Good Government: What We Should Expect From Our Leaders

Good government means long term vision and plans, clear electoral mandates, effective government structures, community engagement and political leadership.

In 2013 the former Australian Labor leader Mark Latham wrote a critique of his own party and the conservative Right. In Not Dead Yet, published first by Black Inc. as Quarterly Essay 49, he argued that the Right was lacking in moral authority while the Left was not only disorganised but adrift from its true constituency and without a vision that would adequately serve this constituency. Many might disagree with his analysis, but most would probably support the underlying view that Australians, like people everywhere, have reason to feel poorly served by their governments. Fortunately the picture is not all bleak; Latham himself has constructive suggestions for his own party. But what should we, the public, expect?

This essay assumes a body politic with broadly shared characteristics of honesty, goodwill, and commitment to purposeful action. The discussion draws examples from contemporary Australia, but the principles it expresses are not confined to Australia or Westminster system countries.

Clear articulation of values

The first thing we should be able to know, with crystal clarity, is what our political parties stand for in terms of core values. This is not as straightforward as it might seem, for the issues facing governments now are very different from those of 50 or 100 years ago, when our parties formed. Also, pragmatism has driven the more successful parties closer to the political centre, so that differentiation between them is less distinct. Anthony Albanese, as recent candidate for leadership of the Australian Labor Party, set out four values that he believed were core for modern Labor: productivity, a strong economy with jobs and growth, investing in opportunities, fairness, and sustainability. These were not mere “motherhood” statements. He gave examples which showed the depth and breadth of each concept and how they might interact. This was the bedrock sort of message we should be receiving as a matter of course from our leaders.

Other leaders have also spelt out their priorities; indeed the current Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is a master of simple, straightforward communication telling us particular actions he would take when in government. But this is not the same thing as articulating the values that drive an organisation – the values that come into play when difficult situations arise and government has to choose between competing demands. Cynics might say that political survival is the only value that counts, but the truth is usually more greyscale than that: values statements do count for something.

Vision and plan for the immediate future

We as citizens have a right to expect a clear, comprehensive and honest vision which signals the actions (or inactions) that a prospective government plans over the next term of office. There are three key considerations here: that these actions are mutually consistent, achievable, and free from unacceptable consequences. All too often, plans run into trouble over matters of detail, or they become too costly to implement or strike unexpected legal snags or political or administrative blockages. Smooth progress is rare, for we live in a complicated world with many variables and many uncertainties. However, governments are by and large empowered to do whatever is necessary, and we therefore expect them to have a reasonable command of detail from the outset, a knowledge of the potential pitfalls and a set of contingency plans. Retreat into simplistic statements such as “we will abolish unnecessary taxes” means nothing unless we know when, by how much, the impacts on business, the services that might have to be cut, and so on. Most importantly, we have a right to know not only the priorities for action but the options that might be invoked when elements of the plan fail. Again, it is in situations where “push comes to shove” that fundamental party values come into play. The introduction of the carbon tax in Australia is an example – an undertaking that was reversed when other factors made it no longer tenable. Another example is the weakening of the Big Society initiative of David Cameron’s government in the UK, a concept that has proved to be largely impracticable.

Vision and strategy for the longer term

One of the abiding problems of modern government is that leaders do not seem to have answers to the really hard questions of the long term. How will we pay for medical care? How will we pay for aged care? How many people will be able to live in their own homes? In an increasingly mechanised world, how will we create adequate employment for all? How will we arrest the tide of forced migration? How will we sustain small rural communities that are no longer economically viable? And so on. This is only the tip of an iceberg – and not a melting iceberg but one that seems to be growing and drifting towards us, alarmingly. Governments appear to be so consumed by the present that they cannot contemplate these bigger issues, or if they do, or allow parliamentary committees or other bodies to do so on their behalf, they lack the courage to pursue them through meaningful debate. Citizens have a right to expect not only that our leaders are engaged with these issues but they have at least a broad strategy for addressing them – even though these leaders themselves may disappear from the political scene in the meantime.

Mandate for specific actions

In principle, the concept of electoral mandate is simple: a party undertakes to do certain things if elected and claims then to have the people’s mandate to do so. The reality is not so simple, for parties are elected sometimes not on the basis of their policies but for other reasons, such as lack of an effective alternative. There is also confusion between ends and means. The Abbott Government, for example, claims a mandate to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat, but the means being used to achieve that end are arguably excessive and outside the scope of the mandate. Statecraft demands a balance between commitments to specific action, which might gain popular support, and commitments to a broad course of action, where flexibility is allowed but too much discretion might be hands of government, and there might be too much room for error. Despite these caveats, there is enormous power in popular mandates, whether they are delivered through elections, referenda, or other means (such as opinion polls or social media devices).

