Hall #3 The myth of neutrality in public policy


This hall is stark, white, angular, featureless and lacking warmth. Located on its walls are a few quotes:

The sphere of public and political negotiation flourishes only in the context of larger commitments and visions, and that if this is repressed or forgotten by a supposedly neutral ideology of the public sphere, immense damage is done to the moral energy of a liberal society.

(Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury)

Another exhibit is over 200 years old, recalling how Lord Melbourne expressed his outrage at Wilberforce daring to ‘inflict’ his Christian values about slavery and human equality on society: Things have come to a pretty pass when one should permit one’s religion to invade public life.

Alongside it is another, by Jeb Bush, commenting on Laudato Si’, the Papal Encyclical on the Environment: I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope … [religion] … ought to be more about making us better people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political arena.

And closer to home, a 2014 ABC report ‘Move to limit ideological objections to Queensland mining projects’ states that the Queensland Government was looking to restrict who can object to mining applications in a bid to crack down on what it calls philosophical opposition to projects.

The Australian Government, however, takes philosophical considerations into account. In approving the Adani coal mine project in 2015, for example, the Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said it’s most important result is that it would help pull millions of people in India and other countries out of energy poverty … there is a strong moral case here.

This hall makes me feel uneasy. The question it makes me ask is quite clear: Should we let philosophy, religion and ideology intrude into the policy making process? For many years my head would have said No! but more recently my heart has been crying out Yes, we already do!

Trained in mathematics and the physical sciences, and working as an Australian Government policy advisor for many years, I focussed on the provision of objective, neutral, rational advice. It was good advice. My beliefs were my own private affair, that were not to impact on giving fearless and well-informed advice to Government ministers.

Increasingly during my research, however, I questioned this outlook. It was brought to a head when I reflected on whether I regard Land as an object or in relationship terms. It was a question for which science, economics, politics and law could give me little assistance, but which was beginning to shape how I found the right balance between competing policy objectives. Ultimately my choice reflects my worldview … and this must be also the case for anyone who participates in the public policy process. Can policy, then, be so pristine, antiseptic, cold and neutral?

Lessons from history suggest otherwise; I look forward to the exhibits in the next hall.

#neutralityinpublicpolicy #ChrisDalton #RowanWIlliams #JebBush

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