Is this report about good policy, or good politics?
A much-anticipated report on the link between the physical environment and public health was released publicly at the end of May.
The report, Inquiry into Environmental Design and Public Health, was written by the Environmental Planning and Assessment Committee of the Victorian Legislative council. It followed a year-long inquiry with public submissions and public hearings.
There are 36 recommendations, including ones to limit the number of fast food outlets and bottle shops; appoint public health specialists to the boards of government land development authorities; protect valuable agricultural land in peri-urban areas; and provide more community gardens. There is support for initiatives to increase housing densities and promote higher public transport patronage.
Maybe not often, but sometimes the reports of parliamentary committees can be important documents. When confronted with compelling and objective evidence on an important issue of public policy, members occasionally take a bi-partisan view and recommend actions that really are in the interests of the wider community.
The tone of this media report – with its use of phrases like “a parliamentary committee has found” – suggests this report is an objective, almost academic, analysis of the issues. Some lobbyists have portrayed the report as providing compelling new evidence in support of their brief.
Sadly, this isn’t one of those occasions when the politicians have risen above their station. The report doesn’t provide a considered, impartial analysis of the issues. It isn’t the valuable resource to build a consensus on the link between public health and the environment that it potentially might’ve been. It doesn’t provide a better informed basis for policy-making.
It’s a political football and has to be judged with that in mind. Many won’t be surprised, of course. After all, it was prepared by a committee – and a committee of politicians at that. Squabbling ones, moreover.
This isn’t a unanimous report. It’s not even a majority report in any meaningful sense. The important recommendations are only supported by half the members.
The Environmental Planning and Assessment Committee has eight members – four Liberal, three Labor and one Greens. The four Liberal members don’t support most of the recommendations. They submitted a minority report, claiming “more than half of the recommendations of the majority report, either in whole or in part, were passed on the casting vote of the Labor Chair, Ms Gayle Tierney.”
There’s little consensus or harmony here. The four Liberal members say:
It is regrettable that many of the recommendations demonstrate poor policy making, resulting from inadequately considered and politically motivated recommendations which would undoubtedly result in many negative consequences for Victorians and Victorians families.
They claim the Labor and Greens members showed a “strong disregard for any bipartisanship and (an) unyielding focus on a not to be missed opportunity to pursue a narrow and ideological agenda.” Moreover, they reckon the Labor and Greens members sought to “embed political trip wires into recommendations, rather than pursue good policy and beneficial outcomes.”
Of course there’s nothing surprising about Government members wanting to minimise recommendations that might prove controversial. Nor is it surprising that Opposition members (who had eleven years to take the actions they now recommend!) would seek to put the Government in a difficult position.
I have no greater faith in the motives of the Government members on the Committee than in those of the “majority”, but the former are right when they say these recommendations haven’t been evaluated in any meaningful sense. And that’s in terms of their economic, social and, for that matter health, implications.
All of that’s a great pity because it means the report doesn’t advance good policy-making one jot – it just reflects an established ideological position. Those who agree with the recommendations might not care, but it should be understood this report adds no real weight to their position. Nor does it weaken the arguments of those who disagree. It’s just all been a bit of a waste.