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Political policy and unplanned consequences

January 17, 2014

By Barry Tucker

Government policies are formed to achieve a stated, predetermined effect. We could call this effect the consequences of the policy. But how much thought is given to the other effects of policy: the side effects, the collateral damage and the longer-term consequences?

Who are the policy designers and policy lobbyists? What are their qualifications? What is their political allegiance or agenda?

There could be a lot at stake in the adoption of a policy, attracting the attention of vested interests, political pressure, lobbying, bribery and threats. Political party members may put forward and promote a policy or policy change at state and national annual conferences. Once in power, a political party may adopt a policy on the run to meet new or changing circumstances.

In an ideal world, political policies would be thrashed out over a reasonable period. Expert opinions would be sought. The policy would be examined for flaws: conflict with existing laws, outright public opposition, a cost benefit analysis might be done. A policy that went through this process would have a good chance of being implemented and achieving its stated purpose.

There is one area where slow and careful policy formation is difficult, almost impossible. Anything to do with the national economy, especially in the case of a trading nation like Australia, is subject to internal and external events, such as a change in the economic or foreign policy of trade partners, disastrous or beneficial weather (good crops or poor crops), political crises and warfare.

So much for the preamble. What concerns me is the effects of policies beyond their stated objective. I often wonder how much thought, if any, is given to this aspect. You might recall what happened in the case of the former Labor government’s Mining Resources Rent Tax (MRRT). This might have been announced before the party won the 2007 election — I can’t recall. The MRRT seemed to pop up suddenly as a way of producing Treasury income to counter spending due to Labor’s way of dealing with the Global Financial Crisis (see reference to economic matters above). The MRRT was also going to pay for other policy initiatives.

The mining industry kicked up a big stink and I think it was justified in doing so. It was already paying a range of taxes and state royalties. Admittedly, the MRRT applied to only some miners and only to “super profits” – profit above a certain “normal” level. The big miners launched a multi-million dollar anti-MRRT publicity campaign, a public relations disaster for the government and a windfall boon for commercial news media and advertising agencies – two unexpected outcomes of Labor’s policy so far. To resolve the crisis, the government virtually allowed the miners to design the MRRT. When it first became payable it raised a fraction of the amount the government hoped for and expected to use to finance other policies and promises already implemented. Two more unexpected outcomes. The Opposition played the ongoing farce of the MRRT for all it was worth – causing the government considerable damage in the opinion polls, which are driven by the coverage of Mainstream News Media (MSM) — another unexpected consequence. You might argue that it is the Opposition’s job to oppose*, but it is plainly stupid to give it such a juicy target as the chaotic and controversial MRRT.

Largely as a consequence of some of Labor’s poorly planned and financed policy initiatives, and certainly as a result of former Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s unrelenting criticism and negativity, our federal government has changed hands. In a flash, we have gone from a progressive socialist government to an extremely conservative government whose policies do not appear to be well considered, fully formed and fleshed out. There will be unintended consequences.

The major unintended consequences are likely to revolve around the Liberal National Party’s (LNP) asylum seeker policy: Stop the Boats, deny asylum/refugee seeker’s citizenship, offshore detention. It could be said that the LNP (mainly Liberal) policy has evolved as a reaction to Labor’s policy which reversed the former Liberal government’s policy and then gradually returned to as it reacted to tremendous negativity from the Opposition, news media and opinion polls. This is policy formation on the run, in the heat of battle, to counter political opposition and perceived public reaction, using feedback mainly from the MSM. It has been and continues to be a human catastrophe, with negative consequences for Socialist Labor and now for the Liberals, although for different reasons.

In Opposition, the Liberal policy on asylum or refugee seekers evolved into an increasingly tougher stance. Anything would be done to Stop the Boats, including buying the boats, towing boats back when safe to do so, hiding the boats (limiting information about boat arrivals), labelling the military style campaign Operation Sovereign Borders (under a three star Army general) and talk of providing life boats to deliver refugees safely back to Indonesia — most of this opposed by Indonesia. In an outcome that shocked me, a recent public opinion poll showed that some 60% of Australian citizens favoured a tougher stance against asylum seekers, with most people seeing them as economic migrants (which would make them “aspirational” people, whom the Liberal party tends to favour).

It is also rather amazing that in Opposition Tony Abbott constantly named Indonesia as Australia’s greatest friend and most important trading partner, but when it comes to asylum seekers his government pushes this friendship to its very limits and, inadvertently, beyond. This cannot be the result of any careful forward planning and trouble-shooting, unless the intention is to wreck the relationship. As of today, Abbott has been obliged to write a letter of apology to Indonesia for illegal phone tapping for which his government was not responsible; Indonesia temporarily halted the live cattle trade and recalled its Ambassador; Indonesia suspended co-operation on asylum seekers and finally hit the roof when an Australian warship on asylum seeker patrol accidentally or carelessly entered Indonesian waters, resulting in another apology which, this time, was promptly delivered. A warship accidentally straying into someone else’s territory is no laughing matter – especially when the relationship is on a knife edge. Some of these consequences may be considered foreseeable and avoidable, but none is the result of a carefully considered and well planned policy to meet the needs of all the parties involved.

I am trying to keep this from turning into another anti-Liberal rant, but I can see a similar thing happening with our national education curriculum. The Liberal education policy was outlined, sort of, while it was in Opposition and firmed up, sort of, during the election campaign. What was offered initially was a return to a Conservative curriculum of an earlier era: God, Queen and Country, salute the flag, read more books and learn your sums proper. On the eve of the election, a policy flip-flop by the Liberals: if they won government they would support Labor’s “Gonski” or Better Schools financing model — basically more money for all students with special needs. Soon after winning government the Liberal policy flip-flopped again, and again, and again. It was not going to continue with “Gonski” exactly: “…that’s what you thought we said, or meant”, or something and something about a financing “envelope”. There would be a review of the education system by a panel of Liberal supporters and former Liberal MPs, a non-political reform panel of Liberals – back to the future for education, it seems. “Gonski” is Gone-ski. As many news media commentators and education specialists and practitioners have pointed out, this is not how you do policy. Where is the input from parents, from university lecturers and professors, from employers in industry and elsewhere? What will the consequences be – especially the unplanned collateral damage?

Increasingly, it seems to me, policies are something framed as a result of focus groups, probably reacting to policies that political parties think might fly, but purely for the purpose of winning the election. The real policies will be revealed later, once the election has been won. The election policies themselves are not worth the paper they are written on or the hot air that gives life to them.

* I do not agree with the perception of the role of the Opposition in the Westminster system as being purely to oppose. It is sometimes expressed as “holding the government to account”, which seems to me to be more constructive. Rather than pure opposition on anything and everything, I see the role of the Opposition as that of an alternative government with alternative policies rather than the absolute opposite policies. Unfortunately, Australia is increasingly moving towards outright opposition, which ultimately means a complete reversal of policies due to fundamental differences in our two major parties system.

Further to all of the above, you might like to read:

Oz govt secrecy starts to stink

Time for a third force in Ozpol

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