Hooked on students

When I taught public policy, one of the key ideas I tried to put across, was that when you create a public policy, you create a system, and vice versa. One of the reasons, I argued, that policies often produced surprising effects was that the links between different parts of these systems were not well-understood.

Governments necessarily operate bureaucratically, which means that the types of systems they run are disguised by the myriad classes and classifications they use to process reality. Usually, the insiders know what is going on, although for those in government trying to keep control of it all, it may take time to catch up with some effects. But for those on the outside, it is much more difficult to piece the data together.

Revisiting The Secret River

There are essentially two kinds of novel set in the past. In the first, we follow the fortunes of a real person, such as Henry VIII’s Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist of Hilary Mantel’s celebrated trilogy. This is a flexible genre, in which the portrait does not have to be accurate to be convincing: witness Peter Carey’s brilliant impersonation of Ned Kelly in True history of the Kelly gang. These works stand or fall according to the psychological interest they create.

Government approaches to risk often overblown

Canberra’s Mr Fluffy disaster reminds us how very bad governments can be at managing risk. The decision, 25 years ago, to attempt to remove all the asbestos from roof cavities seems both too little and too much – too little, because as we now know, loose fibres remained, and too much, because in seeking to eliminate the risk, the governments of the day were simply creating further problems in the future.

Dairy industry: Kiwis have the right idea

While at the everyday level the ties could hardly be closer, Australians and New Zealanders take little notice of each other when it comes to politics. New Zealand’s recent general election, which resulted in the return to power of National party leader John Key, attracted little attention this side of the Tasman. Yet there is much to be learned, in both political and policy terms, from our Kiwi neighbours.

Step back, breathe deeply, govern wisely – change inevitably causes upheaval

It is said that when the government changes so, too, does the country. After going to all the trouble of getting elected, governments want to see as many of their objectives as possible implemented. The problem is, in the world of public policy, constant, politically induced changes do not produce good outcomes.

Where to now for Australia’s universities?

Through budget cuts and deregulation, the Coalition government may well be about to make life more difficult for Australia’s universities (no mean achievement). But we should also acknowledge that the system it inherited is the product of decades of bipartisan financial fiddling, poor management (by both universities and the educational bureaucracy) and political opportunism.

Who’s the greenest of us all? Wind farms, light rail and the ACT government

When Jon Stanhope was in charge, ACT Labor presented as a steady-as-you-go hard-working government, a touch arrogant in its days of majority power, but certainly not revolutionary in its approach or rhetoric. With Katy Gallagher as Chief Minister, and the Greens Shane Rattenbury in the cabinet, we have a government that is unique in Australia – and possibly, the world – in its zeal to transform the city in which its citizens live.

Canberra’s population growth should be steady

With the coming to power of another federal Coalition government, it seems likely that Canberra’s high growth rates of recent years will come to an end, at least for the next few years. While there is understandable concern about this change in the city’s fortunes, in the longer run all the indicators are that we will have a much bigger city than we do now.

Abbott sailing in rough seas

While there are few consolations for no longer being in government, one that will appeal to Labor is that it no longer has to deal with the asylum-seeker problem. It’s now up to Tony Abbott to ”stop the boats”. As Labor’s perceived failures in this area were Tony’s ticket to …

Density debate is overdue

How serious is the ACT government about implementing the much-discussed Gungahlin to City light rail project? Treasurer Andrew Barr’s recent musings about borrowing the money to build it will have sent shivers down the spines of many ACT taxpayers.

The cost of party bickering

It would be a great pity if the Gonski reforms to school funding were to become casualties of the current, heightened period of inter-party rivalry. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has deliberately stoked the flames by spruiking the dollar amounts that may, or may not, apply to schools systems in each state and territory. In doing so, she diverts attention from the underlying principles of the reforms which, in calmer times, the Coalition might have had much less difficulty in endorsing.

Mining boom drinks us dry

When I first began to study political science in the late 1970s, we were preoccupied with understanding the phenomenon called ”the state”.

In practice, this meant grappling with the writings of some difficult Europeans – not just Marx, but later thinkers such as Habermas, Althusser, Gramsci and Poulantzas. In those days, when the structural connections between the economy and politics were perceived to be of the first importance, puzzling about the nature of the state in capitalist societies seemed entirely natural. The Australian state seemed a particularly apt subject for study. Of the many authors whose works we read on our history, whether they were men or women of the left or not, none doubted that economic development was the main theme of the story – the economic and the political were closely intertwined.

The hand of the beholder

The Taj Mahal is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, visited by millions every year. Shah Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz, whose mausoleum it is, may have simply worn out after giving birth to her 14th child. But the building itself, especially in the dawn light, does not disappoint. It is magical.