Life in the people’s republic of Canberra

If the essence of democracy is effective competition for political power, then our city-state of Canberra is in trouble. Since 2001, the ACT has been ruled continuously by the Labor Party, either alone or in partnership with the Greens. The Canberra Liberals have been in power for only seven of the nearly 30 years since self-government.

No other state or territory has experienced this level of single-party dominance over the same period. The Northern Territory, a Country Liberal Party fiefdom in the 1980s, swung to Labor in 2001, and back again to the CLP in 2012. Even in NSW, for so many years a bastion of Labor, power has alternated between the ALP and the Liberal-National Coalition over the past 30 years.

Andrew Barr claims victory after the 2016 election, Labor’s fifth consecutive win. CREDIT:ROHAN THOMSON

Despite an electoral system that encourages minor party and independent representation, the ACT has settled into a stable voting pattern that favours Labor and the Greens. The reasons are not hard to see. A workforce that, despite some diversification, remains overwhelmingly dependent on government spending will naturally prefer parties that seem more committed to such spending than their opponents. And a well-off, left-leaning electorate is unlikely to be attracted to social conservatism.

ACT Labor also has more resources, and more regularly supplied resources, than any other party. It has mutually supportive relations with the ACT’s unions. And it owns the Canberra Labor clubs. The other parties rely on donations from businesses and individuals, which tend to dry up between elections. The most recent financial disclosure returns suggest the Canberra Liberals’ income in 2017-18 was less than half that of Labor.

The effects of this dominance are beginning to be felt across a wide range of policy areas. It might not be true that power corrupts, but it certainly makes incumbents more comfortable than they ought to be. There is no real pressure on Chief Minister Andrew Barr or his ministers, because everyone knows that, whatever scrutiny they may be subject to in the Legislatie Assembly or via the media, the ALP is unlikely to lose office.

More to the point, there is no real incentive for ministers to actually lead their departments. This creates the near certainty that bureaucratic power centres will build up, more concerned with protecting their own convenience and power than with the wider good. This type of situation, it must be emphasised, makes it even more difficult than it otherwise would be for those public servants who would like to see change, or at least more accountability, to implement better solutions to problems, or to be innovative.

Surely the citizens of the people’s republic keep the government on its toes? ACT citizens may be politically aware but, as in most jurisdictions, most of us pay little or no attention to politics outside the election period – and often not even then. It’s true that citizens are quick to protest when the government does something to annoy them or does not perform a function as well as it should. Local government functions are watched particularly closely. Many of us make submissions on policy matters, and community councils work hard to develop community-based responses, particularly on planning issues.

But this type of activity involves relatively few people and its accountability effects are minimal. Even with an exceptionally well-argued case, it is difficult to attract the attention of the governing executive. This is unfortunate, because evidence is beginning to emerge that, in a number of policy sectors, the ACT does not perform as well as it should or could. Let us consider the two biggest items in the ACT budget: health and education.

Health is a tough assignment for any government. The problems are multifaceted and expectations are high. As betokens a wealthy community, the involvement of private care and private financing in the ACT is strong. The ACT has high levels of private health insurance and of private hospital care. With this kind of background, one would expect that ACT Health’s performance, particularly in the governance of public hospital-based services, would be second to none.

Unfortunately, there have been persistent problems in this area, compounded by a bullying culture in ACT Health that the government, its senior advisers and bureaucrats have been reluctant to acknowledge, let alone address. In every organisation, it is those who do the frontline work who are the most knowledgable and, in general, the most loyal. For doctors to call for a judicial inquiry suggests that something is very wrong indeed.

The government’s preferred response, an independent inquiry, follows moves to restructure relations between ACT Health and providers of public-health services. But if the restructure exacerbates problems in intra-organisational communication, coordination and managerial accountability, it may well worsen the bullying culture. To the extent that broader policy or budgetary problems are to blame, the restructure will cause a great deal of disruption for little longer-term gain.

It has been apparent for some time that the education system has not been performing as well as it should, despite the fact that the ACT’s high levels of socioeconomic privilege give most students a flying start. I made this point in a column in The Canberra Times 15 years ago. As cross-jurisdictional data has become more readily available, the extent to which ACT schools underperform relative to similar schools in other states has become clearer.

The ACT Auditor-General’s assessments of public schools’ literacy and numeracy test scores show the ACT performs worse than similar schools in the states across all key measures: reading, writing and numeracy. A recent Grattan Institute study, which did not separate public and private schools, found particularly poor relative performance in numeracy. The disparity may have worsened over the past 15 years as the other states have improved their results. If ACT schools are achieving outcomes that are not captured by conventional forms of measurement, the public needs to know what these outcomes are.

The ACT’s devolved curriculum development and assessment processes may be contributing to patchy performance in primary and high schools. At the end of schooling, the ACT senior secondary certificate relies wholly on school-based assessment, with no input from a formal external examination undertaken by all students. By contrast, the NSW higher school certificate is a much clearer qualification, backed up by a centrally developed curriculum and a robust external exam. However worthy the intentions behind it, the ACT certificate and record of achievement seems more of a potpourri than a useful statement of attainment.

It is all the more concerning that these problems have arisen in times of economic plenty. The government has had a very easy run in this respect over the past 20 years. There has been population build-up, much revenue-generation resulting from real-estate activity and rising land values, and a succession of federal governments that do not seem to have grasped that cutting public service staffing actually leads to more public service work, because more and more tasks are outsourced. For its part, the ACT Public Service, currently just under 22,000-strong, can scarcely move without calling in consultants.

Should we be worried? While life in the people’s republic of Canberra remains relatively pleasant for most, our declining public services will become obvious sooner or later. Unfortunately, if current problems are not aired more completely and discussed more fully, the decline will continue. The city desperately needs a more effective opposition to jolt its governing party out of its complacency.

First appeared in The Canberra Times 6 Nov 18

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