Editorial: ideas for a complex world

After years of privatising and commodifying public assets and services, many governments are starting to look like they've shrunk in the wash (and faded in the spin cycle). The Policy Portal is dedicated to exploring ways of renewing the role of governments through meaningful policy change – learning from the failures of the past and finding new ways to grow and sustain our common wealth.

But there are times when government action alone is not enough. Problems like climate change, dwindling water supplies and entrenched disadvantage cannot be overcome by top-down edicts from a centralised bureaucracy, no matter how well-meaning or well-designed. Howard and Rudd's newfound 'positive, bipartisan approach' to water policy is a welcome first step. But throwing $10 billion dollars at the problem and getting two men in Canberra to agree is actually the easy part. As Richard Curtain pointed out in online magazine New Matilda last year, the challenge of dealing with multiple and conflicting views over a shared resource such as the water in the Murray—Darling Basin is a classical 'wicked problem', which can only be managed with widespread citizen involvement. The good news is that if people have faith that the decision-making process is fair and reasonable, and that they will get to have a say in those decisions, then even the wickedest of problems is not insurmountable. Curtain writes:

'A stakeholder survey conducted in 2001 found that 95 per cent of respondents supported an environmental allocation of water for the river if the decision-making process included an opportunity for all water users and interested people to have a say on how much water and how it would be provided, and if local people were involved in making decisions…the main criterion for success… [is that] local communities see they are part of a process and one that is universally regarded as fair and reasonable, so they can accept responsibility for their part of the solution.'

Genuine, effective citizen engagement is expensive and time consuming. Policy-makers therefore need to be guided by one basic principle: the more important, complex and intractable the problem, the more effort should be spent on involving citizens in generating shared solutions.

Unfortunately, as Peter Beattie's decision to scrap the water recycling referendum last week demonstrated, we are now caught in a Catch 22. The longer we postpone sustainable, whole-of-society solutions, the more urgent the problem becomes and the more governments are under pressure to introduce top-down, quick-fix solutions.

In the first Policy edition for 2007, Janette Hartz-Karp tackles this dilemma head-on, with an article that looks at how the 'practical wisdom' of ordinary citizens is being harnessed in decision-making on urban planning and climate change in Western Australia.

Leonard McDonnell argues that some of the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami could have been avoided if only the scientific community and public sphere had been better-connected. We need to find new ways of translating 'hard facts' into the emotional reality of media outlets and their audiences if we are to reap the benefits of 'expert' knowledge and prevent more avoidable tragedies.

Evan Jones looks at orthodox economists' knee-jerk response to Rudd's talk of 'industry policy', and argues that there is no point pretending that the federal government doesn't have any influence over the future of Australia's manufacturing industries. Instead we should look at how this influnce can be exercised strategically rather than opportunistically.

Danny Kennedy provides an example of how this is working in California, where a strategic policy of 'picking winners' (and regulating sinners) is fostering a renewable energy boom and easing the state out of carbon-dependence. And Ben McNeil argues that nuclear power isn't a winner on cost grounds, contrary to the position of the Switowski report.

In 'Do unions have a future?', Max Ogden shows that a strong, independent union movement can be a powerful force for improving workplace productivity – by putting members' control over their working lives on the bargaining table alongside pay and conditions. Ogden writes:

'We constantly hear that trust is needed to achieve significant workplace change and business improvement – but that is putting the cart before the horse. Trust only emerges when there are genuine negotiations and proper implementation of the negotiated agreement.'

Perhaps what is true for workplaces is also true for Australia's democracy. With trust in governments continually on the wane, the challenge of building citizen agreement on policy solutions is doubly difficult. Yet that is exactly what we need to do if we are to deal with problems like climate change, water shortages, or indeed the challenge of maintaining well-paid, satisfying employment in the face of a rapidly changing global economy.

In the lead up to the federal election this year, maybe our major parties could try something new. Don't poll us – negotiate with us. Bargain with us. Give us the power to participate in the decisions that will affect the lives of our children and grandchildren. And then live up to the bargain.

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