Wicked problems can be addressed if the will is there

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Image: rawdonfox, Flickr.
Thursday 9 May 2019

Mark Kenny charts the wicked problems plaguing domestic policy and wraps up the second event in the ANU Federal Election panel series.

It is a sad irony that elections, thought of as the high-point of any democratic process, turn out to be the worst time to build the consensus needed to fix the intractable problems of our age.

But that is a failure attributable mainly to our politicians, who seek to amplify differences, and marginalise their opponents in the quest for electoral support.

Voters on the other hand are eager to find durable solutions to what these days are often referred to as "wicked problems"- the challenges that our adversarial business-as-usual politics just seems incapable of resolving.

We all know the main ones: climate change, Indigenous recognition, gender and wealth inequality, population, water, asylum seekers, regional decline, domestic violence.

These were just some the issues covered by some of the country's finest scholars in the second of hugely popular ANU Federal Election Series on Tuesday 30 April.

The mood was a mix of optimism, tempered by much frustration, and more than a little despair.

Deftly moderated by the former ABC and SBS political journalist, Catherine McGrath, a brilliant panel turned its expertise to these and other problems as raised by the audience.

On stage with Ms McGrath were Dr Liz Allen, from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods; Professor Bob Breunig, of the Tax and Transfer Policy Institute at the Crawford School of Public Policy; Professor Tony Dreise, from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research; and Professor Mark Howden, Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute.

Unsurprisingly after a decade of false starts, parliamentary advantage-taking, and policy gridlock, the issue of global warming was among the very first problems raised.

Professor Howden outlined the problem, noting that the situation is getting worse not better, with 2.7 per cent more greenhouse gases emitted in the last year, and for Australia, 2.3 per cent more.

"We're actually increasing our output when we need to reduce it," he warned.

Professor Howden conceded it was difficult to accurately predict the economy-wide cost of corrective action. But he also noted it was even more difficult to quantify both the cost of inaction, and the new economic opportunities for jobs and economic growth through green investment.

As an economist, Professor Breunig stressed the need for a market solution, noting that properly pricing pollution would inevitably have the required transformative effect on industry and transport.

Another wicked problem, economic inequality, also exercised the audience. However, while all panellists agreed that Newstart remained unconscionably low and that too many low-income earners were being left behind, Professor Breunig invited participants to look at the data which shows that the proportion of people in dire poverty around the world and in Australia has declined sharply over recent decades.

Dr Allen, a demographer and widely sought expert in Australian media, called for an explicit population policy while lamenting the demonising of "others" and "dog whistling" by some politicians over asylum seekers, refugees, and new migration cohorts.

Another topic provoking thoughtful questions and discussion was Indigenous recognition. Professor Dreise dismissed the model of special Indigenous representative places in the parliament as has been introduced elsewhere.

He also criticised a consolation argument put forward by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when opposing an Indigenous voice to Parliament - the idea that current Indigenous MPs, Linda Burney, Ken Whyatt, and Pat Dodson somehow represented Indigenous Australia.

Indigenous societies have always been flatter in their structure and leadership, he explained, and they require a more collective approach and a more democratic representative engagement at community level in order to be legitimate.

Mark Kenny is a senior fellow in the Australian Studies Institute, joining the University after a high-profile journalistic career culminating in six years as chief political correspondent and national affairs editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Canberra Times.

Listen to the full discussion from the Wicked problems: domestic policy panel event. And join Mark Kenny for his weekly wrap of the 2019 Federal Election coverage on the 'Democracy Sausage' podcast.

Updated:  30 July 2019/Responsible Officer:  Institute Manager/Page Contact:  Institute Manager