September 18, 2014
In his ANU Policy Outlook 2014 keynote, "Public policy resilience and the reform narrative", at the ANU Ken Henry, the former Treasury Secretary, argues that policy reform proposals are unlikely to be implemented, and even less likely to prove resilient, unless accompanied by a compelling narrative.
Henry states that the core narrative that has been used to support economic policy reform efforts in Australia for the past 30 years goes like this: reforms that enhance productivity and cut costs, including labour costs, build international competitiveness; international competitiveness drives exports; exports drive growth; growth drives jobs; and jobs support living standards.
He argues that recent reform proposals to deal with the economic consequences of the mining boom, and to contribute to international efforts to lower carbon emissions, have been presented tentatively, have been poorly understood, and have not proved resilient. He adds:
The fact that major policy initiatives in these areas have proven fragile has been cause for some questioning of our policy reform capacity. But really, given our national fixation with a simplistic reform narrative constructed on concepts of "international competitiveness", "exports", "growth", and "jobs", we should not have had high expectations of policy success in these areas.
We can also see this the mercantilst narrative crippling of efforts to position Australia for the Asian century.
According to the narrative, our prospects will be compromised by a set of Australian attributes developed over generations: excellence in governance; incorruptibility; safe working conditions; a concern with environmental sustainability and animal welfare; and institutions that support social harmony, economic and social opportunity, and tolerance.
All of these attributes support opportunity and freedom for this and future generations of Australians. They improve the well-being of the Australian people by enhancing their prospects of choosing a life of value. But a mercantilist might want to argue that all are costly; that Australia's international competitiveness could be improved by ditching any or all of them.
He argues that the quality of public policy and its resilience will be assisted by the acceptance of a more honest reform narrative; a narrative that comprehends contemporary challenges and the important role to be played by government in nurturing national endowments that will ensure that individuals, faced with those challenges, have the capabilities to pursue lives of value.