PUBLIC AFFAIRS: by Dr Christopher J. WardNews Weekly
The indispensable role of government
, May 24, 2008
Both sides of politics in Australia in the last 25 years have aggressively embraced free markets, privatisation and globalisation as the comprehensive answer to the nation's ills. However, as social scientist Dr Christopher J. Ward argues, government still has an indispensable role to perform in many parts of the economy.Veteran Australian journalist Paul Kelly, in his prescient 1992 book, The End of Certainty, reflected on the political changes of the 1980s. During this period, according to Kelly, "Both Labor and non-Labor underwent internal philosophical revolutions to support a new set of ideas — faith in markets, deregulation, a reduced goal for government, and low protection in the creation of a new cooperative enterprise culture."
I have always believed, however, that government still has several indispensable roles to perform — roles which cannot always be satisfactorily performed by the market.
The so-called Four Cs of public or military administration — command, control, coordination and communication — are a familiar concept often discussed in political science and defence journals. However, during the past 25 years, much of government administration has followed a radically different course.Outsourcing
Key government, military and public service functions have been downsized, resized and outsourced.
There has been talk of outsourcing the servicing of military aircraft and naval ships and the provision of mechanised equipment for the armed forces. This is likely to be a source of potential weakness for the future defence of Australia. Such work should be done here by our own trained people.
Vital functions of national security work have been outsourced, such as security checking. Grave weaknesses have been revealed in areas such as air and sea-port facilities. Baggage-handling work is all too often poorly paid and undertaken by recent migrants.
Police forces have been steadily downgraded to mere police "services", with all that implies for less effective policing and a consequent lack of confidence in the police.
Outsourcing of certain areas of police responsibility (a process known as civilianisation) has also occurred, not necessarily to the public's advantage. "To serve and protect" is surely the watchword of police, state and federal; and, while public accountability is certainly desirable and necessary, it must never be to the detriment of operational efficiency.
Australia's lack of a proper energy policy presents an immense problem for the country. We export most of our energy resources, especially LPG, uranium and coal. Now, with the international price of oil hitting the US$200 mark, the average family motorist and those who depend on their livelihood for the use of vehicles are feeling the pinch.
Given that Australia is predominantly an urbanised country, we should be in the forefront of developing vehicles which meet individual, family and business needs and which, wherever possible, rely on alternative fuel sources, such as compressed liquid natural gas (LNG). This happens to be one of Australia's greatest riches with enormous potential, but it has little political support.
There is also a very compelling case for upgrading and extending our railways to move bulk cargo quickly. This would reduce our reliance on road transport, our nation's excessive fuel consumption and the wear and tear on our roads. Rail haulage per kilometre is generally cheaper, safer and less polluting than road haulage, and more should be done to encourage it.
Privatisation of railways has been less than successful in nearly every westernised country. Even the US, which once boasted a mighty railroad system, has become too dependent on the automobile and trucking.
Privatisation has wreaked havoc not only in the field of transport but also in communications, power generation and supply. The idea that the market can be guaranteed to serve the public interest has a hollow ring when the providers are more concerned about the bottom line for shareholders than about the needs of the people and the country.Decline
Since the 1970s, Australian manufacturing industries have been allowed to decline. It used to be said, with some justification that, unless Australia had a strong manufacturing sector across the board, the country would become merely a quarry, a farm and a tourist park.
Food and shelter are the most basic of human needs. We need our farmers on the land providing food in all its forms for our domestic market. While there are niche markets for certain export commodities such as crayfish, farmed salmon or abalone, we should not have to pay world parity prices for them — and especially not for such staple foods as bread, milk and meat.
Given the climatic variations of this country, the science of "smart farming" needs development. We could learn much from the Israelis and other nations with dry-farming expertise.
While it would be unrealistic to roll back the changes of ownership of the past few decades, a long hard look is needed at legislation for a national emergency, whereby a government can step in and legally control everything necessary for the protection of its people, from whatever disaster occurs.