Policies on the scrap heap

alloporus has been a place where the topic of leadership has popped up consistently.

It is after all an intrinsically fascinating topic [leaders not heroes] but mostly it gets a mention because of the leadership vacuum in the political life of Australia [Wot, no politics | Leadership is tricky | Labour leaders].

An insightful article in the News Review section of the Sydney Morning Herald by Miriam Lyons, executive director of the Centre for Policy Development based in Sydney, showed what a lack of leadership could mean. Her idea, presented in a neat analogy with fantasy football, was that there have been many policies proposed by politicians that would be laughed at by their parties if presented to the current parliament.

The best one for me was Andrew Peacock who, as shadow environment minister, went to the 1990 election proposing a 20% cut in GHG emissions. The Liberals didn’t win. When they did, in 1996 under John Howard, there followed a decade of keeping well away from emission targets and ignoring the Kyoto protocol completely. Today such a target would be preposterous.

Lyons point was that policies are fickle things, easily left behind when the mood of the day makes them unpalatable. And that many a good idea languishes even when international moves are in favour.

In Australia the trend for rejection seems to have become so severe that there are few policy ideas left standing.

Except that policy is core business for politicians. We entrust our elected members to discuss, debate and land at the right balance between our personal freedom and the necessary efficiencies from the collective. And we allow them a small army of staffers to figure out and implement all the rules, regulations and incentives that chosen policy requires.

So why, when I read the list of policy options now considered laughable, do I cry?

I despair because all of those policies once proposed by parties from all persuasions but now on the scrap heap contain a kernel of leadership. Each one of them was just a little bit out there, sufficiently different to be on the edge. Their proponents needed to be bold and took a risk in putting them up because there was a chance that the policy would be unpopular.

And this is partly why they were cast aside, for on the edge can also be on the nose. It is easy then to retreat into the entrenched assumption that the public will bite you if you present unpopular policy.

But is this true?

Like Lyons, I don’t think so. Unpopular policy can easily become popular if it works. That is if it delivers balance on the public and private interest. But it needs to be told and sold, and that takes courage or, dare we say it, leadership.

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