Following the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan and the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, governance failures are in the news again.
In Australia, climate change, public health, and urban policy debates are increasingly hostage to special interests, untethered to reason. Many contemporary Australian policy-perspectives now contentedly graze in fields bounded by ideological madness, flagrant greed and dangerous stupidity. Moral hazard looms large. Left unchecked, the consequences could harm us all.
How can we assign greater costs to wilful incompetence in public office?
Published in Foreign Affairs, a journal normally noted for its insightful yet measured appraisal of international affairs, Sarah Chayes’ account of the collapse of the Afghan government is direct, jarringly-raw, very well-informed, and angry.
Writing as a nation-building insider, she portrays the chaotic withdrawal as the highly visible culmination of systematic governance failure spanning two decades.
Jon Boone’s account of these events for the Financial Times illustrates the same story from the perspective of Afghans directly affected over this period.
Both accounts portray how rampant corruption, perpetrated by countrymen but accommodated by those in the West ostensibly concerned to foster democracy, left a population unwilling to defend against its violent overthrow by a widely despised brutal medievalist theocracy.
The events also illustrate a truism of collapse as a phenomenon – of ecosystems, nations, markets, physical structures, blocked arteries – that it first occurs gradually then suddenly, with telling indicators plainly evident in rueful hindsight.
The wise learn lessons – to be alert for these indicators and act to avoid collapse – but the reckless press on with business-as-usual, dismissing warning signs as irritating details until it is all too late.
Think of the latter as the suicidal wannabe birdman passing the 30th floor of a tall building shouting “so far so good”.
The concern is that the consequences of stupidity, or capture by self-interests, is not confined to individual policy areas but, like an acid, also corrodes the container, as occurred in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, Australian policy debate over the past 20 years avoided both the reckless and wise and is now gridlocked, according to the Grattan Institute.
It is no longer newsworthy that a diminished and cowered public service has relinquished policy formation to faceless ideologues that control and flatter ruling parties from within echo-chambers of partisan policy debate and vaunting special interests.
Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Fiona Hill reflects on her four years as a senior adviser at the Trump White House. Comparing America leading up to that period with authoritarian populist states, she felt both were places “where self-dealing elites had hollowed out vital institutions and where alienated, frustrated people were increasingly open to populist and authoritarian appeals”.
These conditions now prevail across far too many policy areas but let’s briefly touch on three – climate policy, the COVID-19 response, and housing policies – and how the impending emergencies of each might be avoided in our cities.
The members for coal
The current government’s hostility to climate change abatement was best summarised when the then treasurer, now PM, brandished a lump of coal in parliament as a disdainful nose-thumbing riposte to overwhelming scientific evidence.
Since then, climate changes have occurred much faster than many imagined, even within the timescales of electoral cycles; recall the record bushfires in Australia and US less than a year ago and more recently a killer heatwave in the US.
Debate over climate change in favour of coal is now electorally dead, yet ongoing support for the industry is still regularly and angrily pressed by some government members, both publicly but more worryingly in party rooms where policy decisions are made; recall Senator McKenzie’s recent outburst.
As planet-wide efforts to limit GHG temperature rises accelerate, Australia is fast becoming internationally isolated and risks long-term economic blowback.
Thus, persistent government chain dragging on climate change abatement measures, such as phasing out coal, hobbles our economy, threatens the liveability of our cities and the value of our precious houses, diminishes our national security and more worryingly sullies our international democratic “brand” – as shallow marketeers might express it.
Indeed, it is now also generally held that the threats posed by increasingly autocratic powers must be met primarily by increasing the integrity of governance within the borders of democratic nations, particularly when pressed on others as was the case in Afghanistan.
More bleach please!
Though Australia generally performed well managing the earlier stages of the pandemic, rising infection rates of the Delta variant have contributed to growing divisions amongst states and between states and the federal government.
A picture is emerging of a national government formally charged with greater responsibility than it actually honoured, and now increasingly obsessed with shedding blame – behaviours which state premiers are starting to copy.
Yet despite growing global consensus on how best to manage the pandemic a former member of the government, whose vote it still relies upon, insisted on spreading Trump-era false information about vaccination measures, claiming freedom-of-speech as his license.
Another member rebuked police who sought to quell rioting by anti-vax protesters.
Unusually, given the freedoms commonly accorded to parliamentarians – now verging on moral hazard – health regulators have commenced legal action against the first member for spreading dangerously false rumours.
Yet, from the outset, pandemic management became an indicator of government competence and, more significantly, a marker of the superiority of authoritarian or democratic modes.
Stuff the young …into rented flats!
It is now the established view that Australia is failing the young. Their incomes have remained static while the wealth of older Australians has increased.
These conditions are acutely experienced in housing, where unaffordability will condemn many to become lifetime renters, compounding the economic impact of delayed income growth caused by the pandemic, and the accrued costs of delayed climate change mitigation.
The causes of housing unaffordability are now very well understood.
Current market driven supply – either peri-urban “villa costalotta’s” or high-rise apartments – has failed to fulfill ballooning demand for more affordable and fit-for-purpose housing.
These are the classic signs of market-failure; the generally accepted precondition for government intervention.
