Political personalities: Palmer and Merkel in their natural habitat

Who is Clive Palmer? What is the meaning of him? … He is a foolish passionate man, who has that endowment of the very rich, an erasure of the line between fantasy and reality, come along at a time when Australian political institutions had become sufficiently disarticulated to let him in with ease. Most people, especially those in the media, have become convinced that he is a man of no fixed character or beliefs, who rose to power through a rational political process. The reverse is the case. Palmer is a man with a coherent set of beliefs who is nevertheless a random product of an electoral process acquired in the fit of absent-mindedness.

— Guy Rundle, QE56 2014, p. 64

I have read two sensational political profiles in the last week of two dramatically different politicians: Guy Rundle’s Quarterly Essay on Clive Palmer and George Packer on Angela Merkel for the New Yorker. A great essay encourages readers to revisit and revise their opinions, and I am reconsidering my impressions not only of these two political personalities, but also the political systems that shaped them.

Palmer, the man about which Australian democracy circa 2014-5 improbably turns, is dismissed by many as a fickle showman, a buffoon with more money than sense. Rundle is clear-eyed to the man’s weaknesses and vanities, but finds a sincere constancy in his value system. Palmer’s compromises and apparent flip-flops are politics as it is supposed to be played, ground given where necessary but always in accordance with a coherent political ideology. The prevailing narratives about Big Clive are driven, Rundle argues, largely by the horror felt by a political elite that sees a more cut-and-thrust politics suddenly injected into the stable bipartisan order of professional politicians. More than a rendering of Clive Palmer, this essay is a critique of a broken electoral system defended by a self-serving political caste, “sealed off from the general public, with the process of becoming a politician deliberately mystified to keep the amateurs out”. But now Clive has flung open the door, “and god knows who will rush in”.

Angela Merkel is perhaps as different from Clive Palmer as it is possible to be. She is quiet, highly analytical, profoundly methodical and slow to commit to any course of action. It is appropriate, then, that Packer’s political profile of Merkel evokes a democracy facing the opposite crisis: rather than a sudden shakeup of party politics, the Germany described is utterly apolitical. “Merkel took the politics out of politics,” Packer quotes Georg Diez as saying, and he suggests that’s precisely what the country – paralysed by past guilt and afraid of big ideas – is looking for. The Merkel described here strives to be everything to every voter, and is motivated primarily by an instinct for power and a single central value: freedom.

It is unfortunate, but no fatal flaw, that neither Rundle nor Packer spoke with politician they profile. The essays are more like anthropological studies, eschewing the polished image presented in an interview for an analysis of the social and natural environment in which these personalities have developed. In Rundle’s case, the background is necessarily filled out in vivid detail so as not to be overshadowed by the showman in the foreground, this “man so utterly a creation of the Gold Coast that you can small the coconut oil and sand on him”. The Coast itself is a character in his critical history of Australian democracy, instrumental in the shaping of Palmer’s politics. Packer’s study of East Germany is muted and oppressive, simple but evocative, like the black and white portraits of Merkel’s evolution as a public figure that open the disquieting piece. Both essays are wonderful studies of the modern democratic politician in his or her natural habitat.


LatAm Political Economy, Australian Democracy: What I’ve Been Reading

I’m about to start Honours-level Economics so everything I read is being torturously parsed for possible thesis topics. Lots of thought-provoking stuff here. Also lots of Latin America. Scroll down, non-latinophiles. There’s a depressing one for you at the bottom.


Jeffery R. Webber writes a sprawling but fascinating analysis of Bolivia’s economic policies and contesting ideologies for Jacobin magazine. Western commentators tend to ignore the fact that president Evo Morales’ team have pursued fairly orthodox policy despite the country’s close alignment with Venezuela and much of the government’s socialist rhetoric. Webber draws on a number of interviews and a great deal of theory to craft a really interesting analysis of the prevailing tensions. I’ll be reading it again.


