To get what you want in Australian politics, stay well away from elections

Image from Education International

Picture from Education International

Under the big top of Australian politics, predicting policy outcomes can feel like being strapped to the pinwheel blindfolded waiting for the knives to fall. Just take the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski school funding reforms.


Two centrepiece policies of the previous Federal Labor Government, one being rolled out across the country and the other stuck back in partisan gridlock. Both were supported by expert third party reports over six months between 2011 and 2012 and required billions of dollars in spending, not to mention the cooperation of federal and state governments. They also promised to deliver strong equity and economic growth dividends.


So why did disability reform stick, when you can argue that fewer people stand to directly benefit?


It’s a question school funding activists will be asking as they ponder the dubious privilege of being elevated to an election issue this year. One answer lies in the form of political organisation underpinning each campaign. As similar as their policy asks may appear at first glance, the way they were asked were significantly different.


Both started smoothly with the release of those expert reports – the Productivity Commission report into a National Disability Insurance Scheme in late 2011 and the Gonski Review of School Funding in early 2012.


But from then on they diverged. The school funding campaign was primarily organised by education unions, whose strong existing partisan links helped secure support from the incumbent Labor government and suspicion from the Coalition opposition. Under the pressure of the 2013 election campaign, silence from the Coalition gave way to an eleventh hour pledge to a ‘unity ticket’ with Labor. And here we are three years and $30 billion of alleged school funding cuts later.


On the other hand, the ‘Every Australian Counts’ campaign for a National Disability Insurance Scheme was established and funded by an alliance of peak bodies including National Disability Services (NDS), the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations (AFDO), and Carers Australia. These organisations capitalised on a less partisan relationship with government to sign up MPs and senators as supporters of an NDIS through meetings with constituents, local town halls and, of course, a lot of petitions. After building support on both sides of politics they secured bipartisan support, with enabling legislation passing through federal parliament in early 2013 before the election had begun.


It’s important to underscore this point: the most enduring large-scale social and economic reform of the past decade was presented to the public and legislated by parliament entirely between elections.


The more accelerated and volatile our politics, the more evidence of John Kingdon’s multiple streams approach rather than an orderly march through a phased policy process. After all, the problems underlying disability services were well-known as was the credible solution of the NDIS. What had been missing until 2011 was the political window of opportunity to match the two.


And the lesson from disability and education reform, counter-intuitively for a traditional democrat, is that the political stream may be more amenable to durable reform wholly outside of election season and divorced from partisanship. This won’t be news to normative thinkers on democracy – just take Henrik Bang and Anders Esmark’s observations about the decline of contestation through formal political institutions in favour of good governance. They argue that good governance ‘frames politics within policy’, where discrete publics mobilise around the implementation of specific projects alongside governments (Bang and Esmark, 2009).


But whether you are an activist, an academic or a political junkie: if you’re looking for lasting reform agendas you may have to wait until after this year’s election. Better sit back, relax, and try to enjoy the show.



Bang, H. P. & Esmark, A. 2009, ‘Good Governance in Network Society: Reconfiguring the Political from Politics to Policy’, Administrative Theory & Praxis, Vol.31, No.1, pp.7-37.


 Michael. K. Vaughan is a PhD Candidate at the University of Sydney.