The Canberra Principle

A long long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Spartacus was an economics student at the University of NSW.  It was a different time then.  A time when using the word “marriage” was not considered offensive.

But in other ways, things then were similar to things today.  Back then, there was the cold war where the enemy was totalitarian socialism and communism as represented by the USSR.  Today, it is still totalitarian socialism and communism, but now represented by the Australia Greens and parts of the other major parties.  Back then, there was no internet, much like today if you live in an NBN area.  Remarkably, electricity was (proportionately) cheaper and more reliable than today.

During his studies, Spartacus was introduced to something called the Pareto Principle:

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

For example, in business, often around 80% of revenues comes from around 20% of customers.  Similarly, around 80% of your staff problems come from around 20% of your staff. There was also a time, a bit earlier though, when the private sector accounted for around 80% of the economy and the government sector 20%.

That last example was possibly not ideal as the proportions seem to be flipping with the government sector trending well away from 20% and well towards 80%.

Now seems the time, perhaps, that a new principle enter the idiolect the Canberra Principle – whereby 80% of resources and attention are spent on 20% of things that matter.  For example, Australia accounts for around 1% of global emissions but perhaps 90% of currently available political capital and oxygen expended on totally eliminating Australia’s emissions by killing the Australian economy.

In a similar way, public finances seem to follow the same way.  When presenting a budget, Government’s tend to focus on perhaps 5-8 initiatives which account for perhaps 10-15% of outlays.  Yet at the same time, there seems barely any interest in the remaining 85% of outlays.  It’s just there and assumed appropriate.

Given the the size of the FY18 annual budget payments is scheduled at $460 billion (yes billion), perhaps equal attention is warranted for all of the spending, including the base $400 odd billion (yes billion).

At a time when this nation is facing serious challenges, domestically and internationally, what do we get?  Is there a focus on productivity, national security or economic prosperity?  Nope.  How about some renewable energy, same sex marriage and the timing of Australia day.

Given the billions in taxes spent every year to the Canberra beast fed and afloat, one might have imagined that our political and bureaucratic leaders could walk and chew gum at the same time.  It might surprise them to know that there is a difference between prioritisation and attention deficit disorder.

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15 Responses to The Canberra Principle

  1. closeapproximation


    Would you like some renewable energy and identity politics with that ?

    No way get f**ked, f**ck off! (with apologies to Doc Neeson)

  2. H B Bear

    Canberra will always remain the single greatest failure of the Australian commonwealth. How much would a single coin toss between the Sydney and Melbourne mayors in 1900 have saved the nation?

  3. Alexi the Conservative Russian

    Gee Spartacus I’m beginning to like you!

  4. Norman Church

    The Canberra Press Gallery should bear a large portion of the blame. Captured by group think. Economically illiterate. Hopelessly biased.

    Compounding these problems, it takes about five minutes for a journalist to go native when he or she moves to Canberra.

  5. Deplorable

    It is very hard to disagree with you Spartacus from my point of view but how to convince dickhead politicians and even worse still the socialists within the liberals that vote for the candidates of the left wing within the party beats me.

  6. Bob of Brisbane

    This is topical but much more concerning version of Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. See Wikipedia:
    “The concept was first presented as a corollary of his broader “Parkinson’s Law” spoof of management. He dramatizes this “law of triviality” with the example of a committee’s deliberations on an atomic reactor, contrasting it to deliberations on a bicycle shed. As he put it: ‘The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.’ A reactor is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those who work on it understand it. On the other hand, everyone can visualize a cheap, simple bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add a touch and show personal contribution.”
    Today however there is a far more sinister interpretation of what is happening to us. It is hard to escape the conclusion that there is a deliberate plan of obfuscation, i.e. important changes are being introduced into our governance and are being covered up by trivia. For instance, when were we ever asked for our opinion on whether we wanted to embrace Agenda 21, a plan for a One World Government, inflicted on us by Keating in 1992? And Malcolm Turnbull kept faith with this policy of secrecy by gleefully signing up to the latest version, Agenda 2030, in December 2015, again without our consultation, shortly after he’d deposed Tony Abbott. Where are the investigative journalists exposing this?

  7. A maximum of three (or less) consecutive terms for federal and state MP’s! They can have one term off, and try and get re-elected again! Keeps constant flow of mew bloood and ideas every 15 years! And move the National capital around every 15 years as well!

  8. duncanm

    And move the National capital around every 15 years as well!

    be agile and skype it in. Bulldoze parliament house.

  9. Rabz

    Bulldoze parliament house.

    Dynamite it, more like.

  10. BoyfromTottenham

    IaS – UNSW – I was there in the mid 70s (B.Com) – I remember lectures from Prof John Hewson. Re the Canberra Principle – it clearly also applies to the media, so 80% of the reporting focuses on 20 (or far less)% of the government’s (and everyone else’s) activities. I could of course say the same of me and perhaps thee. Maybe this is just human nature at work?

  11. struth

    When it comes to Canberra, it’s 100% bullshit.

  12. In the late 1980s I was working with a consultancy that had a commission through the Keating/Walsh financial reforms to look at devolving operational aspects of the administration from Canberra to state and regional capitals. It seems hard to believe, but Keating and Walsh were reformers who actually tried to reduce the number of civil servants in the ACT.

    This form of devolution had great potential to harvest savings and improve efficiency, because at that time tea-ladies in Canberra were paid more than managers in Toowoomba, and the cost of infrastructure in Canberra was as high as in Sydney CBD.

    Not surprisingly the Canberra public servants were bitterly opposed to any functions being moved out of their patch, no matter what the benefits to the nation. They sabotaged it when they could. They were already smarting from having the 1988 ACT polity legislature forced on them, making them responsible for paying a part of the ACT’s running costs from their local taxes.

    But I was surprised by the sense of entitlement and arrogance that the little mandarins had, and their disdain for the people out in the sticks (including Sydney/Melbourne). They had a belief that Canberra should have the best of everything, and damn everybody else. Canberra was the capital, and had to look good for the foreign press and diplomatic community. Appeals to a sense of fairness cut no ice with them.

    For a few years the devolution initiatives did realise some savings and efficiencies. But after Keating morphed from a reformist treasurer to vote buying PM, Ralph Willis took over and all the reforms were quietly reversed. At great cost of course, the reestablishment of operations in Canberra was hugely expensive, managers and staff who refused to move to Canberra received lucrative termination packages, and payments continued on empty regional buildings that had 9 and 11 year leases.

    The mandarins seemed to believe that the nation was there to serve Canberra; it was not their job to serve the nation.

  13. During WWII, 11% of the fighter pilots produced 91% of the kills.
    Rural folks are aware that when the septic tank is full it backs up and creates a foul smell. For that reason, a sucker truck, called “the stool bus” comes to pump the tank out.
    It is way past time for the Canberra septic tank to meet that stool bus.

  14. Canberra exhibits the underlying principles of Price’s Law.

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