QUARTERLY ESSAY 60 Political Amnesia



Bernie Fraser

Many Australians feel let down by some of the institutions that have accompanied them through the twists and turns of their lives. They have discovered that trust in those institutions long taken for granted has too often proved to be misplaced. Governments (at all levels) probably top the list of let-down institutions, but there are others, including corporates (from large financial and mining companies to small convenience stores), trade unions, religious organisations and sporting bodies.

Australians are not alone in feeling aggrieved on this score. There seems to be a widespread betrayal of trust by similar kinds of institutions everywhere, including in many countries we view as sharing our values. The erosion of trust in such institutions is now so deep that even their broader democratic and mixed-economy underpinnings are increasingly looking like damaged goods – less satisfying to countries which have them (Australia and the United States included), and less appealing to countries which might be contemplating them.

For me this is part of the big-picture backdrop to Laura Tingle’s excellent essay on political amnesia. Drawing on more than three decades of keen observation and analysis, Laura traces the slide of Australian governments into ordinariness in recent times, its drivers, and the poor policies and lost opportunities that are among its consequences. Having some familiarity with policy-making over this period, I believe Laura’s essay provides invaluable insights for anyone trying to comprehend this serious erosion of trust and integrity, and searching for the paths back to good government.

It is the restoration of trust and integrity in the institutions of executive government (cabinet and the ministry) and the parliament that is the major focus of Laura’s essay. This seems a good entry point into the broader problem, given both the pervasive influence of these particular institutions and the potential demonstration effect of restoring trust in them on other afflicted institutions.

The “we” in the subtitle “How we forgot how to govern” refers foremost to cabinet ministers but also extends to members of parliament generally, with both cohorts having largely forgotten how differently these institutions functioned in the past. On my reading, Laura’s point is not that today’s institutions should be recast in their earlier images; given the flaws in those moulds, this would not be a smart thing to do. Rather, the point is that the absence of good memory of how these institutions operated (for good and ill) in the past – the issues they confronted, how they resolved them and the consequences – denies current decision-makers valuable lessons when tackling today’s challenges. Insights that might have helped to prevent, for example, a concentration of power in the position of prime minister (with centralised policy and media management and “captain’s calls”), dysfunctional cabinet processes and the trivialisation of Question Time.

How these and other shortcomings in current practices can be tied to a loss of institutional memory is well documented in the essay. It all adds up to a very credible thesis. At the same time, other factors have been at work – and are discussed in the essay – which are less directly related to memory loss.

One such factor is feeding “the 24/7 media beast” (Laura’s words). Many ministers (and their shadows) seem to relish the endless opportunities to comment on their portfolios (and sometimes on their colleagues’ portfolios as well) and to have a dig at their opponents. Mostly they recycle old assertions and slogans about, for example, the dire consequences of budget deficits and carbon prices; rarely do they emit useful new information. Of likely more concern to viewers of these sessions is confirmation of their suspicions that the community would be better served if the ministerial time and effort now devoted to these activities were to be redirected to getting on top of real issues, and to forging sustainable policies, in the cabinet room.

A second and obvious factor, which is partly related to questions of political memory and process, is the quality and depth of the ministry and its capacity to function as an effective team. Comparisons here, like comparing thoroughbreds of different eras, are matters of judgment. In my book, based on observations extending over the past fifty years, the Hawke cabinet of the 1980s would have a big lead on all the others to have gone around before and since that time.

Prime Minister Turnbull seems to have recognised that recent governments have let down lots of Australians, both in some of the policies adopted and the processes surrounding the determination and communication of those policies. The prime minister has foreshadowed changes to help restore trusted and open government to Australians, including the replacement of on-the-run decision-making and captain’s calls with more traditional cabinet processes. These good intentions warrant strong community support, and will probably require that if they are to be realised.

Another change promised by the prime minister is better government engagement with the bureaucracy in policy-making. This is a critical relationship crying out for urgent repair. Personal experience – as well as common sense – tells me that effective working relationships between diligent ministers and diligent departments make for good outcomes. In the second half of the 1980s, for example, Treasury had a close – if not always frictionless – working relationship with Treasurer Keating, which, I believe, contributed to some significant reforms during that period. (For their own reasons, a couple of journalists of the day choose to denigrate this cooperation, calling it “politicisation” (and worse) of the Treasury; these comments drew a firm rebuttal from Malcolm Fraser – never a fan of the Treasury – who applauded the close relationship and lamented its absence during his time as prime minister.)

Many relationships, of course, have not worked out. For various reasons, different ministers and governments have lacked confidence in the capacity of their bureaucrats to provide appropriate advice, at least of the kinds some would prefer to receive. As recorded in Laura’s essay, the erosion of trust in these relationships has built up over the years. Elected in 1972, the Whitlam government was unsure of the loyalty it might receive from a bureaucracy that had served only Coalition governments for twenty-five years: it prepared itself by appointing a number of “outsiders” to positions in departments and in the offices of incoming ministers. These practices were continued, fairly incrementally, in subsequent administrations before taking off to new levels in the Howard and Abbott governments, when significant numbers of senior bureaucrats were replaced and staffs of ministerial offices inflated in a quest for more accommodating advice.

These and other changes – including widespread outsourcing of government activities – appear to have so diminished the public service that it no longer has the capacity, the opportunity and perhaps even the spirit to play its critical role in upholding the standard of public policy-making. As Laura has noted: “we as a community have ceased to recognise what a valuable repository of memory, and what a valuable institution, the public service is.”

This situation should be of real concern to every Australian. Today’s world is much more fluid than ever before, with unprecedented cross-border flows not only of goods and services, and capital and labour, but also of technologies and ideas, terrorists and refugees, drugs and viruses, warming temperatures and changing climatic patterns. These global and geopolitical developments bring new dimensions and complexities to Australian policy-making in many fields. In their own interests, and certainly in the interests of the communities they represent (who bear the brunt of poor decisions), our leaders need to receive the best possible advice. They will – and should – call on different sources, but the public service should be very prominent in the mix: it should, I suggest, be the government’s “go-to” adviser in most instances.

Given its natural perspective and priority (serving the national public interest), its multi-disciplinary cover, and its substantial (if threatened) memory, the public service (with other public sector advisory bodies) has the potential to provide expert and balanced advice of a breadth and depth others would be hard-pressed to match. All that is needed to realise that potential is for it to be adequately resourced; to be managed as a premier advisory institution (not some kind of “business”); and to be viewed by ministers and governments as a respected and indispensable partner in policy-making.

To help rebuild trust in Australia’s governmental institutions, Prime Minister Turnbull has spoken of the need for a public service which works better and engages better with ministers. Changes in these areas are overdue and, again, Turnbull’s good intentions should be supported and pursued vigorously. To this end, the prime minister himself could do worse than commission a comprehensive and independent review to propose appropriate structures and responsibilities for Australia’s public service in today’s new world. It would likely find many clues in the old ground turned over so diligently by Laura Tingle in her essay.


Bernie Fraser was secretary of the Treasury (1984–89), governor of the Reserve Bank (1989–96) and, more recently, chairman of the board of the Climate Change Authority.



This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 60, Political Amnesia. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 61, Balancing Act.


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