‘Policy-based Evidence-Making’

By September 10, 2012Climate Change, Politics, Research

I couldn’t resist this lovely play on words, a coinage of British Conservative MP Peter Lilley applied to the UK Stern Report on climate change. It sums up neatly the way in which research is frequently used by governments to provide a reassuring buttress for a desired policy. It is not new, but is perhaps becoming more frequent.

It has of course been said for a long time that no government with any sense commissions a report into anything without first establishing what outcome it wants and that the reviewer is likely to produce it. That isn’t quite correct. One other reason for commissioning a report or review is to get an issue off the front pages, and to provide breathing space for a Minister while he or she comes to understand what the issues really are. Then the report can be received and considered and then, a long time later, the government’s response can be released. By now the issue is dead or transmuted.

I’ve been involved in a couple of reviews myself, and in each case the government or the Minister had changed by the time the review had been completed. All that work had been for nought — well, not quite, because some of the issues and the findings were sufficiently long-lasting to reappear in time. One of them was a review of electoral legislation carried out in the 1970s, where I proposed that the party name appear on the ballot-paper. That did come to pass many years later.

In fact, one of the things about reviews or proposals for change is that no one much likes what you  propose at the time. When I was Chairman of the Australian Research Grants Committee my Minister (Barry Jones at that time) approved my visiting other research grants bodies overseas to see  how they did things. I thought we had the most elaborate structure for coming to decisions coupled to the smallest amount of money to distribute, and by and large that turned out to be true. Australians really do have a genius for bureaucracy. I came back full of really good improvements that we could make. Most of my colleagues were opposed to them, so it was hard to get the Minister on side. Thirty years later most of them have been adopted, by other bodies and other ministers at other times.

The theory is that evidence and argument lead to good policy.What Lilley points to is the reverse, that an agreed-upon policy needs some independent validation through assembled to support the policy. It’s dead easy to do this, in almost every field of policy. Australia’s Garnaut review, our version of Stern, is a case in point. Ross Garnaut is a well-regarded economist, used to working with governments. He had been commissioned by the State governments to prepare a report on what ought to be done about climate change. New Prime Minister Rudd added his weight, and what Garnaut produced was a report for all governments.

Did Garnaut consider all the evidence? Not a bit of it. Rather like Professors Hamilton and Manne, about whom I have written recently, he said that all this science was a bit hard for a simple economist like him, and that any reasonable person would have to accept what the scientists said. Which ones? Ah, the consensus. And off he travelled into the econometric land he loved, one where he could work, as an economist, to show us how much better off we would be if we followed what the consensual scientists said.

Actually, his recommendations were  too sweeping for the Government, which seemed to make the author cross, and eventually Prime Minister Rudd abandoned the emissions trading scheme. Then Prime Minister Gillard, aware of the difficulties, declared she would not introduce a carbon tax, but did so when that was the price of power, got the tax passed, and has since abandoned some of it. My guess is that we will hear less and less about it from the Labor Party as the elections get nearer.

The take-home message is a simple one. We need to be wary of reviews that governments set up. Governments have a job to do, and one of the desired outcomes, always, is being re-elected next time. Any government will know the kind of report it wants, and is likely to choose someone who will give it that kind of report. If the person chosen is important, and his or her view is as yet unclear, then the government can provide the right staff and support for the review to ensure the right outcome.

I said that none of this is new. But I have an old-fashioned view that good research is important, and that the research process should not be debauched just because governments need a particular answer. So, while I enjoyed Peter Lilley’s adroit quip, I wish it wasn’t so accurate!


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