Eugenio Diaz-Bonilla demolishes the myth of a century of Argentine decline, at least in terms of quantitative economic indicators. There’s probably an argument to be made for a century of political decline, and I’m not sure the causation is as cut-and-dried as he seems to suggest, but it’s a myth I’d kind of reflexively accepted as fairly compelling. I like being made to sit up and rethink things.


Four (at least tangentially) on Venezuela this week. Political Violence at a Glance link to some potentially interesting data on the outsourcing of government repression; Francisco Toro looks at the long-term development impacts of hurling petrodollars at the poor; Hector Schamis criticises Latin America’s forgetful left [sp], who ignore Venezuelan repression when many of them lived through state repression and human rights abuses themselves. Greg Weeks’ 15 Annoying Things About the Venezuelan Crisis is short, sweet, and pretty damn accurate.


If you care about Australian democracy Chloe Hooper’s Lives of the Magnates will make you very, very sad.

Holding Economic Power to Account: Toward the meaningful accountability of transnational capital (ABSTRACT)

The paper I’ll be presenting at the G20 Youth Conference in May. There’s a little more on the direction I’m approaching from here(This was updated 2 March 2014 as a later draft saw me head off in a slightly different direction; below is the abstract for the paper I’ll actually be taking to the conference. Original is at end of post).

From ‘Gift’ to ‘Right’: Moving beyond corporate social responsibility to corporate accountability

Multinational enterprises stride across the international stage, rivaling states in their economic size and power but only subject to international laws via the laws of individual states. These entities have enormous capacity to affect the lives and livelihoods of individuals and communities worldwide, and an international community that professes democratic values must provide mechanisms by which MNEs can be held directly accountable to the communities in which they operate.

Adequate mechanisms must provide for three stages of accountability: provision of information, discussion and explanation, and rectification. Furthermore, they must be based on clear accountability rights rather than voluntary compliance by MNEs, and significant barriers to access must not exist. Measured against these standards, existing international mechanisms for accountability are found lacking, for when we consider access, power, and the importance of accountability rights, the dominant rhetoric of corporate social responsibility (CSR) becomes rather unhelpful. The challenge is to move beyond CSR to a global accountability regime that challenges existing inequalities of power.

(Following is the abstract from a previous draft, initially published here on 3 Feb 2014).

Holding Economic Power to Account:  Toward the meaningful accountability of transnational capital

Multinational enterprises stride across the international stage, rivaling states in their economic size and power but only subject to international laws via the laws of individual states. These entities have enormous capacity to affect the lives and livelihoods of individuals and communities worldwide, and an international community that professes democratic values must provide mechanisms by which MNEs can be held directly accountable to the communities in which they operate.

Adequate mechanisms must provide for three stages of accountability: provision of information, discussion and explanation, and rectification. Furthermore, they must be based on clear accountability rights rather than voluntary compliance by MNEs, and significant barriers to access must not exist. Measured against these standards, existing international mechanisms for accountability are found lacking. While the G20’s embracing of the transparency agenda is commendable, more action must be taken to move from voluntary to mandatory compliance and enable meaningful access to rectification.

Reimagining Governance and Accountability in a Changed World

It has been contented that “without proper systems of democratic control and oversight, governance risks being less, not more, accountable than government if more and more decisions are taken outside the traditional government system” (Rhodes 1997, cited in Svedin et al., 2001: 46). This is undeniably true, for reasons that will be explored, but obscures the fact that in modern ‘differentiated polities’ the traditional government system is no longer able to cope with its responsibilities (Rhodes, 1997: 3): accountability without effectiveness serves little purpose. The challenge lies, then, in finding innovative forms of governance that allow for effective and responsive service delivery while minimising the risk of reduced accountability.

This essay will briefly outline ‘governance’ and ‘accountability’ as understood for the purposes of the argument, before examining the forces reducing the effectiveness of traditional governance and the accountability risks associated with new public management reforms designed to counteract this decline in effectiveness. Finally, through a discussion of Charles Sabel’s proposed ‘democratic experimentalism’, it will be argued that accountability in non-traditional governance is achievable, but will require considerable imagination and flexibility.

