Monday, November 30, 2009

The case for reform in Australian public policy - food prices and Australian primary production 1

Sunday Essay - food prices and Australian primary production, a post on my personal blog, is a very simple analysis of the discussion generated by the apparent fact that Australian food prices  have been rising at the fastest rate among major developed economies.

Outside shock-horror elements, the discussion generated by the OECD report has been one-dimensional, generally centred on competition policy and the Woolworths/Coles duopoly. There has been very little discussion of the broader contextual issues.

I am not unbiased on this matter. My personal support for the rural sector and the country will be clear from my writing. That said, the broader issues do bear upon some of the points I have begun to develop in this series.

As I write, the Liberal Party has been imploding over the Government's emission trading scheme. In Australian responses to climate change - a background briefing, I made a distinction between problem (climate change) and response. I also pointed to the way that climate change was being used to justify a whole series of decisions: if a (climate change), then b (stop irrigation or whatever), creating a growing wave of opposition in the bush.

Policy does not develop in isolation. To a degree, one of the causes of policy failures lies in the way that Governments feel obliged to respond to what they perceive to be popular opinion. I will deal with the institutional factors - the rise of the "stakeholder" in a later post.

I am not saying that Governments should not consider public opinion. However, real problems arise where there is a disconnect between those arguing for a policy change and those who will be affected by a policy change. Simply put, it is easy to support something if there is no apparent cost to you. This problem is compounded by the existence of policy silos.

The question of the gap between Australia's indigenous people and the remainder of the Australian community has been a topic of much discussion. You have a range of initiatives intended to bridge that gap. However, very little of the discussion addresses a single key issue: many Aboriginal people live in country areas that have been in economic decline. Action to address the gap is likely to fail if you cannot address that decline.

Consider the case of Tooralee Station (here and here), a major irrigation property purchased and turned into to a national park to release water for the Darling River. Leaving aside the question of whether or not the purchase was value for money, something that I doubted based on rough back of envelope calculations, the purchase took something like 100 full and part time jobs out of the local Bourke economy.

At the same time, the Federal and NSW State Governments who funded the purchase of Tooralee Station are trying to address Aboriginal disadvantage in Bourke through measures such as new houses and coordinated service delivery. The obvious inconsistency between the action on Tooralee Station and the improvement in Aboriginal conditions in Bourke was not recognised or, at least, not discussed. I doubt that it was recognised.  

I will continue this argument in my next post.

Note to readers:

This is one of a month long series on the need for reform in Australia's approach to public policy and administration. Consider yourself the judge or jury as I present the evidence. Most posts will be short, introductions to other writing. My argument is that we now have a systemic pattern of failure. You have to decide whether or not I am right and, if so, what you think that we should do about it.

If you want to follow the whole series through, you can click reforming Australian public policy on the side bar. This will bring the whole series up. Alternatively, if you want to follow the whole series through from the first post, click here and then click next at the end of each post.


No comments: