1Q: Catch-up politics

This week’s One Question comes from me:

The government is accused of playing catch-up politics, but is there some merit in such an approach?

In proposing this one I was motivated by two dramatic instances where the government appears to be engaged in ‘catch-up’ politics. The first was, of course, the whole issue of climate where in the past year the Howard government has made a spectacular change in its attitude. And the second, more recently, was its proposals on broadband last week.

Now in thinking about how I would answer this question I was going to spend lots of time on issues where the Howard government has not (yet) engaged in ‘catch-up’ politics — namely, the area of early childhood education. However, this week took a dramatic turn by engaging in the opposite of ‘catch-up’ politics — ‘agenda setting’ politics — on the issue of crime amongst indigenous Australians. In this sense, we have seen it all recently.

Let’s begin with ‘catch-up’ politics. This is defined a situation whereby one party takes action on an issue that has been promoted and promised action by the other party. Typically, it is governments who are accused of ‘catch-up’ politics because they are (a) vulnerable on issues they haven’t dealt with and (b) because they are in government they can more easily be accused of inaction.

To evaluate its merits we have to consider what would happen if it didn’t play ‘catch-up.’ This means that, if, say, the Opposition, puts an issue on the table, the Government does not respond and pretty much ignores or dismisses it.

Thus, ‘catch-up’ politics is more nuanced. In terms of incentives the Government will ‘pick and choose.’ It will play catch-up on issues that turn out to resonate with the electorate but not on others. So if it didn’t engage in ‘catch-up’ politics, it would not pick and choose.

But we cannot stop there: we must consider the impact of this on Opposition incentives. Without catch-up politics, it could be content in trying to pick issues to differentiate itself politically. But with catch-up politics, this can be neutralised. Thus, there the incentives are clear: to test the waters with as many issues as possible. In this regard, playing ‘catch-up’ politics gives the Opposition incentives to propose ideas that are more varied and politically risky than others. In this regard, catch-up politics actually promotes debate on a wider range of issues that might otherwise be the case.

In addition, there is a second benefit: ‘catching-up’ on issues that the electorate cares about gives them a chance of action. Suppose the Howard government continued to ignore the environment but still won the next election. Then that issue might die.

Of course, that benefit only comes if ‘catch-up’ promises are credible. If the fact of ignoring an issue for so long indicates a fundamental lack of drive on the issue, then the promise means nothing if the government is returned to office.

So our current system whereby the government plays ‘catch-up’ but is not given credit for leadership is probably overall a good one. But this, of course, is a different issue from the question of what government we would prefer to have: a ‘catch-up’ or ‘agenda-setting’ one?

There are costs and benefits to ‘agenda-setting’ governments. The benefits are easy: governments can more the country along in a big way. Hawke and Keating were prime examples here. Keating led the country on land rights and competition policy. These were things that actually got done. When it works, it really works.

Sometimes there are attempts the peter out. A few years back, John Howard got up and said that work-life had changed and the school day should end at 5 or 6pm. That was a terrific insight and public suggestion. It sunk without a trace. I still can’t understand why.

What about the costs? The obvious is that they might set the wrong agenda. This is the case with the Bush administration on Iraq and Howard on Tampa — those were ‘agenda setting’ — but also on opposition pushes; just remember the impact of Pauline Hanson. Say what you will, she was agenda-setting with all of the costs associated with that.

In contrast, ‘catch-up’ is relatively conservative and potentially less risky. Now I will take a good ‘agenda-setting’ government any day over a good ‘catch-up’ one. But a bad ‘agenda-setting’ government might be the worst of all. And on the current indigenous push, my reading is that the jury is still out. But I will add my cheer to John Quiggin’s that a move in ‘agenda-setting’ on this issue is encouraging.

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