Tim Dunlop’s 1Q – the relevance of motive

As I noted in yesterday’s Missing Link, the second of Tim Dunlop’s 1Q series of questions to bloggers is out and about. This weeks question (devised by Harry Clarke) is:

How relevant are motives in assessing the public policy stance of a politician or commentator?

Responses to date have come from Harry himself, Joshua Gans, Robert Merkel, Tim Dunlop, Kim Jameson, Andrew Bartlett and tigtog.

I have to say I couldn’t get terribly enthused about this latest 1Q question. Not only because most of my co-bloggers have beaten me to the punch and already said just about everything there is to be said, but to my mind the answer is blindingly obvious.

You could only sensibly argue that politicians’ motives are unimportant if:

(a) all politicians were completely honest;

(b) they only announced policies whose letter and spirit they actually believed in and intended to implement fully;

(c) all announced policies were sufficiently detailed to enable their likely effects to be meaningfully assessed; and

(d) we all had sufficient time and expertise to read and assess them.

Should we have believed Paul Keating when he promised those tax cuts back in 1993 and said you could trust him because they were “L-A-W law”? Or John Howard when he promised we would “never ever” have a GST? And for that matter, how do we distinguish between “core” and non-core” promises?

Moreover, both parties have now adopted a fairly standard practice of issuing policies almost devoid of practical “nuts and bolts” content. John Howard invented “headland statements” back in 1996, which gave a pleasing illusion of policy substance without actually saying anything too specific. Kevin Rudd adopted a fairly similar strategy when he first took over the Labor leadership from Beazley, although more recent policy releases have at least contained some specific proposals and even funding commitments.

But neither Howard nor Rudd have been prepared to commit to meaningful medium-term greenhouse emissions targets before this year’s election, nor any meaningful figures on emissions caps for individual permits. How then are we to evaluate their respective proposals? Is it unreasonable to take account of politicians’ likely motivations and past track record in such circumstances? Howard has spent the last decade dismissing global warming as a socialist fabrication; are we supposed to credulously accept without question that he has genuinely changed his mind, and isn’t just saying whatever it takes to turn opinion polls around?

Similarly, on industrial relations, should we accept at face value Howard’s sudden realisation of a need for a “no disadvantage” test to minimise the incidence of workers on AWAs being deprived of basic terms and conditions without any compensation? And that the test won’t be watered down, abolished or simply not enforced after the election? Or that a Rudd Labor government really would ensure non-ideological appointments to its proposed new IR super-body Fair Work Australia? And don’t forget that, to the best of my recollection, Howard didn’t even mention his intention to implement Work Choices before the last election.

Not even a basic foundational document like Australia’s Constitution can sensibly be argued to have an indisputably clear literal meaning in most of its aspects. We can only understand it once we grasp the context in which it was drafted, and the assumptions, conventions and mutual understandings that underpin it. The same goes for political policies, only more so. What chance that we could ever reliably take a political party’s policy pronouncements at face value, replete as they always are with weasel words, fudges and deliberately misleading and deceptive language carefully designed by the “spin doctors” to appeal to voters’ fears and prejudices elicited through focus groups? Motives and prior record are indispensible to understanding and assessing any politician’s promises. Only a terminally naive or disingenuous commentator could suggest otherwise.

Which isn’t to say that we should simply respond to political parties’ policies by automatically believing those made by the party we generally support (if any) while rejecting as insincere those made by parties we distrust and whose motives we suspect. In fact, for example, there’s a strong argument in my view that the Coalition’s global warming policies are now at least as good as Labor’s, especially given that they don’t arbitrarily and irrationally rule out the nuclear power option. But even here, it only makes sense to assess the substantive relative merits of the parties’ policies if we can really believe on reasonable grounds that both actually intend to implement them. Fortunately for the Coalition, it’s fairly unlikely John Howard will be around for much longer, and I’m prepared to believe that alternative leaders like Costello, Turnbull and Nelson actually take the threat of global warming just as seriously as Labor.

On IR I’m a bit like PJK: I don’t think much of either side’s policies, and I don’t trust either not to fudge them to favour their respective business and trade union core constituencies to a greater extent than is apparent from the actual text of their policies.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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[…] Ken Parish isn’t enamoured with politicians, full stop. […]

15 years ago

Of all the responses to this question, the opening sentence of your second last paragraph is the point that resonates most for me.

Which isnt to say that we should simply respond to political partys policies by automatically believing those made by the party we generally support (if any) while rejecting as insincere those made by parties we distrust and whose motives we suspect.

There is more value to evaluating motives than Harry allows. Shunning motives entirely to concentrate on consequences ignores what seems obvious to me; motives inform consequences. Using the Workchoices example, if the motive is to destroy the union movement, then the destruction of the union movement is going to a potential consequence – one should always allow room for the attempt to fail – and we should be evaluating whether or not we think that’s a desirable consequence.

But going back to the sentence I quoted, care should be taken to ensure that we aren’t just projecting our own prejudices onto the policy maker and mistaking them for motivation. Just because Teh Left thinks Howard is a war criminal doesn’t mean he actually does lend moral support to Israel specifically so they can kill Palestinian children. And vice versa.

Self-aware use of Occam’s razor is a must.

harry clarrke
15 years ago

Ken, Your argument seems to me flawed. If you are evaluating a policy – the case for the Governments ‘cap and trade’ scheme rather than say a carbon tax, for example, then this policy may be a good one even if John Howard is dishonest and even if the policy is never implemented or even if the politicians concerned retire.

These issues have nothing to do with the quality of the ‘cap and trade’ policy prescription.

If you cannot evaluate the policy (or don’t have the time to do so) but must take the word of a politician on an issue of fact then motives become important just as they would in a criminal trial where you cannot check but must infer the truthfulness of a defendent.

But this is just saying that the implications of a policy are irrelevant if you cannot evaluate them That is obvious.

It seems to me that if you can think through the implications of a policy you should.


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15 years ago

Ken, Well it may be a good one in the sense that if it were introduced it would have good effects. Isn’t that worth establishing?

Your view is that Howard is a climate change denialist so you are uninterested in assessing the value of the proposal.

Yours is the type of position that made me raise the issue in the first place. It amounts to refusing to even look at a proposal seriously because you doubt the motives of the proposer. Its a time honoured tradition of the political left.

In short: Interests determine policies so don’t bother about analysing the policies just look at the motivating interests.

I was particularly sorry because I thought the ‘cap and trade’ proposal was a good one. Sound economic theory and worthy of appraisal.