Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Belshaw's World - what say you to transparent government, Sir Humphrey

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 12 May 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

I am always interested to see which headline appears on my column. Sometimes they are the ones I used; sometimes the editor thinks that there might be a better one.

I have no objection to this; the revised headlines often capture the content better. However, I had to grin at the last one, “weigh the true cost of populist policy”.

You see, while that’s fair, I am really a populist, a supporter of the constitutional populism developed in New England over the first half of the twentieth century.

I guess that I should warn you to weigh the costs of my own policy suggestions!

Last week I talked about the constitutional views of David Drummond, the man who articulated the constitutional underpinnings within New England populism.

I should note that Drummond did not use the term New England populism, nor did his colleagues. I use this label because it best describes a particular thread in Northern thought.

To overcome the problems in the Australian constitution as he saw them, including potential misuse of power leading inevitable oppression of the minority by the majority, Drummond put forward a number of suggestions.

These included the creation of more states directly related to community of interest; constitutionally entrenched powers to limit cental government interference in matters properly belonging to the states; and flexibility in the distribution of powers so that roles could change as needs change.

Drummond was a practical politician. He did not think these steps would solve all the problems inherent in our system of government. Rather, they were a way of making government more responsive to varying needs across a diverse continent.

Putting this in the context of New England’s environmental wars, New England lacks any constitutional or organisational structure that might allow those living in the area to address all the many issues involved in any inter-connected way.

Accepting this, there are things that might be done to make things work better within existing structures.

Many commentators have a barely concealed contempt for the intelligence of the Australian public. Just look at wide use of punter instead of voter; an example is “your average punter.”

In fact, Australian voters are far more capable of making judgements than many commentators allow. You can see this in a very old political joke.

“Gentlemen, we face a wily and devious foe.” “What, the Labor Party?” “No, the electorate!”

Not all people are interested, nor do they have the knowledge, to make immediate informed judgements. However, over time common sense weeds out many of the sillier political suggestions.

Political parties have no interest in making factual information available to assist people to make informed judgements. Rather, they want to sell.

As an example, look at the initial press releases on the resource rent tax. Even though I am reasonably well informed, there was no way I could work out just how the scheme was meant to work from the information provided.

One simple thing that would greatly improve clarity would be the requirement that each major policy statement be accompanied by a plain English explanation as to how things are meant to work.

Further, and as Drummond pointed out, most Government actions impose costs on individuals and areas. Government policy statements focus on the perceived benefits. Costs are rarely mentioned, nor does any mechanism exist for reimbursing those who might suffer costs for the claimed greater good.

If Governments were forced to identify costs and those bearing the costs in any policy explanation, then they would be forced to address those costs in their thinking.

There is also room for new types of analysis.

At present, environmental impact statements are essentially project by project. Where, as in the Hunter Valley, you have a large number of similar projects, project based EIS can ignore the compounding effects of decisions.

In these circumstances, there is a case for regional EIS that allow the interactions of a large number of projects to be addressed.

There is also no present mechanism that will allow inter-regional interactions to be taken into account. This is especially important in New England because the area contains a substantial number of relatively large, traditionally interacting, regions.

Again, specific inter-regional studies would help by providing information.

I do not suggest that any of these things would prevent environmental conflicts. I do suggest that they would make them easier to manage and give better final results.

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