Evidence versus ideology

After Kevin Rudd it seemed unlikely that the words evidence-based policy would pass the lips of many politicians other than infrequently although few would have realised that the alternative, Tony Abbott’s evidence-free policy, would suddenly make it fashionable again.

Indeed, despite all the media talk about the Abbott government’s communication problems the real problem is clearly one of evidence-free ideological attitudes tinged with a fair degree of visceral nastiness. There was little or no visceral nastiness about the Napthine government but their failure on a cornerstone policy lacking any evidence base, rooted in ideology and urged on by News Corp may have lessons for the Abbott Government. In this case it was the Napthine government’s law and order policies – and those of politicians as diverse as Tony Blair, Bob Carr and hundreds of US legislators – which are both increasingly seen to be failures when the evidence is examined and losing their political effectiveness.

Greg Barns, a former Federal Liberal staffer, has pointed out (The Age 8 December 20140 that the Napthine-Baillieu government policies have increased prison spending by $200 million only to achieve a 3% increase in the crime rate. Egged on by the tabloids the Napthine Government “has cost Victoria dearly in terms of actual expenditure on incarceration and the lost opportunity to divert some the $200 million into (more effective) non-custodial alternatives,” Barns said. Worse, from the Liberals point of view, it doesn’t seem to have helped them retain government.

The law and order evidence issue was also highlighted in Federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh’s delightful little book The Economics of Just about Everything. Leigh canvasses most of the research around law and order including some of his own research on the economic impact of the gun buybacks after the Port Arthur and Hoddle Street murders – the financial benefit is, every year, about the same as the cost of the buybacks; the Freakonomics hypotheses on the impact of abortion laws and banning lead petrol on crime rates;  and the impacts of  better education and better early childhood development. He also points out the anomalous way we reward the private sector prison builders and operators who, in Victoria, gobbled up most of the $200 million. Just, as Leigh points out, a change in payment systems for the First, Second and Third Fleet convict ships saved many lives so a change in payment systems for private prisons might reduce recidivism rates. He says: “A smarter way to run prisons would be to contract for the outcomes that matter most. For example, why not pay bonus payments for every prisoner who does not re-offend.” Leigh’s book also has entertaining sections on how to get a raise, dieting, dating, forecasting, poverty, painting and literature and how thinking about incentives, trade-offs, how to avoid the sunk-cost fallacy, making decisions at the margin, avoiding time-inconsistent behaviour and playing to your comparative advantage. On forecasting, by the way, he reminded the blog of J.K.Galbraith’s observation that: “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

Robert Skildesky wrote in similar vein when he suggested that economics “is a form of post-Christian theology, with economists as priests of warring sects” – a verdict which could easily be adapted to the political problems of the Abbott Government. If every issue is approached from an evidence free ideological or ‘theological’ perspective, underpinned by a relentless emphasis on political tactics, then reality just keeps mugging you. It was fascinating in this respect to hear Abbott’s parliamentary Xmas speech in which he praised his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, as “the fiercest political warrior I have ever worked with.” Ms Credlin may have Abbott’s confidence but her approach has obviously unsettled Abbott’s Cabinet and parliamentary colleague. The most subtle and feline briefing against her influence was perhaps the unnamed MP, who when asked about the possibility of a Cabinet re-shuffle, replied that it would be “entirely up to Tony and Peta.” Ministerial staffers do need to be fierce from time to time but, more importantly they need to be politically effective. Mark Madden’s book Generals, Troops and Diplomats outlines how they can best do that. See the blog http://noelturnbull.com/blog/all-staffed-up/ Political effectiveness is about more than ferociousness, intense loyalty, centralised control, messaging and tactics – it’s also about evidence, vision and strategy. Abbott may have had the benefit of a Jesuit education (although a prominent Catholic layman mused to the blog a while ago that on the evidence of Tony Abbott’s performance it would appear the Jesuits were no longer what they once were as educators) but he might be better off learning from Cardinal Richelieu, who said in 1624: “Physicians hold it for an aphorism that an internal weakness, however small in itself, is more to be feared than an external injury, however large and painful.” The Cardinal’s advice also throws light on the Abbott emphasis on foreign affairs when it continues to say “From this we learn that we must abandon what is to be done abroad until we have done what must be done at home.”