaking truth to parliament and hence to the people.  Parliamentary scrutiny of executive government could be enhanced if our legislatures just sat more. Elected officials in the United States Congress sit three times more than their Australian counterparts where the average is about 67 days a year.   

In some Nordic countries, public servants are allowed to participate more in public debates; and we need to reinstate permanency for our senior public servants so they can give that frank and fearless advice.  Indeed, departments need to be more insulated from direct ministerial interferences and directives. A small start could be ensuring departmental responses to Senate estimates questions-on-notice are no longer filtered by ministerial offices.   And how about considering — as proposed by the Queensland Coaldrake report on integrity and accountability — that after a cabinet decision the information on which it was based should be released. It would be better than, as is the case now, waiting 30 years for files to be declassified.   

For governments to talk truth to people they need to share their burden of governing with us rather than pretending they have all the answers and can do everything.  For our part we need to be more grown up and accept that truth is often unpalatable, that governments cannot do everything nor should they, that resources limited, and mistakes inevitable.  

After all, aren’t we all in this together?  

Dr Scott Prasser is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and coedited White Elephant Stampede: Case Studies in Policy and Project Management Failure   

Photo by Mikhail Nilov