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.

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.

High horses fall hard

Bob Carr is clearly relishing his job as Foreign Affairs Minister. He could scarcely conceal his delight when, a month or so ago, he announced that Australia’s campaign to secure one of the non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council had been successful. Australia’s bid was supported by no less than 140 member nations.

A war worth fighting

After more than 10 long years, the war in Afghanistan must rank as one of the most frustrating Australians have ever fought. The Prime Minister is determined to see the job through, which means staying the course until our forces are pulled out in 2014. However, in private, I doubt that she, or her advisers, believe that any form of sustainable government will have been established by that time.

Time to take the creative option

One of the most difficult jobs in public administration is that of the regulator – the person (or agency) responsible for implementing the rules. Do your job too uncompromisingly, and the regulated are on your back (or complaining to the politicians). Do it too leniently, and the problems the rules were designed to deal with, are likely to multiply. And that’s your fate when the rules are well-set. Regulators often find that the system they are trying to manage evolves more quickly than their legislation envisaged. The result is that the legislation either becomes a dead letter, or is amended repeatedly, often by patching it up with bits of regulatory gaffer tape. As fast as one loophole is closed, another is discovered (or opened) by those eager to see how far they can go.

Information isn’t everything

My brother and sister-in-law have two children, plus a dog and a cat. They can just about manage the children, but the animals are something else. Recently, at midnight, the cat dragged itself up the stairs to the adults’ bedroom, and promptly started convulsing. There began a frantic visit to the emergency vet, which saved the cat’s life but just about destroyed the family’s bank balance. It turned out that my sister-in-law, in a rush as mothers tend to be, had used dog anti-flea powder on the cat, thinking that one would do for the other. My brother was indignant. Why, he demanded, had she not read the instructions? These, when reviewed, clearly stated that the product could be toxic to cats.