Remedies are also well understood and include greater provision of social housing, much more affordable housing, alternative delivery methods, and alternative pathways to ownership – all in addition to current for-profit housing provision.
Yet these alternatives are simply anathema to some conservative governments, particularly as the for-profit housing sector comprises such a large and influential part of the national economy, a bit like the mining sector.
As a result, contemplation of remedies is stalled in finger-pointing debates over “supply” and “demand” that usefully cleave along partisan and generational lines.
The supply-ists peddle claims of planning impediments, long debunked by academics and the state planning minister. For example, developers commonly maintain undeveloped land-banks or withhold sales of complete apartments to elevate selling prices artificially.
Demand-istas point out that favourable tax breaks and the low cost of money disproportionately enable the already wealthy to purchase additional housing for investment – rather than shelter – and outbid first-homebuyers.
The result is not a failing system but, as Peter Mares points out, one working exactly as intended – the production of a renting class to perpetuate and grow the wealth of the already wealthy; a view also explored here previously.
Yet despite this background, Jason Falinkski the government chair of an enquiry into housing affordability opined to a for-profit housing lobby group:
“Since World War Two, housing commission has had a lot of negative impact on vulnerable communities and I query whether building it actually helps people in challenged communities…Affordable housing in different guises can do different things, but ultimately, it has the problem of reducing supply while increasing costs, and in some cases, looks and smells like rent control, which … actually means that people pay higher rents.” (emphases added)
In short, this committee appears ready to reaffirm existing myths and conditions around housing affordability in order to sustain Peter Mare’s “perfectly working system”.
Viewed collectively, these examples recall Fiona Hill’s “self-dealing elites” that infest autocratic and diseased democratic governments.
It is common to regard autocratic examples as kleptocratic or corrupt yet if we acknowledge that we share some of those features we are led to troubling conclusions.
Australia is not free of corruption but it maintains a noble hostility against it, as evidenced by the establishment of Independent Commissions Against Corruption (ICACs) in many states.
The NSW Askin government is often regarded as synonymous with official corruption. The allegations against it centred on the operation of the police force and special relationships with colourful racing identities.
The corruption alleged against some authoritarian states is an order of magnitude greater. They entail the co-opting of state institutions, and the weakening of others, to benefit insiders and favoured social cohorts.
These behaviours are thematically indistinguishable from the more corrupt “Wantok” practices that bedevil many South Pacific Island nations.
Acknowledging its more benign features rooted in pre-national tribal networks, Walton and Jackson point out that the “Wantok” system of mutual patronage in Papua New Guinea provides the kinds of social and material assistance otherwise unattainable from a state with weak public institutions. The authors add that these systems of informal social networks exist in all societies – including Australia.
But at the other end of this continuum, it is frequently regarded as the source of corruption; “the system can also help perpetuate … corrupt practices such as election-related patronage and bribery”.
The descriptive resemblance to contemporary Australian political behaviour is uncanny; pork barrelling is technically not illegal, particularly if investigation is neatly prevented by “cabinet-in-confidence” claims.
It leaves a pall of quasi-criminal dishonesty hanging over the very core of government – the genuine need to maintain cabinet confidentiality that, in the best of all possible democratic worlds, would accommodate frank and fearless exchanges to foster thereby the best policy ideas.
Perhaps the problem is the actual definition – the codification – of corruption.
Yet, as the changing concept of corruption from Askin’s time to the present well illustrates, precise definition could itself be an issue.
The problem with codifying corruption is that shady activity is rendered whiter-than-white if it falls outside the definition, such as the recent pork-barrelling and sports rorts controversies.
By way of analogy, if an animal humps your leg, s***s in your slippers or goes “woof” then it is probably a dog. Yet if a dog is defined as a furry canine that barks, the Mexican Hairless and Basenji breeds avoid further scrutiny.
However, Stephen Charles’ account of the definitional emasculation of a proposed national ICAC suggests that corruption will be defined as a Chihuahua, with Rottweilers wolves and mongrels left to roam free.
The Western Australia remedy
Compared to the events in Afghanistan, Australia has at least two advantages.
Firstly, it lacks a determined organised medievalist theocratic movement at scale that seeks violent overthrow from within. In its place is a system of democratic power transfer.
The second is that the corruption not so much in-your-face every day; more of the “small – c” kind.
Unfortunately, we share with ordinary Afghans a lack of motivation. While theirs was resignation following years of abuse, ours is due to complacency, as Peter Hartcher has pointed out in relation to our national security.
Yet our complacency is not wholly paralysing.
After suffering almost total annihilation at the last Western Australian state election a review concluded that “unethical, underhanded and corrupt practices have left the Western Australian Liberal Party a penniless “political wasteland” on the verge of ‘extinction’”.
Though these practices were internal to the party, the notion that they were corrupt is much more interesting – and motivating.
This is not a conservative-versus-progressive issue.
Conservative government in Germany is generally admired. The conservative New South Wales State planning and environment ministers are widely regarded as very sensible.
Yet, defence of governance integrity against cynical gaming does not flow naturally from a core belief in small government and representation of one’s “Wantoks”.
It would normally be expected that any government that jeopardised national security, the economy, and the future prospects of its citizens – all against constant consistent countervailing advice – would be electorally banished.
If so, act now; quick, before the wolves and mongrels kill us all.