Government and governance | Australia

8 November 2015

The battle to win the daily media cycle in politics means that big policy issues are being left to drift unresolved, writes John Hewson.

Spin doctors: I am not talking about the American rock band of the 1990s. A dictionary definition of a “spin doctor” is:

“a person (such as a political aide) whose job involves trying to control the way something (such as an important event) is described to the public in order to influence what people think about it”.

As politics has increasingly become a very short-term ‘game’, essentially played out daily to win the media cycle – that also is shortening – it has become increasingly poll driven, opportunistic, populist, often very negative, and sometimes personal.

In this environment, spin doctors have almost become a profession. You might recall that famous Ronald Reagan line: “It’s been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first.”

Unfortunately, spin doctoring has become an essential ingredient of a political strategy, and not just for politicians, but also for lobbyists and all those stakeholders with a vested interest in an issue.

Indeed, spin doctoring has spread to most walks of life, in business and across the broader community, as players seek to cast themselves and/or their activities in the very best light.

The main danger is, of course, that spin drives out substance and truth, and appropriate action and response. This has become particularly important in government, where issues have been increasingly spun rather than dealt with, leaving them to drift.

Governments now often seek to create the impression that they are governing, when actually they are not – rather, they are simply kicking issues down the road.

However, the electorate is becoming increasingly frustrated with this process, and the poor government that it has produced.

I have the regular opportunity to appear on the Sunrise breakfast TV segment they have labeled a ‘Spin Free Zone’, where we are expected to cut through the spin to the substance of an issue.

Unfortunately, it has been possible to distract attention, and to delay appropriate policy response, for quite some time in some areas of government.

However, one area where it is difficult to sustain it is in relation to Treasury matters and the economy. Economic, and especially market, realities can soon come to the fore, exposing the damage left by the spin.

For example, despite all the spin and rhetoric of government’s of both persuasions over the last several years, about how they are ‘fixing’ the budget, and restoring sustainable growth in the economy and in employment, the Budget deficit still mounts, Australia’s growth rate has collapsed to about half what they had promised, and unemployment is stuck above 6 per cent, with youth unemployment in the teens.

Moreover, the essential reform processes, now, in some cases desperately, required in most policy areas, have stalled, or in some areas gone backwards.

The challenges in areas such as tax, industrial relations, innovation, education and health, climate change, and so on, are now very significant, and may be electorally very difficult to set right.

These policy failures are starting to bite in the daily lives of many, and are also working to constrain the living standards of their children.

Enter Malcolm Turnbull. His new Government has it all to do. He has the opportunity to right the economic ship, but does he have the leadership skills, and the capacity to do so?

In relation to the economy, he is already being let down by some key members of his economic team, who are still relying more on their spin doctors than on the development of substantive policy responses, and encouraging, indeed leading, essential community debate.

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