A related mechanism, though hard to establish and rare, is the social or economic contract. An example is the Prices and Incomes Accord negotiated for Australian workplaces in 1983. The Accord, between the Hawke Government and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, delivered major workplace, economic and social reforms. Such agreements are hard to achieve, and the negotiations are so costly in terms of time, political capital and other resources, that governments are wary of making the effort; but they are a true expression of democracy and something we should embrace more if we are serious about unity between governments and the governed.

Appropriate structure for government

A government can be politically smart and have all the right policies and plans, yet still come to grief in the execution of its office. Voters not uncommonly will punish a party which sounds right but fails to deliver, or worse, delivers really bad outcomes. Sometimes politicians are punished for misdeeds or failures which are not primarily their own, but for which they have ultimate responsibility. The opportunity for things to go wrong in large, sometimes poorly managed and lustreless bureaucracies is huge. Indeed there is often a sense of crisis in these bureaucracies, with programme failure seemingly inevitable. Politicians and their advisors are often amateurs in this game, making an operation that is already inherently flawed even worse. Politicians who win office love tinkering with structure, but their changes are rarely substantial and typically more nuisance than they are worth. What is required above all is a public sector which, as in earlier times, guarantees expertise with impartiality, and manages to achieve the managerialist dream of the 1980s and 1990s, being more competitive in a business sense. The least that politicians can do is to reverse the current politicisation of the public sector; this is largely within their power. There is no doubt that a better structure for government is achievable. We are, after all, in the supposedly enlightened 21st century with a long history of errors to learn from.

Meaningful engagement with the public

Democracy is not as strong as we often imagine. In an increasingly complex society, the individual has correspondingly less control over outcomes, and the awareness of this slippage leads to disenchantment and disengagement, then inevitably disempowerment. We – governments and citizenry together - have to agree on an effective way of conducting public business. The institution of community cabinet meetings in Australia has been a useful forum for exchange of views between ministers, senior bureaucrats and public at the local level, however much more is needed. Public education without spin is a prerequisite. So, for example, we have to commend the initiative of Australia’s Treasurer Joe Hockey who plans to give each taxpayer a receipt showing how his or her taxes are spent. Governments have to use all the tools available, especially those of interactive kind: summits and other public forums on broadscale issues, more focused community consultations, community cabinets, media appearances and so on. Ultimately there is still an almost intractable problem for the citizen - how to make sense of the full array of policies on offer, even (or especially) when there is a phalanx of journalists and public intellectuals offering their opinion. But this is life, not in the fast lane but in the fast society.

Appropriate style of politics

There is a potentially bruising bottom line to all of this, namely that, as in any other field of endeavour, style is substance. In the case of politics, style is the creature of more than the politicians themselves, for we are all players one way or another. Lindsay Tanner’s book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy (Scribe Publications, 2011) explores very well the depressing interplay between politicians and media and, by extension, ourselves as the third party consumers. How to regain the lost high ground of public policy and management is a huge topic beyond the scope of this essay. However, three points need to be made. Firstly, the expectations that have been outlined here will never come to fruition unless there is commitment to politics with value, expressed through politics with style. Secondly, this is a responsibility that we all share to a degree, for we are all equal players in the same community and all have a stake in political outcomes. Thirdly, leadership has to come from somewhere. Without detracting from the role of journalists as reporters and commentators or our own role as bloggers, letter-writers to newspapers and so on, the fact is that we elect politicians to be our leaders.


This blog may seem to be pie in the sky, calling for changes that in a world of materialism and self-interest, fear and apathy, will not happen. Yet we all have to take a stand sometime. If we don’t ask for a better world and do whatever is reasonably within our power to achieve it, then what is the point in living? There are two contrary tendencies in human history. One is that all kinds of error are simply repeated over and over, though in different guises; in other words, we started as beasts of prey, feeding off each other’s weakness, and we continue to do so, but now in a more sophisticated way. We gleefully accept tax breaks that come our way, implicitly disadvantaging others, when a more enlightened public policy would create a fairer balance; and so on. The other tendency evident in human history is the one of slow, painstaking but inexorable improvement. This is the tendency that gave us democracy, bills of rights and civilised ways of making decisions. Isn’t this worth pursuing even more? Have we really arrived already at the best of all possible political worlds?

There is widespread disenchantment with politics and government, and though elections always bring hope for something better, there is rarely any change that is both deep and lasting. Politicians, it seems, generally know what has to be done, but lack the will or capacity to do so.

A right-functioning body politic begins with clearly articulated values which are sincerely held. There should be vision, with a plan for the immediate future and a broad strategy for the longer term, even though this entails the political risk of seeming to commit future governments to courses of action they might choose after all not to take. The concept of mandate for action needs to be revisited, for clearly this has become an increasing source of disconnect between governments and their public.

Just as important as the “what” of government is the “how.” Parties with fine platforms can lose office because they fail in implementation, either through poor politics or poor management of their bureaucracy.