R. A. W. Rhodes (1996: 653) identifies at least six different usages of the term ‘governance’ in the literature – it is a fashionable yet nebulous concept. Here, governance is understood as the broad exercise of decision-making power within state and non-state agencies, in which “the boundaries between public and private become more blurred, so it is useful to ask how we are governed, rather than expecting that realised capacity follows formal authority as a matter of course” (Keating, 2000: 4).

Accountability is defined by the Australian Public Service Commission (2010: 2) as “being answerable for decisions and having meaningful mechanisms in place to ensure adherence to all applicable standards”. Importantly, assessing accountability requires identifying to whom accountability is owed, and in representative democracy it is presumed that the chain of accountability ultimately leads to the citizens.

In his analysis of the transition from government to governance, Rhodes (1997: 7) traces the evolution, in Great Britain, from the Westminster model of government to a ‘differentiated polity’, characterised by “functional and institutional specialisation and the fragmentation of policies and politics” and above all by the lack of a single controlling central government. Rather, decisions that impact on citizens’ lives are made at many different levels of government, from the local to the supra-national, and indeed outside of government, as multinational corporations (MNCs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) exercise increasing power. Kettl (2000) describes a similar change in the United States as emerging from the competing forces of globalisation and devolution: supranational organisations increasingly set limits on domestic political action, while domestically, the need for local knowledge and differentiated services encourage the devolution of service delivery to lower levels of government, domestic NGOs and the private sector.

The same process, driven by the complexity of modern society and increasing demands on the state, has taken place in Australia (Keating, 2000: 27). Thus, the traditional accountability mechanisms of Australian government – Ministerial responsibility, elections, Parliament and the courts – become insufficient “because sheer institutional complexity obscures who is accountable to whom and for what” (Rhodes, 1997: 101).

Initial attempts to devolve or delegate responsibility for carrying out public services led to reduction in both accountability and effectiveness, because the spheres of action of the interest groups or bureaucratic agencies chosen for the task “do not naturally conform to the boundaries of the problems they need to solve”, and because these groups also have their own particular interests which may interfere with or co-opt the government-set agenda (Sabel, 2001: 124).

New public management (NPM) was intended to reconcile the need for effectiveness that was driving the new governance agenda, with demands for public accountability. Broadly, it was to achieve this through its three defining features: “hands on and entrepreneurial management”; a focus on decentralisation, disaggregation and measurement of performance; and ideas of competition and efficiency borrowed from the private sector (Hood 1991, cited in Dibben and Higgins, 2004: 26).

The impact of NPM reforms on the effectiveness of governance in Australia is beyond the scope of this essay. Several criticisms can be made, however, of accountability under this system. First, the separation of conception from execution – whereby strategy is devised by elected representatives and implementation carried out by public servants – appears to be impossible in practice. Implementing agencies develop considerable expertise in their particular issue, to the extent that strategic surveillance on the part of even a heroically well-informed minister is very difficult, and consequently ministers are able to “play on the ambiguities in the distinction between policy … and management … to avoid accountability” (Rhodes 1997, cited in Sabel, 2001: 126-127).

Second, NPM’s focus on marketization, which encompasses everything from full privatisation to the mere importation of private sector ideas and methods into the provision of public services, is “incorrectly based on the notion of the superiority of the private sector and ignores the distinctiveness of the public sector” (Savoie 1995, cited in Dibben and Higgins, 2004: 29). Democratic accountability differs from private sector accountability in that it must necessarily entail obligatory disclosure and mechanisms for rectification. Private sector CEOs, for example, are more able to escape public scrutiny with a brusque “no comment” (Mulgan, 2006: 5), and to justify risk or error by generating massive profits (Dibben and Higgins, 2004: 29). Notions of competitive market-based accountability lose force when one considers the limited capacity of individuals to renounce their citizenship and seek better service elsewhere.

