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Say what you mean, mean what you say

23 January 2016

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Quentin Grafton is Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy (CWEEP) at Crawford School of Public Policy. In April 2010 he was appointed the Chairholder, the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance.

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Good public policy is hard to produce in a political environment that favours slogans over solutions, writes Quentin Grafton.

2016 is an election year in several countries, including the United States and Australia, so it is timely to talk about the conversations our leaders have with us, and why they are so important for our future.

Both the US and Australia have longstanding and world-leading democratic traditions and institutions. But despite such strengths both countries appear to be losing their way, in that an increasing number are either choosing not to engage with the political process (by not voting in the US) or increasingly turning to politicians who appear to offer simple solutions to complex problems.

Both trends are worrying and while many explanations have been posited (such as the 24 hour news cycle, stagnating income growth for households in the lower income quintiles, national security fears, etc.) they are, in part, a response to the shallow two-way conversations between our current or prospective leaders and we, the people. Whatever the causes - shallow rather than meaningful conversations, and where risks manage decision makers, rather than the other way round – the result is, at best, second-rate public policy. Shallow conversations generate slogans rather than solutions, short-term tactics rather than long-term or strategic thinking, and vacuous rather than visionary leadership.

The absence of meaningful conversations matters in a rapidly changing and an increasingly interconnected world where government needs to perform crucial roles. These include: the provision of public education, national defence, information and public services; the setting of regulatory frameworks and standards in support of economic activity such as competition and international trade and to protect consumers and the environment; and establishing incentives and disincentives that arise from the taxes and expenditures of governments themselves.

So what are meaningful conversations between people and politicians?

First, it requires a point to the conversation in that it seeks to generate one or more outcomes that materially affect the parties. It has to matter to voters in ways that affect their lives in a substantial rather than trivial ways. Talk for talk’s sake is not a meaningful conversation.

Second, conversations are not scripted, but are genuine dialogues that require proper listening from both sides. Meaningful conversations with voters requires that politicians articulate the key problems, to be clear what governments can and cannot resolve, and what will be done about it. Voters must also spend the time to listen and evaluate what they are being told.

Third, meaningful conversations must be honest. This means those in positions of power must say what they mean and mean what they say. This does not mean that commitments (such as to balancing a budget) cannot change, if circumstances change or if there are genuine surprises, but a major deviation off an agreed-to path must itself arise from a meaningful conversation.

Conversations where one party tells another what they think they would like to hear (as tested by focus groups) simply to be viewed in a more positive light, lack integrity and are not meaningful. When the listener or voter works out they are being conned (and it happens sooner or later), they simply stop listening.

So where does this take us in the real world of public policy in 2016? For US voters, what about a meaningful conversation about how to reduce homicide rates? A possible goal might be to have the US homicide rate converge to Canada’s rate. If this were to be achieved, at the current homicide rates in the two countries, the US would have about 10,000 fewer murders per year.

Could we also have a meaningful conversation about income growth that has ‘flatlined’ in Australia since 2013? In the US, real median household income has increased since its low point in 2012, but still remains substantially below its peak in 1999. A meaningful conversation about what to do about it demands a dialogue on education, productivity and taxation, how these connect to each other, and the government’s role in each of these dimensions.

Political leaders promising X and then delivering Y or offering voters empty slogans may have worked in the past, but may no longer be a successful political tactic in 2016, and beyond. It certainly hasn’t delivered for Americans and Australians and their economies, or even for the elected politicians who find that when they lose the people’s confidence they are either kicked out by the voters or replaced by their political parties ahead of an election.

For those who aspire to public office in 2016 and who also really want to make a difference for people, a meaningful conversation may be the best place to start. It creates a mandate to govern for the politicians who do it, promotes better public policy and, I would contend, is likely to be a successful political tactic in the year ahead.

This piece was first published on Policy Forum, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society and Crawford School.

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