You have to feel for us academic analysts of government. There we are out of sight on the frontiers of research, examining the last remains of integrity in government, publishing for fear of perishing, when yet again we get overtaken by events.
My latest book, Terms of Trust, is just out, but it was completed before the latest Tony Abbott saga: the backflip over the promised Medicare safety-net levels. It contains many examples showing why so many people have good reasons to distrust government. If only I had been able to include the latest Abbott case study.
Terms of Trust argues that governments craft their own terms of trust around ethical practices that suit government, not the governed. This has always been the case, but over recent decades governments have turned the heat up, saying too much public inquiry and accountability will crush the sense of individual ethical responsibility required of government leaders.
I support this view. Decent government is powered by the sense of initiative that personal ethical responsibility can bring to public affairs. As I argue in the book, accountability works best when it reinforces collective and personal responsibility.
But governments can let us down by misusing the responsibilities of government. Worse, I argue that governments can let themselves down by saying they need to be given more room to exercise the burdens of responsibility. Australian governments share a tendency with many Western governments to complain about "accountability overreach". But then they make things so much worse by engaging in "responsibility overreach".
Terms of Trust has lots of examples, all variations on the theme that the governed should take on trust the ethical responsibilities of those in government. My main argument is that by talking up their new commitment to trustworthiness, governments are making the business of government harder. People see many gaps between claims and realities of the new responsibility - and cynicism eats away at what's left of public trust.
Take the Tony Abbott example. In a pre-Budget meeting last month, Cabinet agreed to increase the thresholds at which the Medicare safety net applied: up from $300 to $500 for those with concessions and up from $700 to $1,000 for the rest. The lower levels were part of the deal cut by Abbott with Senate Independents when negotiating the 2004 passage of the Medicare package.
During the 2004 election, Abbott was firm that if re-elected, the Government would not lift the entitlement levels. But in the lead-up to this month's Budget, Abbott has had a rough time explaining how this package will be amended when the Government can get the new Senate to agree. You have to feel for Abbott, who has had his share of disappointments this year.
Like many other political observers, I watched eagerly in 2004 when he replaced Senator Kay Patterson as Health Minister, after the Prime Minister's mandate to cut a deal with the Independents in the Senate to pass the safety-net legislation before the election. Prime Minister Howard seemed pleased that Abbott cut the right deal at the right time.
Both Abbott and Howard trumpeted the merits of the safety net during the 2004 election campaign, contrasting it to great effect with Labor's controversial "Medicare Gold" policy.
I remember my own first doubts when they emerged soon after the election. News of the Government's majority in the Senate took most observers by surprise, although I do remember Malcolm Mackerras, for one, predicting it. As that surprising news began to sink in, a number of ministers began to predict what changes this win might have on government practice. In Terms of Trust, I record how Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson revealed that the era of "endless witch-hunting committees" had ended, referring in particular to the Senate committee inquiry into the evidence by Mike Scrafton contesting the Howard's knowledge of Defence advice about "children overboard".
But at the time I did not quite appreciate the significance of warnings by the Treasurer, Peter Costello, that the Budget surplus was not as sustainable as many had presumed during the election. In my book, I simply note that Costello distanced himself from public-service estimates of growing government revenue produced under the Charter of Budget Honesty before the election.
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