More specifically, marketization in the form of service provision via contract or of public-private partnerships (PPPs), intended to retain the democratic accountability lost by full privatisation, nevertheless pose accountability risks. Where services are delivered by NGOs or the private sector under contract to the government, these contracts must, in order to maintain the chain of accountability, include minimum disclosure and enquiry standards and audit and monitoring requirements (Funnell, 2001: 189). However, as Warwick Funnell (2001: 193) points out with respect to Freedom of Information (FOI) provisions, the reliance on clauses in individual contracts is risky, placing accountability at the mercy of the varying capabilities of individual contract negotiators and drafters, to be renegotiated without end as service contracts in different regions expire and are renewed. Much more desirable would be regulatory legislation establishing baseline accountability requirements for all private sector contracts, although this would remove a large part of private contracting’s attraction for government: that it allows for contractual terms to be kept from Parliament (Funnell, 2001: 194).

PPPs, in practice, tend to be dominated by private sector players, with few opportunities for meaningful public participation (Rhodes 1996, cited in Dibben and Higgins, 2004: 30). NPM does not take account of varying levels of power when partnerships are mooted, and the marginalised groups and voluntary sector consequently exercise little real influence (Dibben and Higgins, 2004: 30).

Third, managerial reforms were designed to free public sector managers from political interference, the idea being that an elected government would set the direction while the public service would be left to determine the best way to achieve goals (Mulgan, 2006: 9). These reforms encompassed fast growth in the use of performance indicators, designed to facilitate accountability through the provision of clear information to the public. However, Dibben & Higgens (2004: 32) summarise the work of various scholars who question the validity, reliability and consistency of these measures. While transparency and output measurement are necessary for accountability, it is important to remember that they are not sufficient, and must be relevant, accessible, and comparable.

Finally, consumerism – redefining citizens as ‘consumers’ or ‘customers’– entails two major tensions with important repercussions for accountability. First, a “market model cannot meet the needs of disadvantaged groups, especially since it implies an individualistic approach to service provision” (Bolzan and Gale 2002, cited in Dibben and Higgins, 2004: 34). This is comparable to the preceding critique of PPPs based on power differentials: marginalised groups have a reduced capacity to make demands of the market, and as such may find their needs remain unmet. Furthermore, the public as citizen has the right to contribute to decision-making, and this this may clash with the role of the public as consumer (Dibben and Higgins, 2004: 34). Where the needs and wants of certain groups of citizens hold more sway in the decision-making process but where all are ostensibly “equal” in their capacity to choose the finished product, market distortions occur and accountability may fail.

In this vein, former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Dr. Peter Shergold, criticised the embrace of consumerist notions by the Australian Public Service at the launch of the 2005 version of Governance Foundations, saying “those we serve are citizens [and] delivering rights and responsibilities involves a quite different relation to selling insurance … [Furthermore] Ministers are not the ‘clients’ or ‘customers’ of their departments. These notions are not just distortions; they are fallacious and dangerous. The Minister is the boss …” (quoted in Gourley, 2006: 77). Clearly, consumerist models of governance and service delivery do not adequately capture the complex mutual obligations and rights of the social compact, nor the relationships between government and public service.

In light of the accountability issues highlighted above, has the complexity of modern society thus forced a choice between effective but opaque governance on the one hand or dramatically scaled-back but accountable service delivery on the other? Or can a radical reimagining of government snatch accountability from the jaws of globalisation and devolution? Sabel proposes a “democratic experimentalism”, based on concepts of participatory democracy and a changed role for central government, which

…is not to set rules and police compliance. Rather, with local units, it defines broad projects and fixes provisional general standards. In addition, it provides infrastructure by which local units can achieve their own goals, and pools measurements of performance to allow refinement of the general standards as well as the particular local strategies in the light of results” (Sabel, 2001: 122).


