Quick Post: How to ask policy questions (and why journos are dropping the ball) #auspol

Journalist: Are you committing to funding a White Elephant Scheme if you win the next election?

Politician: We can’t commit funds until [we know the state of the books/we have had the conversation with States].

Public: Boo!  Hiss!  Outrage!  Rhubarb!

We have very poor conversations about policy in Australia.  We’ve heard this tale of woe before.  ‘Oh!’ I whinge, ‘Wouldn’t journalism just be so much better if I cloned myself and took over the media industry like Agent Smith in the Matrix sequels?’

I want to put the analysis of the problem to the side for this quick post (it boils down to the commentariat often lack the necessary policy skills to analyse good policy.  This is nearly always true when the individual member of the commentariat is associated with a think tank of any stripe).  Instead, I want to look at what policy is and what we should expect from politicians.

Policy discussions in Australia focus almost exclusively on implementation.  ‘Tell us, oh politician, what you would do!’  But most policy work involving politicians is usually at a much higher level, leaving the implementation to the army of bureaucrats.  This is for an extremely sensible reason: the public service has the skill and experience to design implementation, individual politicians elected from the belly of the Political Party Machine do not.

The Australian Policy Handbook plots a sequence for policy analysis:

1. Formulate the problem;

2. Set the objectives and goals;

3. Identify decision parameters;

4. Search for alternatives;

5. Propose a solution or options.

Media conversations tend towards navel gazing about point (5), sometimes straying into (4).  We have very few conversations about (1-3).  This is a surprise because the role of the politician is almost entirely with regard to (2).

Let’s use the NDIS as an example.  The NDIS is a creature of point (5).  So journalists should be able to pull Minister Shorten aside and say: ‘Hey, Minister.  What is the objective and the goal that you’re trying to solve with the NDIS?’

Instead, we get point (5) questions: ‘How are you going to pay for it, Minister?  What about your surplus?!  WHAT ABOUT YOUR SURPLUS?!’

We get a similar problem when discussing these things with the Opposition.  What we should expect from the Coalition is not a set of ‘costed policies’ (what on Earth is a ‘costed policy’?) but a set of objectives and goals.

For what it’s worth, Abbott has been clever on this point: his objectives and goals are so vague and bellyfeelish that it’s hard to pin them down.  His objectives and goals aren’t really outcomes but specific events: ‘Repeal the carbon tax and stop the boats.’  All it would take is one journalist to ask one question and the castle in a cloud would topple: ‘Yes, Mr Abbott… but what then?’

There is no excuse for the Opposition not to have objectives and goals.  As a person more inclined to vote for the Coalition than the other parties, it is baffling that I don’t even know what they stand for (and Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey blocked me on Twitter when I asked him this question).  Parties don’t like talking about objectives and goals because they separate the electorate into ‘Those who would benefit and those who would not.’  Yet it should be the role of the media to engage in the whole sequence of policy analysis, not just the part which seems easiest.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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