Politics versus Policy: are we heading in the right direction?

By Amy Barry-Macaulay

By Amy Barry-Macaulay.

This article is part of our focus on Cultural Shift and Human Rights. For more on this theme, click here.

The recent change in federal government has resulted in a shift in the direction of public policy. The new Government has further toughened asylum seeker policy by seeking to reintroduce temporary protection visas and attempts to “turn back the boats”.  On climate change policy, Australia is going in the “opposite direction” to the rest of the world.

These policy changes have been introduced as a result of election promises, developed to appeal to voters and suit a political and ideological agenda. While this “policy on the run” approach is commonplace in our current political environment, it is not based on key principles of objective public policy-making, nor does it promote or protect human rights.

Politics is often described as the art and science of government. An integral component of successful governance is public policy-making. Both an art and science, public policy-making involves identifying and examining social, economic or environmental problems and establishing robust and long-lasting solutions that are based on evidence, cost-benefit evaluations, consultation with key stakeholders (including those directly affected by the policy) and open, collaborative, transparent and participatory processes. Public policy is then enacted through laws, rule-making, programs and practices. This approach to public policy development enables civic participation in government decision-making and furthers the principles and functions of democracy.

Politics and public policy therefore have different connotations but are intimately related. Leadership in politics requires leadership in public policy-making. However, this is an all too rare occurrence.

Examination of some recent policy shifts shows that they have been developed without adherence to some key principles of good public policy-making. They lack a clear evidence base. They are not based on consultative processes or transparent mechanisms for public policy development.

Climate change policy

There is unequivocal scientific evidence that climate change is real and requires swift action by the global community in order to avoid potentially catastrophic consequences in the future. Alongside this, there is general support and acknowledgement within the community that climate change is a matter of concern.

Within the first few weeks of its appointment to government the Coalition changed policy direction in this area. The Climate Commission was abolished and in the first sitting week of the 44th Australian Parliament it sought to repeal legislation that addresses carbon pollution.

Given the evidence, and the general community support for action on climate change, these changes do not appear in line with good public policy-making.

Asylum seeker policy

In relation to refugee and asylum seeker policy, it is well established that temporary protection visas (TPVs) are restrictive and inhumane. Research undertaken when TPVs were last utilised reveals the harmful impact of the policy, particularly the way in which it compounds refugees’ mental ill-health. The reintroduced TPV regulations were recently disallowed by the Senate but it is expected that the Coalition will again attempt to reinstate temporary protection visas when the new Senate meets in July 2014.

Moreover, there remains significant concern about the safety and legality of the policy of “turning back the boats”. Academics, lawyers, and former defence force and border protection personnel have warned of the dangers and risks of turning back boats.

There is a dearth of clear evidence behind these policies and the expert opinion of the majority of key stakeholders does not support them. These reactive policies, which lack foundation, also have unintended consequences. A key example is the significant deterioration in Australian-Indonesian relations following the Government’s turning back of asylum seeker boats, which Indonesia has openly criticised and rejected.

These policies also largely ignore the human rights impact, which should be a central consideration in the development of policy and law. In 2011 the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011 (Cth) (the HR Scrutiny Act) was introduced to improve the promotion and protection of human rights through the legislative process.

The legislation repealing the price on carbon pollution and that which sought to reintroduce TPVs included statements of compatibility in accordance with the HR Scrutiny Act. However, both statements inadequately consider the human rights implications of the legislation. For example, the statement attached to the TPV regulations did not mention the rights of the child under international law. Importantly, it failed to consider article 22 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which requires that children seeking refugee status “receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights…”

Similarly, the statement attached to the current legislation repealing the price on carbon pollution fails to take into account the important intersection between climate change and human rights, which has been recognised by the international community.

Good public policy-making

All too often government policy is driven by political and ideological agendas rather than the core principles of good public policy-making. A key aspect of good government, and in turn political leadership, requires effective and efficient public policy-making. This approach necessitates greater engagement by politicians with the community and diverse sources of evidence and knowledge.

It is only early days for the new government and its policy credentials are yet to be determined. However, if recent examples are any guide, to show real and effective political leadership and ensure good governance, the current Australian government needs to change its approach to policy-making so that it is more inclusive, consultative, collaborative, evidence-based and consistent with human rights.

Amy Barry-Macaulay previously worked as Chief of Staff to a Federal Parliamentarian.