Bracks' Third Wave hard one to catch
As a public relations exercise, the Bracks Government's "A Third Wave of National Reform" was a roaring success.
It received national coverage after its release on August 14 and was given high praise from business and pro-reform commentators, while the many critics of reform were studiously silent.
The praise from reformists such as Hugh Morgan of the Business Council is not surprising - one of the lessons of the past 20 years is that agreement on reform produces the best outcomes.
Even though the Labor Party has been in denial over the past 10 years, Mr Bracks' Third Wave not only publicly applauds past reforms, it claims them for his party and expresses the need for another wave of reform.
The Third Wave document also highlights the need for a renewal of the National Competition Process (NCP).
The NCP has been very successful in its achievements and in the way they were accomplished. It induced the states to open their business enterprises to competition, and this contributed - more than any other reform - to Australia's recently improved competitiveness. NCP also induced the states to subject thousands of business regulations to a public-interest test.
The key to its success was its process. It was carried out on a national basis with monetary incentives and was supported by an independent, non-political review board.
On the other hand, the process became a symbol of hate to many socialists, and few states would have carried it out without the monetary incentives and the opportunity to shed the blame on an outside body. Moreover, the national approach stopped state governments from watering down the process.
The NCP process is coming to an end; the challenge now is to invigorate it with a new program and a new funding arrangement.
Mr Bracks highlights the need for this and adds to the debate about a renewed agenda, but is he a credible leader of reform?
Not if he is judged on his record to date. His government is a master of the endless study; a government of process rather than results. It has also proven to be highly malleable to vested-interest groups - particularly those of the green and union varieties.
Nonetheless, he can change and others can lead. What he has done is start a dialogue on the renewal of the NCP, and that is a worthwhile contribution.
In term of priorities, Mr Bracks is more or less correct. A renewed NCP should focus on business regulation and expand into key government services such as health, education and welfare.
Mr Bracks is also correct, albeit for the wrong reason, that industrial relations should not be part of the package. IR is without question a major national reform issue. Business, big and small, is demanding reform.
However, Labor governments are proving incapable of acting in the public interest on this issue - they are far too beholden to a union movement desperate to maintain its monopoly powers.
Thus, cross-government agreement, which is an essential part of NCP, is not possible. Instead, the only way forward with IR is the route being pursued by the Howard Government - that is, for the Commonwealth to assume control over the system and implement essential reforms.
It is in its process and aims that Mr Brack's Third Wave is decidedly muddled.
The main focus of the health strategy is to reduce the incidence of chronic diseases by preventive action, to reduce obesity, smoking, alcohol abuse and physical inactivity. These are all worthwhile aims, but they are not profound, new or sufficient. Governments have pursued these aims for decades and it is absurd to suggest that the health costs associated with the population's ageing can be addresses by banning smoking or encouraging physical exercise, or that keeping people healthy will keep them in the workforce, even at 80 years of age.
The health system is the last bastion of socialism and protected monopolies. Opening it to competition, personal choice and responsibility and market-based systems is the key task and it is consistent with the NCP philosophy. The Third Wave document contains a few throwaway lines in this direction, but basically avoids the real game and stays with the status quo.
The Third Wave's approach to education is similarly muddled. The document does contain some ideas that are part of an effective reform agenda, such as paying teachers by performance, funding people, not schools, and funding according to outcomes, not a school's ownership. However, its main focus is simply on increasing participation, on spending more public funds on formal education - preschool, high school, TAFE and university. Again, not profound, new or enough.
While Bracks' Third Wave document falls far short of being a blueprint for reform, it is a tentative start.
Given the current stage of the political cycle, nationally and in Victoria, we need to get on with the job.