Doctor and activist

The Myth of Liberal Competence- 2

19 November 2022

One of the concepts I tried to advocate while I was in NSW Parliament was ‘evidence-based’ legislation.  There were many cases when an anecdote was told, and the conclusion from it was ‘therefore we need this legislation.’  It was particularly the case where there had been some crime that was in the media and the penalties were being racked up.  Despite the fact that it had generally been shown that higher penalties did not change the incidence of crime, the same response always seemed to occur.

During one of these endless debates, I suggested that what was needed overall was evidence-based legislation.  Hopefully someone would collect facts as well as they could be ascertained and that would result in appropriate legislation.  One  might have even hoped that this was the norm.  My speech resulted  in hilarious laughter from the chamber, which was naturally not recorded by Hansard.  But it said quite a lot about how Parliament thought and acted.

Another unsuccessful request I made was that the Social Issues Committee of which I was a member, and Committees generally should either do ongoing research on issues or commission a neutral outside group, such as a university department to do longitudinal studies, so that the effect of social policies could be quantified and decisions based on real world experience.  This seemed particularly necessary on vexed questions like whether it was better to take children from dysfunctional families to foster homes or to try to support the children in situ.  It was pointed out that this would change the nature and need for funding  in the Parliamentary committee system, which was obviously true, but not a reason not to try to get better information on which to base legislation.  

Evidence-based legislation was famously attempted by Angela Merkel in Germany, who was a scientist by profession and also by one of the New York mayors, with excellent results so I was encouraged to find that there are now efforts to look at Australian legislation in terms of its evidence base, though an initiative, which uses the same survey method by both the Right-wing IPA (Institute of Public Affairs) and the progressive Per Capita Australia to assess legislation.  The criteria were developed by Prof Kenneth  Wiltshire at the Uni of Qld and then applied by both groups to 80 pieces of legislation with surprisingly similar results from the two groups.

Morrison’s government did slightly worse than the NSW, Victorian and Qld State governments.  His efforts worst were; to reduce the number of people necessary to register a political party; to allow new political parties to have names similar to existing ones; and to reduce fuel excise just before the election. 

Perrottet efforts to put extra changes on electric vehicles and to massively crack down on protesters also ranked a mention.

If you look at the website above, you will note that Labor fared only a little better.

The SMH gave some publicity to this, which is how I became aware of it:

Morrison, Perrottet made bad laws: report

Shane Wright, Senior economic correspondent SMH 19 November 2022

The Morrison, Perrottet and Andrews governments all delivered laws over the past year that followed ‘‘unacceptable’’ practices and helped undermine confidence in how legislation is put together, an independent analysis has found.

A report produced for the Evidence-Based Policy Research Project found laws that changed everything from the number of people a party needed to become registered to a crackdown on protesters failed to be properly debated, opened to scrutiny and considered against other options.

Every year, the research project uses a left- and right-leaning think tank to assess the creation, debate and passage of laws passed over the previous 12 months at the federal level and across NSW, Queensland and Victoria.

Experts from the left’s Per Capita Australia and the right’s Blueprint Institute bench-marked 20 pieces of legislation against 10 separate criteria.

They included whether there was a need for the law, its objectives, alternative options, how it would work, if a government considered all the pros and cons, parliamentary debate and the consultation process.

The worst-ranked piece of legislation by both think tanks was the Morrison government’s change to federal electoral law that increased the number of members a party must have to be registered to 1500, from 500. It also stops a party that has a similar name to an existing party from being registered.

Of the 10 criteria, Blueprint and Per Capita found the legislation passed just two – that it had set objectives and that the law was properly communicated.

Five other laws were ranked as unacceptable. They included NSW’s road user charges on electric vehicles and its new laws aimed at protesters who disrupt traffic.

Two federal laws, covering the sixmonth reduction in fuel excise and changes to foreign intelligence laws, were also ranked among the poorest of the past 12 months.

The chair of the project’s governing committee, former NSW Treasury secretary Percy Allan, said faulty decision-making processes at all levels of government contributed towards corruption, misallocation of resources and waste of public money.

‘‘Having auditors-general, integrity bodies and select committees of inquiry rake over failed policies and processes does not fix the underlying problem, which is that no government in Australia consistently addresses the above questions when making policy,’’ he said.

Western Sydney University chancellor and former secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold, said policy and lawmaking had to improve.

‘‘Having just completed a review of Australian governments’ response to COVID-19, I am utterly convinced that we cannot make good policy decisions in a crisis if we are not better practised at developing evidence-based legislation during more ‘normal’ times,’’ he said.

‘‘Assessing the diversity of short- and longer-term costs and benefits, based on… stakeholder consultation, is vital.’’

Arthur Chesterfield-Evans

View more posts from this author