This model challenges a key assumption of the principal-agent model that is fundamental to accountability debates: “that principals know what they want, and the chief task of organisation design is to prevent opportunism by self-interested agents” (Sabel, 2001: 132). Rather, he suggests that the major task for organisations is to engage in “collaborative exploration of means and ends,” an ongoing task which simultaneously allows for an assessment of collaborator reliability (Sabel, 2001: 132). Thus government (governance) is reimagined as a highly flexible organisation in which roles are continually being reimagined, teams of collaborators change according to the projects at hand, and strict boundaries between centre and periphery, principal and agent, lose all meaning. Sabel (2001: 135) proposes that such governance creates “a novel kind of formal relation between centre and locales that provide transparency and possibilities for systematic learning unavailable in informal networks, without creating the fixity that limits the capacity of bureaucracies to adapt”. His paradigmatic example is school reform in Chicago: numerous citizen-led reform initiatives of individual schools, with monitoring by the centre and dialogue, rather than direction, about baseline performance, targets, and remedial action.

According to Sabel, this democratic experimentalism remains accountable, in a neo-Madisonian sense, for three reasons. First, it harnesses competition among institutions (in his example, the individual schools) to ensure public needs are met; second, it “emphasises the capacity of practical problem solving activity to reveal new possibilities in everyday circumstances” in much the same way senatorial deliberation is supposed to; and third, it retains the mutual accountability of federalism by assigning labour on the basis of the capacity and performance of territorial units (Sabel, 2001: 142).

Democratic experimentalism thus avoids the accountability pitfalls of separating conception from execution by simply refusing to try, and instead seeing the two as inseparable and continually evolving. Further, it abandons the market-based language of NPM, openly embracing grassroots citizen participation in the policy-making process, although it remains to be seen how the model deals with imbalances of power within these new citizen-led institutions and how it remains effectively accountable to marginalised populations, and those with reduced capacity for ongoing participation.

A key accountability mechanism of Sabel’s proposed democratic experimentalism is radical transparency: parties to the collaboration agreements are required to provide all information necessary in order to monitor their performance (Sabel, 2001: 134-135). This recalls the performance measures of NPM, although it would seem that democratic experimentalism provides more scope for public deliberation over appropriate measures of success.

In short, Sabel’s proposal is a useful example of the potential for new forms of governance to overcome the accountability risks of decision-making outside of the traditional channels of representative democracy. Given the apparent permanence of complex societies, globalization, and high expectations of government performance, government has no choice but to evolve. Such evolution will inevitably entail risks of reduced accountability; the challenge for policy makers is to seek new forms of governance that marry effective and responsive service delivery to their heterogeneous populations, while remaining accountable to individual citizens and to the citizenry at large.


(2010) Foundations of Governance in the Australian Public Service. Australian Government: Australian Public Service Commission. Available at < http://www.apsc.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/5527/Foundations-2010.pdf&gt;.

Dibben P and Higgins P. (2004) New Public Management: Marketisation, Managerialism and Consumerism. In: Dibben P, Wood G and Roper I (eds) Contesting Public Sector Reforms. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 26-37.

Funnell W. (2001) The Right to Know in the Public Interest. Government by Fiat: The retreat from responsibility. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 177-220.

Gourley P. (2006) Governance Foundations. Public Administration Today: 77.

Keating M. (2000) The pressures for change. In: Davis G and Keating M (eds) The Future of Governance: Policy Choices. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 8-40.

Kettl DF. (2000) The Transformation of Governance: Globalization, Devolution, and the Role of Government. Public Administration Review 60: 488-497.

Mulgan R. (2006) Westminster accountabilities: holding power to account in modern democracies. In: Australia IoPA (ed). Melbourne.

Rhodes RAW. (1996) The New Governance: Governing without Government. Political Studies 44: 652-667.

Rhodes RAW. (1997) Understanding Governance, Buckingham: Open University Press.

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Svedin U, O’Riordan T and Jordan A. (2001) Multilevel governance for the sustainability transition. In: O’Riordan T (ed) Globalism, Localism and Identity: Fresh perspectives on the transition to sustainability. London: Earthscan, 43-60.

In praise of a messy democracy: Transparency, freedom, and spy scandals

Christian Kerr writes in defence of an opaque security service in the Weekend Australian this week. There are two main thrusts to his argument: first, that democracy requires intelligence services that operate in secrecy. The second essentially conflates all those have defended the publication of this information with the actions of Julian Assange.

