Regardless of whether you think the Voice has any merit, there is surely some merit in the idea that government needs to listen to those impacted by its decision making.
Among the clearest lessons from the Robodebt debacle was the government failure to listen to those who said that the policy wasn’t working and was causing dire unintended consequences.
And it is certainly true that governments in general are not good at incorporating the needs of consumers into their service offerings; certainly compared to the private sector. But the problem is far deeper than simplistic campaign slogans might suggest.
At its most basic level, the question is one of incentives. Companies aim to generate profits for shareholders, and this profit motive clearly incentivises companies to pursue customer satisfaction as an important goal.
However, governments typically have far more mixed motivations. To put it more simply: governments are motivated more by politics than profit and the motivations of politics are often at odds with the interests of the end user.
No better example exists than the recent fiasco surrounding Qantas and the baffling decision by the Labor government to reject bids for extra flights from Qatar Airways.
A number of increasingly bizarre justifications have been trotted out to try and convince the public that the decision was anything other than the obvious: additional flights would disadvantage Qantas by providing additional competition, so the government decided to play ball and ban them.
While such decisions are rarely so blatant, it shouldn’t really be that surprising. Both sides of politics have the wrong frame of reference for many such decisions.
Labor’s economic model is the big tent – bringing together big business, big unions and select advocates to advance their view of the best interests of the country. The government arbitrates disputes between the parties, sets the agenda and, crucially, controls access to the tent.
Labor describes it as a bold new approach, but in reality it is little more than a progressive form of crony capitalism.
Labor openly advances policies to benefit these interests in a number of areas, most obviously in industrial relations and superannuation policy. Labor’s strategy for convincing voters Labor has their best interests in mind relies on convincing people that the vested interests represent them.
But in opposition to the big tent approach stands the ‘little platoons’. One suspects the Coalition would find significant benefit by finally unshackling themselves from the rent-seekers jockeying for position inside the tent and moving decisively towards markets and competition.
The bigger problem is that many political institutions, even those in theory established to represent the public, have been captured by vested interests in the system.
In practice, this leads to governments being bombarded by two voices: those with a financial stake in the decision, and activists who often use the supposed interests of those affected by the decision to advance their own agenda.
Even ineffective programs benefit someone — if only the providers of services and those administering the programs. Thus, government spending creates interested parties who will defend that spending program regardless of its effectiveness.
Consequently, the voices of the actual users of the system are distorted and filtered through the self-interest and agenda of these groups.
This is undeniably a live question for the Voice. Will it represent the interests of Aboriginal people in remote communities or what has been described as the ‘Indigenous Industry’ … the web of vested interests and not-for-profits that exist to provide services, receive benefits and / or advocate for particular causes that may or may not help close the gap?
Even worse though, is the complete absence of a voice representing the other stakeholder in government decision-making: taxpayers.
Where is the Voice for taxpayers?
One of the few areas of agreement in the current debate around Indigenous spending is that the current approach isn’t working. Both sides agree that the money is not being deployed effectively.
But why then has no-one identified the programs that aren’t effective and called for them to be scrapped? With so much money in the system, and so few outcomes achieved, why do new initiatives require complicated, constitutional machinery to get started?
Far from refusing to listen, governments would almost certainly jump at the chance to fund new effective initiatives by closing old, ineffective ones, especially if they could point to community support for these decisions. Why turn down a win-win?
Advocates claim the Voice will provide accountability on the effectiveness of government programs, but the big risk is that such accountability will only be one way. It’s almost a certainty that, like all interest groups, the loudest ‘voice’ will be for more spending.
None of this is specific or confined to Indigenous policy. After all, can anyone recall the interest groups in any area identifying ineffective programs and supporting their closure – with the money returned to taxpayers?
Overwhelmingly, the answer advocates provide is ‘we need more government and more spending’. Such an approach more or less guarantees we would be throwing good money after bad.
While this approach would assure worse outcomes for taxpayers, there is no guarantee it would even lead to better outcomes for Indigenous communities. The billions currently being spent sure haven’t.
Whether the Voice succeeds or fails at the referendum, figuring out how to integrate the experiences of consumers of government services with the interests of taxpayers should be the central issue of governance going forward. We need to untangle these concerns from the voices of advocates and vested interests.
This is as true in the Indigenous area as it is in aged care, childcare, health and welfare. And government is not currently doing a particularly good job of it.
Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies.
Photo by David Peterson