Friday, September 20, 2013

Nothing to lose but your shibboleths

In the Book of Judges in the Bible there's the story of a battle between the Israelites from two different tribes, the Gileadites and the Ephraimites.  The Gileadites were victorious and captured the crossing points over the Jordan river to stop the retreat of the Ephraimites.  The Gileadites asked anyone trying to cross the river to pronounce the word ''Shibboleth'' (which is part of a plant).  Ephraimites couldn't pronounce the ''Sh'' sound.  Those who didn't say ''Shibboleth'' correctly were put to death by the Gileadites.

In the 3000 years since, ''shibboleth'' has taken on a broader meaning.  These days it is used to describe an opinion held by a group of people that distinguishes that group from any other group.

So, for example, until a fortnight ago it was a shibboleth of the left in Australia that Tony Abbott was ''unelectable''.

It used to be a shibboleth of big business in this country that an emissions trading scheme was a good idea.

And it's a shibboleth of the trade union movement that every boss is a bad boss and can't wait to either bully or unfairly dismiss employees.  The list could go on.

Abbott will have to overcome a few shibboleths as Prime Minister.  Probably the hardest will be those held by the bureaucracy he's inherited.  Here's five.

The Henry tax review should be the starting point for any tax reform.

The basic assumption of the Henry tax review was that taxes must increase to pay for more government spending, especially in health.  That might be the justification for tax reform when the Labor Party does it, but it shouldn't be a guiding principle for the Coalition.  Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey should start tax reform from scratch and they should use exactly the opposite assumption from that of the Henry review.  They should aim to cut tax, not increase it.

''Evidence-based policy'' should determine government decisions.

''Evidence-based policy'' is a theory sold to public servants by management consultants.  As with most things peddled by management consultants, it's a theory that's a statement of the blindingly obvious.  If you're going to pursue a policy, of course you should use evidence to determine the best way to implement that policy.  But before you implement policy you need to decide what policies should be implemented in the first place.  ''Evidence-based policy'' doesn't provide any guidance on how to balance two competing philosophical principles — for example how to balance the right to freedom of speech against a concern for those who might be offended by such speech.  Politicians and public servants like ''evidence-based policy'' because it allows them to avoid hard decisions.

The government can design markets

The prime example of the claim that governments can construct markets is the so-called ''market-based'' solution to climate change.  But the point about markets is that they come about organically via free exchange.  When a government sets the price of something or decides how much of it can be sold, that's not a market.  Politicians and public servants like describing government regulation as ''market-based'' solutions — it conceals what they're actually doing.

State governments don't matter in the modern Australian economy

This is a federal public service shibboleth that sadly both successive Coalition and ALP governments have encouraged.  Growing and vibrant national economies are characterised by a high degree of devolution and competition between jurisdictions.  Not so here where centralisation and uniformity have become the measures by which good policy is now measured.  Absent from the debate about productivity is any discussion of how competitive tension between the states can spur economic activity.

There's not a problem Canberra can't solve

There was one comment from the Prime Minister this week that was absolutely refreshing.  When Tony Abbott was asked about the allegations of match-fixing at soccer games in Victoria he said — ''I really don't think the Prime Minister of the day should be attempting to micro-manage sport and the conduct of sporting codes''.  One hopes Abbott will take that approach with all the other things the federal government currently micro-manages.

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