Nightmares and Good Policy
9 November 2017 at 8:29 am
The diminution of evidence-based public policy and the rise of vested-interest fuelled popularism means the public voice of charities has never been more critical, writes CEO of the Community Council for Australia, David Crosbie.
When giving evidence to a Senate Inquiry earlier this week, I was asked by One Nation Senator Peter Georgiou to explain what was wrong if powerful vested interest groups like alcohol producers, the Pharmacy Guild, the Minerals Council of Australia, the Food and Grocery Council of Australia, Clubs Australia, and others, were able to exert greater influence over national policy than charities.
I answered that more people would die.
The incredulous expression on the senator’s face told me he did not believe me. I could almost hear him thinking, “who has died or who is going to die as a consequence of industry lobbying?”
As a boy growing up in country Victoria, I remember the road accident death toll used to be published on the front page of the Herald-Sun. One of the first numbers I recall is 1,034 – the number of road fatalities in Victoria in one year. I think there was a slogan – declare war on 1,034.
I have been the first on the scene of a road fatality, seen the trauma it creates, and attended too many funerals. One of the worst nightmares I can imagine is answering a knock on the door late at night to be told by police that one of my children has been killed in a car accident.
Road fatalities in Australia can teach us a lot about good public policy and the role of charities.
In 1980, motor vehicle accidents resulted in 3,403 fatalities across Australia.This is just over nine deaths a day, and 43 deaths per 100,000 vehicles.
If the same rate of accident and deaths per vehicle was maintained, we would expect over 7,700 road accident fatalities in Australia in 2015. That is over 20 deaths on average each and every day in Australia.
In fact, we had only 1,209 motor vehicle deaths in 2015 – a rate of less than four deaths per day.
So instead of 20 people dying a day, less than four died each day. It has been estimated that over 100,000 lives have been saved since 1980.
By any measure, our efforts to reduce fatalities on Australia’s roads have been effective.
There are many factors that have contributed – safer cars, better roads, increased enforcement, speed reductions, etc.
If we had to identify one major contributing factor, it would be random breath testing (RBT) – not on its own, but as a multi-dimensional preventative program.
Compulsory seat belts were introduced in the 1970s followed by increasing safety requirements on cars themselves. Collapsible steering columns, recessed instrument panels, airbags are now just part of what keeps us safer when we crash. Changes to vehicles do not necessarily reduce the number of accidents, but they do reduce the damage done when an accident occurs.
RBT actually reduces the number of accidents. Researchers have found that RBT, in combination with awareness campaigns and significant rates of high visibility testing of drivers, has saved thousands of lives.
Imagine if we could identify the thousands of Australians who are now alive because of RBT, the parents and partners spared the nightmare knock on the door late at night. These people would be passionate advocates and supporters of RBT and all associated interventions. Were we meeting with a politician or senior policy maker to convince them of the merits of RBT, taking along people who would otherwise be dead would obviously have a big impact. The media campaign around these people would be heart wrenching.
Similarly, imagine if we could identify those whose lives would be saved if the program was maintained or extended. These people would almost literally give their lives to support RBT.
The question I find myself asking when confronted with people who do not support evidenced based policy is: if RBT had not yet been introduced, would we be able to convince governments around Australia to introduce it?
In the absence of having actual people whose lives had been saved, the case for RBT would have to rely on experts and researchers predicting the benefits.
Alcohol producers would oppose the introduction of RBT, as would the retailers; hotels, licensed clubs, night clubs and licensed grocers. RBT would be seen as a threat to the night time economy in cities across Australia. Citing the views of experts and researchers saying how many lives would be saved and how many hospital admissions might be avoided could establish a strong case for RBT, but in an era where deliberate misinformation, distortions and “opinion dressed as fact” are often treated in the same way as accurate evidence-based views, how much would the views of experts count?
Charities, road trauma groups, experts and any other group supporting the introduction of RBT would almost certainly be labelled as wowsers seeking to impose a nanny state. Having RBT adopted as national policy in the current political context would be very difficult.
This is the problem now faced by many charities advocating for policy change – how can we best make the case for public benefit policies. Can we rely on experts and researchers showing distributed benefits? In a false facts political environment, relying on evidence is a limited strategy.
Charities advocate to politicians and political parties on behalf of the communities they serve. Often charities are arguing the case for those who do not have the capacity to participate in public policy formulation; the most marginalised, the environment, animal welfare, the unemployed, refugees, the sick, disabled, drug dependent, mentally unwell, our poor, our homeless, our prisoners.
Charities are advocating for a distributed benefit based on evidence about what will make a positive difference. In a competitive policy context, vested financial interests opposed to change can outspend, buy access, and present strong cases for the specific economic costs associated with changing policies. A vested interest industry group can talk about the loss of jobs, income, and future investment if governments adopt a particular public policy. They can identify the people who will be impacted, their families and their communities. They can mobilise people and resources to protect the status quo. They can mount campaigns, even make political donations. And they do. And we must respond.
In the Australia I want to live in, we work together to improve the health and well-being of all our communities – not just the rich and powerful, not just those seeking to maintain their income.
The diminution of evidence based public policy and the rise of vested interest fuelled popularism means the public voice of charities has never been more critical. If we want to reduce the nightmare knocks on the door, nothing is more important than raising our collective voices in support of good public policy.
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.