Sex and secrecy close doors to good policy


Barry O'FarrellLast week, the community was considering whether the extra-marital sex life of former NSW Health Minister John Della Bosca should have a bearing on his suitability for high office. Whatever the result of that discussion, it's certain the revelations of his affair with student Kate Neil provided a further free kick for opposition leader Barry O'Farrell (pictured), who is now more assured than ever of victory at the March 2011 election.

But as the Sydney Morning Herald suggested in an editorial on Thursday, an unprepared Liberal Government could be as bad for NSW as the discredited Labor Government.

'We don't know what O'Farrell and his colleagues stand for on too many important matters, and sometimes where the Coalition has made a stand — for example, on electricity privatisation and the publication of league tables for schools — it has appeared contrary to liberal principles.'

As we know only too well, the same can be said for the Federal Opposition, which is struggling to develop and agree on positions on some major policy challenges including climate change.

Policy development receives little attention relative to its importance to a properly functioning democracy. It's encouraging that Barry O'Farrell was present at last Tuesday's Sydney Institute 20th Anniversary dinner, and would have had the opportunity to swap ideas with past state political leaders including Nick Greiner, Bob Carr, Neville Wran and John Brogden.

The Institute is best known for the 60 policy forums it conducts each year. In her address to the gathering, Governor-General Quentin Bryce identified what is perhaps most important in the Institute's contribution to policy development on all sides of politics. She described the Institute as 'an important gatherer of people and ideas; an agent for discussion about the things we care about; a forum for thinking aloud'.

The role of quality conversation in policy development may also be inferred from the speech given by Sister Pat Murray at Thursday evening's Sydney launch of the book Loreto in Australia.

Her address — which was titled 'Daring to imagine, willing to risk: keys for social transformation' — alluded to the fact that social change usually begins with a traceable conversation among just a few people. She attributed this idea to American organisational consultant Margaret Wheatley, who helps dysfunctional organisations identify and achieve their goals.

It's crucial that such conversation does not occur behind closed doors. That is the way the factional system has always functioned in Australian politics.

The Centre for Policy Development's executive director Miriam Lyons employs open-source software development as a metaphor for good policy development. Open-source software uses code that can be seen by all users and developers, who in turn contribute to its improvement. Its transparency/participation/collaboration model is set against the secrecy at the core of software development at corporations such as Microsoft and Apple.

Political leaders energised by 'open-source' conversation will speak to the electorate much more effectively than those who derive their inspiration from behind the closed doors of either the faction meeting room or the bedroom.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: policy, sex, John Della Bosca, Kate Neil, conversation, Barry O'Farrell, Sydney Institute



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Existing comments

Sex and secrecy..and conversations behind closed doors.It's something that continues to bedevil our own Church...and, similarly, robs the flock of good policies.

Sadly,we don't have a vote!
Brian Haill | 07 September 2009

A sound rule that I've gleaned from bitter experience is, "if it has to be kept confidential, chances are it'll do me no good".

Perhaps the same rule could be applied to public affairs?
David Arthur | 07 September 2009


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