Research shows Australia has become woeful at making policy

For the second year running, independent research by two philosophically opposed Right and Left think tanks finds that public policy making at federal and state levels is rarely evidence and consultative based.

Unlike last year, none of the 20 case studies this year got close to a perfect score of 10. Only four case studies got a sound score of 8 or 8.5. Sadly eight case studies got rated below 5.0.  

By Percy Allan

The research was undertaken by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), a self-described ‘free-market’ think tank and Per Capita Australia, a self-labelled ‘progressive’ think tank. Other than jointly selecting the 20 case studies to examine, each think tank worked on its own. In three quarters of the case studies, the two think tanks gave the same or similar score. In the rest the difference in scores was not greater than 2 points on the scale of 10.

The research was commissioned by the newDemocracy Foundation, a non-partisan organisation that seeks to improve the way we do democracy. It was overseen by a committee of prominent citizens including Glenn Barnes, Peter Shergold and Verity Firth. The case studies were benchmarked against ten attributes of good decision making identified by Professor Kenneth Wiltshire AO, of the University of Queensland Business School.

Are we rushing this with poor outcomes as a result?

The think tanks agreed that the policies that came closest to best-practice decision making processes were the Federal National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Act 2018, the Victorian Environment Protection Amendment Bill 2019 (single use plastic bags ban) and the Queensland Termination of Pregnancy Act 2018 (legalisation of abortion).

The lowest scored case studies were the Federal Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act 2019 and the Federal Promoting Sustainable Welfare Act 2018 neither of which satisfied more than two or three of the ten benchmarks associated with a good policy process.  Here are the scores for the best and worst cases:

Excellent Process:


Sound Process

  • Fed National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Act 2018 (Average rating 8.5/10)
  • Vic Environment Protection Amendment Bill 2019 /Single use plastic bags ban (Average rating 8.5)
  • Qld Termination of Pregnancy Act 2018 /Legalisation of abortion (Average rating 8.5%)
  • Vic Residential tenancies Amendment Act 2018 (Average rating 8.0%)

Acceptable Process

  • Qld Human Rights Act 2019 (Average rating 7.5)
  • NSW Electoral Funding Act 2018 (Average rating 7.0)

Unacceptable Process

  • Fed Tax Relief So Working Australians Keep More Of Their Money Act 2019 (Average rating 4.5)
  • Fed Assistance and Access Act 2018 /Encryption law (Average rating 4.0)
  • Vic Fire Services Reform Act 2019 (Average rating 3.0)
  • NSW Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Amendment Act 2018 (Average rating 3.0)
  • NSW Children and Young Persons (Care and Protection) Amendment Act 2018 (Average rating 4.0)
  • Qld Final Environmental Approval for Adani Mine (Average rating 3.0)
  • Fed Promoting Sustainable Welfare Act 2018 (Average rating 2.5)
  • Fed Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material Act 2019 (Average rating 2.0)

Sam Mellett, Director of the Susan McKinnon Foundation, which co-funded the research project, says “More often, policy development tends to be short-term, partisan and reactionary and often lacks a public mandate for implementation. By using a ‘business case approach’, governments would not only develop better policies, but also improve politics as citizens would gain greater trust in the decision-making process.“

In my view the public is suspicious of government decision making.

Winning back trust especially on contentious legislative issues requires capturing the full facts about a problem, weighing up alternative solutions and seeking public input on the best way forward before a final decision is taken. When politicians follow that path they regain public trust, when they don’t they lose credibility. A good policy process is smart politics – that’s the lesson politicians should take from these case studies.

As with last year’s case studies the research found that the most scope for improvement in government decision-making was comparing the costs and benefits of alternative policy options, explaining how a policy decision would be rolled out and issuing a Green Paper to invite public feedback before announcing a policy decision in a White paper.

The executive directors of IPA and Per Capita, though philosophically opposed, jointly agree that the public policy making in Australia is seriously deficient and needs fixing.

John Roskam of IPA says “Australia’s governments, both state and federal, are failing to undertake best practice policymaking. This failure is undermining the quality of public policy and is having a detrimental impact on faith in public institutions. Emma Dawson of Per Capita says “While ideological values and principles must always guide the direction of government, this project shows that following a rigorous and consultative process is critical to the effective development and implementation of policies to serve the public interest.”

Like IPA and Per Capita, I think most Australians want Coalition and Labor governments to commit to a good policy making process, even though they disagree on political values and goals. Unless politicians can agree on the way they make policy, they are very unlikely to unite the nation behind their decisions. Also the media’s campaign for our “Right to Know” won’t be realised if policy making is kept in the dark.

It’s pleasing that evidence-based policy is getting real traction in New South Wales where the Parliament’s Upper House Procedures Committee is holding a public inquiry on making “all highly contentious government legislation … subject to a comprehensive and consultative green and white paper process…” following our representations to all party leaders.

Prof. Percy Allan AM

Percy Allan AM is chair of the Evidence Based Policy Research Project and a former Secretary of the NSW Treasury. The full findings can be accessed at print.

First published at Pearls and Irritations – Thursday 21 November 2019. See;

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