Thursday, May 26, 2011

Judith Wright, smoking, pokies, Armidale floods & policy misinformation

I ended up not posting yesterday because there were a number of things that I need to complete. Ditto today. However, I did want to note a few things that I am working on, plan to comment on or simply noted in passing.

My train reading at the moment is Fiona Capp's My Blood's Country (Allen & Unwin), subtitled a journey through the landscapes that inspired Judith Wright's poetry.

Inspired by that book, I am working on a post for my New England History blog called multi-layered history. This centres in part on the way that the stories of major figures like Judith Wright actually become historical actors in their own right. From a purely personal viewpoint, there is a strange disconnect when people and areas one knows acquire an external independent life.

In Smoking, drinking & problems in public policy I talked about issues associated with the current fight in Australia over plain packaging for cigarettes. On Sunday morning, I listened to the broader pontifications on the ABC Insiders program; this, I thought, is commentary, but it is commentary coming from reporters whose job is to report. How can they report when it is clear that they think that they are players, that their personal opinions matter? Then this morning, I listened to discussion on plain paper packaging for cigarettes.

I have a high opinion of the Ages's Michelle Grattan. In commenting on the views of Barnaby Joyce on plain paper packaging, she expressed the opinion that she hoped that he would not oppose it. My heart sank. She was there to interpret, but that was absent.

In a way, I don't give a damn about plain paper packaging for tobacco products. It just doesn't matter. It will add to costs, but have no practical effect that I can see beyond shifts at the margin between brands. If it makes people happy, okay. Yet it is also another feature of what, in a different context, I called the New South Walesing of the then Rudd Government.

New South Walesing is the process whereby Governments go by the immediately popular regardless of the longer term or substantive arguments. X is considered to be bad, do something about it regardless.

Michelle Grattan has been New South Walesed. I am not suggesting that Michelle was playing to popular opinion in her response. She was expressing her opinion. But then, that wasn't her role. She responded personally, not professionally.

It's interesting to compare plain packaging with Andrew Wilkie's poker machine proposal. You get the same type of gut reactions. On the other hand, no one can deny, I think, that problem gambling is a social problem. Further, the Wilkie proposal is an attempt to address that social problem. Yet the Wilkie proposal is likely to fail because of very specific adverse effects on particular activities in particular areas.

Whether the Wilkie proposals can be amended sufficiently to overcome the problem, whether they are in fact the best solution, is open to question. However, the Wilkie proposals are a genuine attempt to address a real social problem.

I was trying to think just how to explain all this. The problem, that I see it, is that the argument around some of these issues can be summarised this way:

  • x is a problem
  • the proposed measure is attended to address x
  • therefore the proposed measure is a good thing.

Anybody who challenges the measure immediately attracts the response "don't you recognise that x's a problem?" This is actually very silly. These things have to be debated on fact, not emotion.

I had intended to write a full story on a very interesting local case study of just how blind application goes wrong. Instead, I might just summarise it here.

New insurance notices went out in Armidale. A number of Armidale people found that they could not get flood insurance, or could only get it at a huge premium increase. In one case, an Armidale women was quoted $6,000 in annual premiums. When she challenged this, she was told that on actuarial grounds based on new flood maps, she should have been charged $17,000; the top premium was capped at $6,000.

Now if this had happened in Brisbane or Sydney, it might have gone through to the keeper. However, Armidale is a geographically concentrated area in which everybody knows the flood patterns. The small creek that runs through the centre of the city floods rapidly, but also drops quickly because it has a very small catchment area.

Inevitably, stories about flood premiums made the local newspapers and everybody began to compare notes. Some very silly cases emerged. As an example, the women charged $6,000 was well outside the official one hundred years flood maps. It would require a gigantic flood of a type never seen before for water to reach her property.

For many weeks, the insurance companies held the line, arguing that they were working on official data. Finally, one insurance company did the sensible thing and actually sought information on the basis of the data being used to make flood assessments. Turns out that there was a data entry error. Insurance premiums then dropped sharply.

My point is that you simply cannot accept arguments about proposals or responses that use official data without checking both the data and the arguments.

During the week there was another example of this problem. The Grattan Institute, an Australian think tank, released a report on regional programs that made national headlines.           

I quote from Lenore Taylor in the Sydney Morning Herald

GOVERNMENTS are wasting more than $2 billion a year trying to lure Australians to the regions and are short-changing the ''bolting'' growth areas of western Sydney and coastal cities such as Coffs Harbour and Nowra where people are choosing to move, a new report has found.

The study by the Grattan Institute found no evidence that years of government spending on regional universities, ''adjustment'' plans or regional development schemes had done anything to boost population or economic growth, but said it had resulted in chronic under-investment in fast-growing areas close to the capitals and coastal cities where population was increasing.

''We conclude that government spending cannot make economic water flow uphill and accelerate slow-growing regions,'' the report says. ''The current approach to services of 'regional equity' is unfair to residents of bolting regions. They are not getting their fair share of services.''

The problem is that this report is one of the sloppiest examples of policy analysis that I have seen. Because of its importance to the things that I am interested in, I actually downloaded it and spent more than four hours yesterday working my way through the analysis and assumptions.

Do you know, for someone without my knowledge of history and statistics, this report could seem just so reasonable. Indeed, it did to many.

If it had been just a thought piece, a discussion draft, then its challenges to some current nostrums would have been valuable. But in presenting as more than that, it became another piece of policy misinformation.

I have to be fair. Without back-up evidence and analysis, my interpretation is simply another opinion piece. However, I will present my evidence and analysis later and let you make your own judgments.        

Well, time to return to today's priorities.  


In a comment, Winton Bates wrote:

Re smoking and the nanny state: Jim you might be interested in this article on 'spiked' that refers to a recent report by something called the Preventative Health Taskforce.

You can find the Taskforce report and Government response here.


Neil said...

I read Fiona Capp's book recently. Very good; very insightful about the poetry.

Jim Belshaw said...

It's a very good book, Neil. She is a wonderful writer challenging both of us.

Yet it was really odd reading it because of the overlaying connections with people I know.

Dora Wright, the step mother that Judith did not get on with, was a strong supporter of mine when I ran for preselection. Half brother David was named after my grandfather. Nephew Richard was my first consulting client. Nephew Edward (Roo) who Fiona stayed with was in my class at TAS. Today, the Parliamentary inquiry into insolvency practice is directly linked to Richard's problems. And my wife is CEO of Insolvency Practioners Australia.

Laps and overlaps. In writing, I have to establish a separation between somehow.

Winton Bates said...

Re smoking and the nanny state: Jim you might be interested in this article on'spiked' that refers to a recent report by something called the Preventative Health Taskforce.