The triumph of means over ends

By on Apr 20, 2016 in Integrity, Public Policy

The ABCC is a tool not a policy

Surely no one really expects Malcolm Turnbull to fight the next federal election over re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission. There will be a lot of other issues and lots of other policy announcements from Liberal, Labor and Greens alike. The ABCC will be lost in the big fights over who can manage the economy, health, education, welfare, the environment etcetera.

But, the proposed ABCC is an instrument of policy, not a policy objective  despite the language coming out of the mouths of Mr Turnbull and his  ministerial colleagues. The ABCC is a tool not an objective.

Policy objectives are implemented with tools, or “policy instruments”. The tools are the means not the ends. It is the ends that matter.

So what ends are intended by the ABCC?

Depending on your perspective it might be:

Maybe “to spread fear and loathing” could be added, channelling Abbott’s attack-dog politics.

Arguing for a tool is weak policy.

It also channels the silliness between Gillard and Abbott on climate change.

The objective of improving the planet was lost in a faux fight over a price on carbon (“carbon tax”) versus “direct action” (spending bags of government money).

This was an interesting ideological inversion: Labor was the champion of the market; the Liberals banking on big government. However that fight was over the means not the ends.

We all lost.

The ALP was deprived of an important tool (government intervention); it was tossed out (victory for politics over policy); Abbott was forced to limit his options to exclude market tools (despite near unanimous economic views that market tools would work better than spending); nothing was done about climate change (Australia’s international reputation dragged down); Abbott got tossed for Turnbull (no coherent economic narrative); and now Turnbull seems to be repeating the same mistake (preferring means over ends).

Whether or not an ABCC would be a good thing depends on the role it has, its powers and its relationships with other integrity entities. Oh! And whether it is designed to smash things down rather than build things up.

It is much easier to destroy things than to create them.

Mr Turnbull’s commitment to the ABCC is easily met by a coherent policy that puts ends first and the means follow.

That is not to say coherent policy will triumph over base politics!

Form should follow function, but the ABCC is form dictating function. It is a poor start to a long campaign for those of us concerned with good policy.

19 April 2016 – from Paris at the OECD Integrity Forum