Why we need to do the federal budget differently
We trust the government to take care of defence and security, but when it comes to policy fundamentals we're not so sure. This matters. Good policy is the glue that holds the whole political system together.
Public confidence in the capacity of government to address policy fundamentals is very low. Two surveys conducted in 2016 and 2017 by the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA) and Ipsos suggest that a majority of Australian citizens only trust Federal Government to tackle issues of defence and national security (see Table 1). Notably there has been a significant decline in perceptions of the government’s ability to manage economic matters which will be of concern to the Prime Minister. Political trust in political leaders and the institutions of politics matters, as it provides the glue that holds together the Australian political system.
Is Budget 2017 likely to reverse this trend? Not unless the way in which the budget is presented is systematically changed. The current presentation of the Budget reflects the dominant adversarial politics paradigm which Australians so abhor and the media does so much to propagate through the reporting of Budget “winners and losers” rather than the essentials of good economic management.
Table 1. Confidence in Federal Government to tackle public policy problems
The Treasurer presents a set piece speech under a broad overarching theme (last year “Jobs and Growth”) which lists a series of tax and transfer measures for the following year combined with a limited number of policy interventions. At best it only provides a partial act of executive accountability as no attempt is provided to reflect on the performance of the previous Budget. What worked? What didn't? What didn’t happen? Where do we need new thinking?
The Budget is tightly locked into the three year electoral cycle and the pathology of the short term. Then of course the Opposition and the chattering classes provide alternative views fuelling the adversarial battle. The Budget itself becomes the preserve of the technocratic elite embodied in the Budget lock-up itself as a symbol of exclusion disconnected from the everyday lives of Australians.
Does this adversarial, elitist approach enable high quality public policy debate? Does it make for better policy-making in the national interest? Or does it further alienate the Australian citizenry from contemporary politics? Is there an alternative way of doing the Budget that can hold the executive to account and stimulate an inclusive national debate on economic matters?
We recently asked Australians whether they had an appetite for policy innovation asking them to respond to the following statement: “We need to empower public servants to experiment and maybe even fail, as long as it leads to better services”. Only 16% disagreed and this was in the aftermath of the E-census debacle.
Table 2. Public appetite for policy innovation
So what could a reformed Federal Budget look like? A Citizens’ Jury (perhaps called the “Citizens Budget”) with representatives drawn randomly by lot from the public could be held towards the end of each budgetary cycle to allow for scrutiny on the year’s economic performance and reflection on new ways of thinking. The jurors would also be invited to the Budget Lock-up. The Treasurer would then be required to respond formally to jury recommendations as part of the Budget speech.
In line with the need to affect more inclusive decision-making, any new proposal emerging from the Budget speech should include a six week online public consultation process to allow direct input from all Australians. This initiative already has the support of 77% Australians according to our recent survey.
These initiatives may be perceived as radical changes but at a time when public trust in Federal Government is at an all-time low a radical response is required. To fail to respond could be mad, bad and dangerous for the Federation.
This article is part of our Let's Talk series Democracy. Are you in?.