The first argument is the most powerful. Kerr writes:

The democratic state needs an intelligence apparatus to protect its democracy from threats from fundamentalists, absolutists and other enemies of liberty.

This is certain. What it neglects is that once in a while, the enemies of liberty make it to the highest levels of the public service or are democratically elected to positions of power. Or are created there (absolute power corrupting absolutely and all that). I am by no means suggesting that all intelligence operations be carried out in the bright light of public scrutiny, or that every decision to tap phones or recruit agents be public knowledge. The point is that, especially in the highly-securitised post-9/11 environment, overreach happens, and democratic discussion of the procedures used to reach decisions is valid and necessary. Sure, Snowden leaked details of operations, not procedures, but without the subsequent global outrage and embarrassment this debate would never have happened. These leaks have shone a hot bright light on the things that are carried out in service of the liberty we democratic citizens enjoy, and have inspired a debate about the lengths we should go to protect that liberty. Perhaps we will decide that the lengths gone to are actually just about right and nothing needs to change, but the act of debating it is healthy for our democracy.

Kerr’s portrayal of democracy as a “delicate balancing act” is telling. Seen this way, democracy is a fragile thing, best left in the hands of elite professionals and liable to be broken in the raucous hands of the mob. This simultaneously belittles the capacity of Australian citizens to make adult decisions in concert with their peers and – I put to you – overestimates the capacity of our politicians to do the same. Democracy via representation is inevitable given the size of modern states, but elections are only one small part of holding our representatives to account. Our democracy is robust enough to cope with citizen engagement on an ongoing basis, and this engagement requires transparency.

Kerr’s second argument – in which he essentially accuses all those who support the ABCs decision to publish the Snowden revelations of Assange-cultism – is weaker. He writes that Assange “divides the world into heroes and villains and is quick to purge and denounce those he decides are enemies”. This is true. Quick to dish criticism out, Assange seems unable to take it. He is a crusader; I suspect he has strong authoritarian tendencies, and is not the sort of person I would like to see running my country. Kerr’s horror at the release of WikilLeaks cables to the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, allowing him to crack down on internal opposition, is beyond justified. I share it. But I think that on balance, Wikileaks has done a lot for Western democracy – go figure.

To suggest that we “wide-eyed Wikifans” must, in supporting transparency and democratic debate, endorse all the actions of the Wikileaks founder is ludicrous. It does, however, square nicely with Kerr’s picture of democracy: we choose somebody to represent us and then do no more than cheer them on until we reach the next election, trusting that whatever they do behind closed doors is in our best interest.

…a tyranny probably worse …

…a return to “free” competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, being more irresponsible, than that of the State. The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.

— George Orwell*, criticising Hayek

I seriously cannot wait to bust this out the next time somebody tells me I need to brush up on my Orwell because I’m arguing for limitation of economic freedom.

And watch their head explode.

*  in Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (1970), cited in Funnell, W (2001) Government by Fiat: The retreat from responsibility. Sydney: University of NSW Press. p. 53.

“Difficult things happen”: Tony Abbott on human rights in Sri Lanka

While the leaders of India, Mauritius and Canada have boycotted the Commonwealth Summit in Colombo in protest at that government’s human rights record, Tony Abbot has defended Sri Lanka:

Mr Abbott said that while his government “deplores the use of torture we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen”.

“Sri Lanka since the end of the war is much more free and prosperous, and has a better future and that’s important for everyone,” he added.

The Australian

Ah yes. What are a few authoritarian excesses between friends, when the economy is going great guns? The Prime Minister goes on to say:

That Sri Lanka was willing to host this year’s CHOGM summit demonstrated its commitment to principles of the Commonwealth charter — democracy, human rights and rule of law — even though it was “not always easy to live up to those ideals.”

The Australian

On the contrary, I think these comments are an appalling demonstration of Mr Abbott’s lack of commitment to those same principles.

I mean, if you need reminding.