Why Australian politics needs to reframe its concept of the public interest

Political slogans and robotic talking points should be of no interest and deliver no benefit to the public, says former federal department head Paul Barratt in this short essay. He calls for a new focus on an authentic notion of public interest, which requires:

  • a probing media and informed public
  • evidence based policy
  • better delegation of responsibility to the best suited level of government.

The essay is republished with permission from "Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia? Essays by notable Australians", from  Australia21.


Paul Barratt writes:

The Australian body politic desperately needs to reframe its concept of the public interest, and conduct its political processes on the basis of this reframing.

I am not referring to the specific content of the public interest which will vary from political party to political party and from time to time. What I am referring to is the very idea of how the public interest might be conceived — what is this thing called ‘the public interest’?

The public interest will be connected only incidentally if at all with the interests of the governing party, which will mainly be to do with retaining power. In the current era of professionalised (and constant) campaigning, the focus of the parties is on three questions — which are the marginal electorates in which we need to win in order to win the next election, who within those electorates might be persuadable to our point of view, and what do we need to do to get them to come on board?

The answers to those questions are very unlikely to have anything to do with the public interest, because the public interest is not the same as the sum of the private interests of a relatively small number of voters in a small number of electorates.

Indeed, the public interest is not even the sum of the private interests of all voters — it is a different notion altogether, a notion of ‘the common good’.

Accordingly, the public interest must be constructed from some notion of policy directed to the welfare/wellbeing (broadly defined) of the general public.

It can be expected that a government genuinely concerned about the public interest will direct a high proportion of its time to what economists call ‘public goods’. Economists define ‘public goods’  as those which are ‘non-rivalrous’ (one person’s consumption of them does not reduce the capacity of another to consume them) and ‘non-excludable’ (it is not possible to make them available to some while excluding others).

‘Goods’ which fall into this category include national defence, environmental quality, fresh air, knowledge, and the dispensation of justice. To a reasonable approximation, and in the absence of congestion effects, network infrastructure (transport, communications, electricity, water and gas) has many of the characteristics of public goods.

This latter category introduces another reason for governmental attention pursuant to the public interest, namely market failure due to the presence of ‘externalities’ — the people making the investments in them cannot capture all the benefits of that investment and so will tend to under-invest. An obvious example of this is the fact that investments in transport infrastructure add to the value of adjacent land, but none of that value flows to a private investor.

The same applies to research and development and, I would argue, education at all levels: not all of the benefits of education flow to the person undertaking the education.

Society is not and cannot be indifferent to what its citizens know, what skills they have, what values they have imbibed, nor how many doctors, engineers, lawyers and teachers we have.

At least three criteria need to be fulfilled if we are to reasonably approximate a return to conducting our politics with due regard to the public interest.

First there is the requirement for politicians to treat each other and the voting public with respect. The latter means by definition treating journalists with respect, for it is through the activities of journalists asking probing questions that the public acquires the knowledge that keeps them informed and able to make informed choices, and helps to keep governments accountable.

This means abandoning the approach embodied in the media training courses which have flourished over the last 20 years and been reinforced by governments’ media advisers, the courses that counsel spokespeople to respond to any question by reciting an inane and boring memorised set of bullet points which praises the government and refers repetitively to the mess left behind by the government’s predecessor, but does not address the question.

On the all too rare occasions when the journalist pushes for an answer to the question, the formulaic response is recited again. To resort to the vernacular, this is taking us all for mugs, and most of us know it. A government which respects the public which voted it in and pays the taxes which enable it to function will recognise and respect the public’s right to know everything that is going on, with the exception only if those things which if known would have a material negative impact on the public interest (e.g. information properly given a national security classification, information relating to police investigations, information impacting on the privacy of individuals).

Its spokespeople will give meaningful answers to legitimate questions, and if they are not prepared to answer the question they will come right out and say so, and why, rather than ducking and weaving and giving an obfuscatory answer to a question that hasn’t been asked.

The second criterion is that policies submitted to the parliament and the public should be based on evidence.

Some object to calls for ‘evidence-based policy’ on the spurious ground that under such an approach the government is disempowered from doing anything if irrefutable evidence in support of its policy is not available. This is not what it means at all. Evidence-based policy means basing policy on the best evidence that is available — on the state of human knowledge as it exists at the time. Above all, the principle rules out policy that flies in the face of the evidence. If policy is not founded upon what we know, it is not possible to conduct a rational debate about it, and people, whether in parliament or in the wider community, cannot bring to the debate what they know.

Third, government throughout Australia needs to be conducted on the basis of what in the European Union context is known as the ‘principle of subsidiarity’.

This is the principle that all matters should be dealt with by the lowest level of government that is competent to deal with them. The Commonwealth likes to involve itself in matters like road funding, but except in the case of trunk routes of genuinely national significance, these and a host of other matters can safely be left to the states.

We get the governments we deserve, it is said. If we want things to improve, the Australian public will need to be much more vigilant and demanding about our political processes.

They will need to insist that our elected representatives from all parties conduct themselves with dignity and decorum in our federal parliament, that policy and legislation be directed to the public interest rather than the interests of the swinging voter, that policy be directed to matters for which the relevant level of government is responsible, that it be based on the best evidence that is available and the case for it argued by reference to that evidence, that parliamentary debates be about the substance of the important issues before the parliament rather than an occasion for hurling abuse across the chamber, and that the public’s right to know be fully respected.

Paul Barratt is a founding director of Australia21, and its current Chair. He spent most of his career in the Commonwealth Public Service,mainly in areas relating to resources, energy and international trade, culminating in appointments as Secretary to the

Departments of Primary Industries and Energy (1996–98)

and Defence (1998–99).

Australia21 is a not for profit research company which brings together leading thinkers from all sectors of the Australian community to explore current evidence and develop new frameworks for understanding some of the challenges to our future. It is not affiliated with any political party or interest group. The publication from which this essay is drawn, "Who speaks for and protects the public interest in Australia? Essays by notable Australians",  is available for download or purchase from www.australia21.org.au