Comment: When ‘what’s your policy?’ means ‘how much?’

If you want to analyse the creation and application of public policy, the price tag is only one factor to consider, writes Mark Fletcher.

When it comes to evaluating public policy, most people start and end with the price tag. They're often looking in the wrong place, writes Mark Fletcher.

Policy analysis — good policy analysis — is difficult.  Part of the problem, no doubt, stems from the ambiguity surrounding the nature of policy.  In the fourth edition of The Australian Policy Handbook, Althaus, Bridgman, and Davis note the diversity of approaches to framing policy.  Citing Hal Colebatch, they write:

Often, policy is no more than ‘whatever governments choose to do or not do’. Sometimes we use the terms to describe very specific choices, but the notion also embraces general directions and philosophies.  There are also times when ‘policy’ becomes clear only in retrospect; we look back and discern the patterns and continuities of a set of choices, and call these ‘policy’.

Although there is an increasing body of literature about the way policy elites (presidents, prime ministers, ministers, public servants, judges, mayors and councillors, &c.) conceptualise policy, there is a need to explore the popular understanding about the point of policy.  It’s getting weird out there and it seems to be coming back to questions about money.

When we’re out and about in the world, we tend to view money as a means to obtain some purpose.  I have this $20 and with it I am going to purchase a haircut.  What we don’t do is consider the haircut to be a mere excuse to transfer the $20 from my pocket into the barber’s cash register.  But this is where we are in contemporary folk policy debates.  The point of this or that policy scheme is not conceived as an intent to reach some end, but to shift money.

A good example of this is the recent Gonski brouhaha.  For the last umpteen months, we have all been told that schools need more money.  In the public discussion, ‘Gonski’ was the name of a bucket of cash.  For the policy wonks, Gonski was a policy reform that used the promise of more cash to effect changes by the States.  In order to negotiate more effectively with the States, we were told, the Government wouldn’t release details about precisely what they wanted to achieve.  Thus, the folk wisdom about the purpose of policy came to prevail.  Gonski meant cash.  When the new Minister for Education, Chris Pyne, started a confusing discussion about whether or not he would continue with the Gonski reforms, this became explicitly true: to support Gonski was to ensure that the correct amount of money flowed from Treasury.

On the 3 December, Lyndal Curtis discussed the issue with Tony Burke:

Burke: They’ve ditched the education reforms.  They’re providing a fraction of the money and they’re not delivering the reform at all.  They’re not delivering the benefits of what the Gonski reforms were meant to be.

Curtis: Aren’t they delivering exactly the same amount of money that you proposed, including the money that was set aside for Western Australia, Queensland, and the Northern Territory?

We could ponder whether we think that Curtis was merely asking the sort of question that she thought would be pondered by viewers, or whether we think that Curtis understood Gonski only in terms of cash.  Instead, we have a different question on our hands: in what sense is it relevant whether or not one party is matching the funding amounts of the other party?  What does this information tell us about the policy?

A few weeks ago, people engaged in research policy saw the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2013 slide into Parliament.  Back when they were in power, the ALP threw a sizable amount of cash at a few ‘limited edition’ funding schemes to find research in sciences and industry.  As these schemes are winding up, the amount being allocated to the ARC is reducing over the next few years.  But this isn’t how a number of commentators and opinion writers saw it.  Here’s New Matilda‘s Ben Eltham on Twitter:

Should the amount allocated under the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2013 have been higher? For what purpose? What policy outcomes do you want? Is using the ARC the right vehicle for distributing funds?

Nope.  None of that.  There’s only one thing you need to know: the policy is that the amount of money is going to be X.

Last week, The Feed on SBS ran a short piece about opinion writers.  Dan Illic spliced together various snippets from a few of Australia’s more prominent opinion writers, resulting in something of a cynical mess.  

At no point did anybody try to identify the point of opinion writing, which must surely be to give people the language they need to explore and express social, political, and cultural ideas.  But if the point of opinion writing is to improve discussion about political issues and if the SBS can run a piece where it’s suggested that there are too many opinion writers, it should follow that we live in a lousy world with excellent political discussion.

I’m yet to find anybody who would describe our political conversations as excellent.

More than that, Australia’s opinion writers and commentators are showing that they don’t have the chops to be good policy analysts.  There’s a difference between making policy discussions accessible and making policy discussions asinine.  When policy discussions are stripped of nearly everything but the dollars, something’s gone wrong.

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. He blogs at OnlyTheSangfroid. This article was originally published on

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