Sunday, 14 July 2019

Walking Backwards into Our Future: Prudence, Principle and "Foresight, Insight and Oversight"

A piece of string. Fixing the long neglected unfixed things.pn452 
Q. How long into the future do we need to look and why do we avoid looking?  A. How long is a piece of string?

I was reminded of this riddle when I read in our local Whitby Newsbrief what candidates had to say while courting votes for the forthcoming local election.

Most candidates could be divided into pragmatists or idealists.

The former, the pragmatists, mostly older males in business, emphasising prudence.  Current Council policies are extending state care, hindering investment that leads to job creation, and bringing about the separation of racial groups.  Don't  spend money we don't have. Don't pay our civic employees a living wage because it will put up rates, making Maori and Pasifika especially vulnerable due to their lower disposable incomes.(a curious argument when most do not own a house, and some are on less than a living wage.)

And the latter, the idealists, generally younger people and women who placed more emphasis on principle than prudence. Pay the living wage and look for other ways to cut costs. Face up to the local challenges of climate change. Show genuine recognition and support for multiculturalism, Build key partnerships with civic groups.

It's not hard to guess which side the paper, supported entirely by business advertising, was on. Its lead article was headed "Living wage could bump rates further?"  Its main conclusion,  Council's decision to pay a living wage "reeks of politics and vote catching." Prudent, pragmatic and as right-wing as they come.

Later in the day  I read John Armstrong's article in 1 News Now on  a 200-page research report to Parliament titled  "Foresight, Insight and Oversight" by Victoria University's Institute for Governance and Policy Studies. The report deals with how to assist Parliament  focus on long-term issues that affect our future, avoiding its present neglect  and parliament's present main focus on the short-term.. He thought the report  "is  likely to be swept under the table  (and)  the public doesn't give a toss."  I hope not.

The report itself (use its title in Google to search for the pdf file) notes a number of  reasons for the short-term focus, including:
1. "Cognitive biases help explain and strengthen short-termism. People are prone to displaying loss aversion and, consequently, place more weight on losses than gains. This leads to public support for policies that minimise present costs, even when it is clear that investing in the near-term will lead to enhanced future wellbeing. Humans are also inclined to pay little attention to what is ‘out of sight’ and, therefore, ‘out of mind’. Because many long-term problems are ‘creeping problems’, this ‘attention deficit’ amplifies the presentist bias. Other aspects of human nature that encourage short-termism include self-interest, weakness of will (i.e., deciding to avert a long-term threat but giving into temptation), the ‘identifiable victim effect’ (i.e., being less likely to have concern for societal costs when those affected are not identifiable individuals but a distant and obscure population), positive illusions (e.g., illusions of control over events and invulnerability to risk) and procrastination."

2. Politicians fear of losing votes. There a "strong political incentives to focus on short-term interests over those of future generations."
The result is that decisive decisions on important issues, such as the future of NZ Super, funding of District Health Boards and climate change  are "put off."

This is what the report said on climate change:
"Mitigating climate change provides a classic example: the upfront costs (e.g., arising from regulatory or price-based measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) are relatively certain, visible and tangible, while the long-term benefits (e.g., in the form of reduced ecological damage and lower adaptation costs) are less certain, more intangible, often distant and highly diffuse (across time and space).
"Unfortunately, many other policy problems have a similar structure to intertemporal payoffs. Hence, governments often face ‘hard choices’. Should they take action today and confront the inevitable political risks or defer the needed measures to the following parliamentary term or another government? Yet delay may simply increase the long-term costs and/or reduce the expected benefits.
"This is especially true in the case of so-called ‘creeping problems’ or ‘slow burner problems’: these tend to grow steadily but imperceptibly until they reach a tipping point or a high enough level of visibility to capture the public’s attention. But by then, considerable damage may be unavoidable. Examples include growing antimicrobial resistance, increasing microplastic pollution, declining levels of political trust and the gradual increase in surveillance of individuals by governments and other entities."
Here's are extracts from the report on options for enhancing parliamentary scrutiny of long-term governance:
"Possible changes to the Standing Orders and related parliamentary processes  • Change the size and structure of select committees • Reduce the average size of subject select committees to facilitate more rigorous scrutiny and enable the creation of at least one new committee. • Amend the current structure of select committees by: - establishing a new specialist committee with a mandate to examine long-term governance  (e.g., a Committee for the Future) or - establishing a new specialist committee to examine all matters of governance, including longterm governance (e.g., a Governance Committee)..."

"Amend arrangements for oral questions in the House to provide for periodic sessions focusing on long-term matters. • Institute special debates on major issues, including those with significant long-term implications, and especially select committee reports on inquiries and briefings on long-term issues. 4 Institute mechanisms to enhance legislative processes and encourage durable cross-party agreements on major long-term issues • Encourage pre-legislative consultation with parties across the House (as well as with the public), to foster durable legislative solutions....

"Provide a mechanism for cross-party parliamentary groups to generate reports and have them debated in the House. Changes to improve advice for MPs and select committees • Increase funding to enable greater use of independent experts to help subject committees with their review and oversight activities. • Provide additional research, analytical and advisory support for subject select committees via the Officers of Parliament (i.e., the Auditor-General and Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment), the OOC, the Parliamentary Library and possibly the proposed independent fiscal institution. • Enhance the linkages between Parliament and the research community, both within New Zealand and more broadly, including the Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi. • Appoint a Chief Parliamentary Science Advisor: - appointee could be a sole advisor or could lead a small Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) (e.g., similar to POST in the United Kingdom Parliament)..."
And on Maori and Kaitiakitanga
"Policy and legal frameworks in New Zealand have also been influenced over the years by Te Ao Māori (the Maori worldview), which among other things, upholds the importance of safeguarding the wellbeing of uri whakatipu (future generations)... kaitiakitanga is a central concept in this context. Usually translated as guardianship or stewardship, kaitiakitanga derives from the idea that Māori whakapapa go back not only to human ancestors but also to the gods, such as Ranginui, Papatūānuku and their offspring. A person’s whānau and tūpuna (ancestors), therefore, include plants, trees, rocks and animals, because all are descended from Papatūānuku.  Being a kaitiaki (guardian) “means looking after one’s own blood and bones – literally”,  through conservation of the land and sustainable environmental practices.
"This guardianship of resources ensures their viability for future generations, who are also related through whakapapa. The literature on Te Ao Māori overwhelmingly places kaitiakitanga in the realm of sustainable management of natural resources. Nevertheless, contemporary use of the terms ‘kaitiakitanga’ and ‘kaitiaki’ extends to areas such as te reo Māori, education and the health sector.
"The current inequalities experienced by Māori in areas such as health status, income levels and educational attainment must be addressed, and the underlying institutional causes of such disparities necessitate a longer-term strategy."

Among its major recommendations on how to enable a longer-term focus are a
  • Four-year Parliament, an 
  • Increase in MPs from 120 to 150, and 
  • Making more research and advisory resources available to MPs and Select Committees.  
I think most people would agree that more time is needed to consider long-term issues, with more people to consider them, and more  resources to help them. But  I wonder how many of these people  would actually support these and other recommendations in the report.

And if  Parliament is not prepared to do so, why bother to commission a report? Just muddle on.

Then, when one day in the not-too-distant future long-term events and consequences have proven the pragmatists wrong, let's hope there are still some idealists left standing who'll fix the long neglected unfixed things.

-- ACW

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