5. The Role of Government


Jefferson government

A quick Google search on the “role of government in Australia” brought back a leaflet produced by Minister for Trade, Andrew Robb. Entitled “The Role of Government in Australia” this brochure covers the three levels of government and their responsibilities, the constitution, the role of a federal member, how the laws are made (plus, bizarrely, a section on the Coat of Arms), but entirely fails to mention what the actual role of the government is, other than to pass legislation.

Even the government website www.australia.gov.au fails to provide an explanation of what the role of our government is. Which seems odd, but given the way that different parties undertake aspects of this role, perhaps unsurprising. However, for any organization to function correctly, it is essential to know what it is actually meant to do.

A democracy is defined as a system of government in which the power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives. As such it would be not unreasonable to suggest that the role of government is to look after all its stakeholders, the people, both present and future (as well as the legacy of those in the past too). But how does that over-arching responsibility translate into the responsibilities for those in government?

The best description I can find is from an organization called The Australian Collaboration, who are a collaboration of peak national community organisations representing social, cultural and environmental interests, aiming to contribute to a sustainable society on many levels: ecologically, socially, culturally and economically, and to do so in a sustainable manner.   In a paper which I would encourage you to read entitled “The Role of Government in Australia”, they describe it as follows (though bulleted for easier reference):

An open democratic society needs a strong government with particular characteristics.

It should:

  1. Be neither despotic nor over-bureaucratic.
  2. Exist within a legal framework based on the rule of law and the protection of civil liberties.
  3. Support civil society and its multiplicity of voices and activities.
  4. Protect the physical environment.
  5. Act to alleviate the negative impacts of the market place on individuals, groups and environment.

But as they rightly conclude, these roles are poorly understood and undervalued. Indeed I would go as far as to say that those in positions of responsibility prefer it that way. This vagueness allows them to breach responsibilities as they find it expedient to do so, pandering to one section of the community over another, whether than may be businesses (and/or business people), workers (particularly unionized ones), farmers, miners, or whichever section of the community that just so happens to be those most likely to vote for you.

But with a well defined role, and well defined responsibilities, there becomes far greater transparency over the merits of every piece of legislation being debated.

Will this legislation allow despotism? Will it be over-bureaucratic? Does it exist within a legal framework, and protect our civil liberties? Does it support our civil society and environment? Does it alleviate negative impact on individuals?   And if it doesn’t tick all those boxes, go away and come up with better policy. Because all too often, we see policies being proposed that apparently solve one problem, but at the expense of causing another.

Of course there will be debate about what level of bureaucracy. There will be debate about what constitutes negative impact. But as guiding principles, I think these are pretty good.

But governments don’t just pass legislation.  Whilst this more strategic role is important, the day-to-day “tactical” role of running the country, is equally important.  Natural calamities, economic events, invasions – all occur regardless of the plan, and as our representatives, the government has a role in deciding an appropriate course of action, which may require legislation, or may not.

As we know these areas of responsibility can be subdivided pretty much in line with the different government departments.  Defence, Health, Education, Foreign Office, Immigration, Treasury etc.  Sometimes issues require the involvement of multiple departments, and teams are set up to deal with them.  In this respect, they are no different from any modern organisation that runs projects to deal with specific issues, as well as maintaining the day-to-day tasks.

And like the role of government, it should be the case that each of these departments has a clearly articulated role. And that role should include the customer for whom they ultimately serve, namely us, the people.  Where one section of the community seems to be getting government largesse, it must be shown that ultimately we all will benefit, or deeper scrutiny is required.  Unfortunately the concept of pork-barrelling, where a particular section of the community is given an undue portion of the taxpayers funds, appears all too common.

A significant aspect of the roles of each department should relate to regulation, and enforcement thereof.  Whilst we often decry red, and now also green tape, the reality is that this stuff is meant to keep us protected.  Evidence of self-regulation, particularly in the business community, is often far from ideal.  The banking sectors own rules for lending money, or recommending financial products, appear to be broken regularly, but enforcement and punishment rarely matches the benefits received, thus businesses in particular continue to play hard and fast with the rules, often only doing the right thing when they are found with their hands in the till (and even then the lawyers will still try and get them off the hook). It is easier to ask for forgiveness, than ask for permission. But it doesn’t help when governments and their ministers trumpet the inefficiencies of red tape (unless there are political points to score…).

Another point to remember when governments complain about red tape, is that our legal system, the rule of law, the courts – all that is red tape for the population.  And the police are the enforcers.  It is often the same politicians who argue for less red tape for business, that argue for more legislation against people.

The reality is that the governments’ role must be well defined, articulated and understood.  Roles and responsibilities are made clear in most organisations, because without these, how is one able to determine how well that role is being carried out?   Spelling out these responsibilities, particularly where they relate to relationships with external organisations, particularly companies, is essential in order that we can tell whether our representatives are doing their job effectively or not.

And in the absence of any other organisation having the powers and responsibilities to do so, regulation and its enforcement is a very significant part of what governments are supposed to do.  But make sure that you don’t equate poor enforcement with bad regulation.

One further point about the roles and responsibilities of government.  What is the current situation if a government breaks the rules?  If a citizen lies to gain advantage, then they can be taken to court.  If an employee does not fulfil their role correctly, they can get the long walk off a short plank.  But governments?

Prior to the last election a significant number of promises were made to the electorate by the then opposition, since elected.  Famously, there would be “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions, no changes to GST,  no cuts to the ABC or SBS under a government I lead“.  Yet following the election, he has proposed cuts to education and health by removing budget to the state governments for these areas, proposed to change the index link of the pension to a lower indexation mechanism, included digital media in the products/services now incurring GST, and introduced substantial cuts to the ABC and SBS (though termed these as “efficiency dividends”).  The question of whether you agree with these measures is I suspect entirely dependent on your political perspective, and not for discussion here, but does ask whether it is acceptable to offer one thing, and deliver another?  Particularly because there is no comeback for making false promises either within the parliamentary system other than at the next election potentially 3 years later.

Within Parliament itself, there are some key roles that need to be fulfilled to ensure the proper running of government business.  One of the most important of these is the role of the Speaker.  By convention their role is to be impartial, though they are usually an MP from the government side, and do have a casting vote.  Indeed in the UK (from where we inherit our Westminster system), the speaker actually resigns from their party such that they may be fully impartial.  Traditionally, as the adjudicator of debates and government business, they do not intend party room meetings so they may maintain this impartiality.  However despite repeated reference to the importance of the Westminster system, the current speaker does attend party room meetings, therefore being fully versed on the tactics the government intends to use to get legislation through the house, and fairly clearly from the number of MPs who have been ejected from the House for matters deemed inappropriate, uses this power like none before her, holding the records for numbers of MPs ejected in a day, in a week, and on overall average since her time in that position.  Moreover, with the introduction of tv cameras into the house, there have been occasions when she very clearly has been seen taking instructions from the government.  Again, ignoring the politics of the situation, how do we have a situation where there is no clear job description for such a critical position?  Or when the oversight of that role is carried out by the government benches who clearly benefit from this partisan behaviour, and therefore chose very clearly to ignore it?

We seem to forget that we, the electorate, are the stakeholders in Australia.  We each own one share.  The government provide the management, and the cabinet the board of directors.  But unlike citizens or businesses, there is no external regulators.  The system is supposed to self-regulate, however it is increasingly clear that it is unable, or unwilling to.  This needs to change.


About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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