Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 2010
Telling other people to shut up is never a particularly strong argument for your own case. If you are convinced of your arguments, the least you have to fear is open debate. This makes the recent intervention by Treasury secretary Ken Henry all the more remarkable.
In order to quell dissent on his policy recommendations such as the emissions trading scheme and the controversial mining tax, Henry even interrupted his overseas holiday to address a conference in Sydney. The delegates were given a strong warning not to criticise his proposals any more.
As Fairfax media reported yesterday, Henry said it was “unbelievably frustrating, incredibly frustrating” for people advising governments of both stripes that economists seemed “loath to come to a consensus position on anything”.
Instead of closing ranks behind a uniform position (Henry’s own, we may presume), economists were too much inclined to discuss the pros and cons of policy. “Whenever an idea is ventured publicly by a person, whether that person is a policy adviser or whether it’s a government minister, there’s at least a handful of academics who will contest it,” Henry complained.
Good grief! Academics contesting policy ideas! That’s scandalous. How dare they? On closer inspection, the problem does not lie with the academics but with the Treasury secretary. Ken Henry seems to have forgotten that he is not heading the Ministry of Truth but that he is supposed to be a non-partisan bureaucrat.
Being part of the public service does not mean that Henry is not allowed to have his personal views. However, he should not confuse them with the public interest. Least of all, he should make them the basis of political lobbying. The role of public servants may have changed over the last generation from giving purely impartial advice to a more political function, however, taking sides in public policy debates is still not at the heart of a Treasury secretary’s job description.
The problems go beyond Henry’s latest venture into the political debate. Henry has become personally associated with some of the most controversial economic policies of the past few years, among them the emissions trading scheme, the stimulus packages, and the resource super profits tax. In all cases, his role went beyond that of an impartial adviser, weighing the pros and cons of a particular policy and giving recommendations to the government in private as the public service used to do. Henry has increasingly left the sphere of the bureaucrat to engage personally – and forcefully – in political battles.
Nowhere else has this been as evident as in his involvement in tax reform. There is no doubt that Henry is one of the country’s best experts on tax policy. Nevertheless, it was a mistake to make him the chairman of the tax reform commission. It was simply asking too much of any one person.
Henry could not credibly play all roles in the process of tax reform himself: that of impartial adviser; architect of government policy; and campaigner for its implementation. He should have made a decision a long time ago whether to remain a mainly impartial Treasury mandarin or whether to seek election to a public office. Instead, he preferred to have his cake and eat it.
His most recent intervention shows that Henry has finally moved over from the bureaucratic sphere into the political arena. It may be one thing for politicians to call for unity or declare debates over, silly as that often is. But that’s what politicians do. When a politician tells economists to shut up and unite behind a policy, nobody in his right mind would take this too seriously. It would be understood as what it is: the political equivalent of puffery.
For a Treasury secretary, on the other hand, puffery should not be an excuse. It is simply not his job to organise majorities and establish political consent. That’s the role of politicians.
It is problematic when a government official tries to dictate to academics what to say. It is even more questionable when this bureaucrat believes that he needs to do so in the public interest. Whoever defines the public interest, it is certainly not a Treasury mandarin. To ignore academic freedom in an open, pluralist democracy is unforgivable in itself. The economist’s role in society is precisely what Henry objects to: to give advice and engage in debate.
Ken Henry has shown that he is no longer willing to confine himself to the role of a senior public servant. For this reason, it would be better for him seek a new career and run for a political office instead.
This would restore the public service’s reputation for impartiality – and it would give Ken Henry a better excuse to argue for his preferred policies in whatever way he desires.