Saturday, June 30, 2012

How Policy Is Made

I was just reading this article in the Herald-Sun "Tony Abbott digs in heels over asylum-seeker panel" of which the editorial decision in composing the headline is misleading, particularly in this case because it isn't even dramatic.
A much more on point headline would be "Tony Abbott refuses expert advise".
You can read the article, it isn't particularly explosive, it's just that there is a panel of experts on the subject that has been put together to come up with advice for what policy will remove the deadlock on the asylum seeker issue.
Tony's stance could be defensible if he for example said 'It's a waste of time, coalition policy was devised based on consultation with experts on immigration, asylum seekers, border protection, international law et al. and they crafted the best possible policy which our party has already adopted. Thus this is just a stunt to forestall... blah blah blah.'
But he didn't instead he said:
"The Coalition doesn't need an expert committee to tell us what our policy is, because we have a policy and it's a policy that we will stick to."
Another appropriate and informative headline could have been 'Tony Abbott: I don't listen to experts.'

The reason Tony actually said the above quote and not the hypothetical defense, is because the coalition policy was probably crafted by listening to opinion polls and few if any actual experts.

Now my favorite, analoguous hypothetical.

Imagine if you would that within Australian borders, there was a flare up of HIV+ cases. It started spreading through the general population once again.

A cluster of health experts, doctors, specialists, experts on HIV and epidemics and STI's etc. gathered together and put forward a recommended policy - The promotion of condoms as the best means to prevent STI's, education programs and improved access to condoms, as well as discussing abstinence, needle exchange programs etc. Stockpiling and distributing the drugs used to manage people already afflicted etc.

Sounds sensible because this is what we have done in the past.

But imagine now that the belief that HIV+ can be cured by having unprotected sex with a virgin was for some reason popular. That is, a popularly held belief amongst none other than Australian voters.

It is of course, pure superstition. But what would the coalition's policy be under such circumstances?

Well Tony Abott would be appealing to the popularly, and perhaps more importantly, passionately held beliefs of the Australian public. He would defer to the polls rather than the experts.

You would see promises to relax rape laws, or at least allow 'emergency medical treatment' as a defence for raping a suspected virgin.

This is despite, despite the belief being entirely testible, testible and falsifiable.

And this is the point at work where somebody would shoot down my hypothetical as ridiculous and unfair, except for the fact that within the cosmos of my workplace the chances of finding a Liberal voter are literally 1 in a 130 or something.

But it is fair, the average Australian has no more access to a human rights lawyer than many HIV ravaged African nations have access to a health care professional. That is somebody who will forcibly correct their superstitious belief.

The belief that having sex with a virgin will cure HIV is nothing more than superstition, the results of such a practice are demonstrably false, and quite probably destructive in that it results in A) rape, and B) further transmission of HIV. But such superstitions can survive as wishful thinking without the presence of authorative experts.

The experts may even be present, but simply disrespected or disregarded, overruled by local authority figures who are lauded by taking a hardline stance against 'the experts' discrediting them and making baseless accusations of malicious intent.

While it is ridiculous to assert that in Australia a belief that having sex with a virgin can cure HIV would take off (barring some apocalyptic socieatal restructure), this is because in Australia Doctors and other health care professionals are respected experts on the matter. The public will defer to medical expertise in this (but not all) regards.

Fuck, schools teach this stuff, that is good policy, but probably has a lot to do with Australian culture being such that every dux of every private school in Australia goes off to study medicine somewhere and that many Australian's would take financial advice from a Doctor despite them having no expertise at all.

But while almost every last Australian has some kind of relationship with at least one doctor, would know at least 6 people that aspired to be doctors, and would have at least 3 friends that are nurses or other health care professionals, I would wager close to 0% of Australian's have ever knowingly interracted with an Asylum Seeker, close to 3~4% know a humanitarian lawyer, 0% have ever had to engage a lawyer for humanitarian purposes, and maybe only 5% know somebody who serves in the coast guard.

A Rwandan's exposure to healthcare professionals is probably greater. The numbers are of course entirely fudged, but my point is that views can be maintained that are popular eg:

- That asylum seekers are illegal immigrants
- That most asylum seekers arrive by boats
- That Australia is a specificly targetted destination by asylum seekers
- That asylum seekers are freeloaders, economic refugees etc.
- That Australia is being swamped by refugees

None of which are true. Firstly and most greviously, there is absolutely nothing illegal about turning up on Australian soil and claiming asylum. If you are found to not legitimately be in any danger, fleeing persecution and particularly physical harm, they will deport you, but anybody on the world can legally turn up in Australia and claim asylum.

Australia also due to it's geographic isolation, processes a tiny portion of the world's refugees, and an even tinier portion of those refugees arrive by boat. Of those that do arrive by boat some 98% are granted refugee visas. That is, they are found to legitimately be fleeing persecution.

Which is to say, for every boat that arrives on Australia's shores full of Asylum seekers, they are laden with some of the worlds weakest and most vulnerable people, but even then, they represent a tiny sliver of the humanitarian cost of global instability.

I cannot presume what the assembled committee of experts may recommend to the government, but if the problem is people catching boats to Australia, expensive and unseaworthy boats, the challenge is really - how do we get these people to do what everyone else does and pay far less for a plane ticket here?

I read something like in 2011 there were 1,100 refugees registered in Indonesia, of which Australia granted 97 visas. Recalling excellent SBS program 'Go Back To Where You Came From' which is coming back, I'm not sure if this represents people fleeing persecution in Indonesia, or whether Indonesia is another staging post for people from other regions.

Australia's refugee intake is abismally small, we have our isolation to thank for that, but also beauracracy, boat-people are often denigrated as queue jumpers, but some years ago now (I know this issue has amazing longevity) Crikey did a brilliant piece of investigative journalism that revealed there simply is no 'queue' the asylum seekers are jumping.

Whatever 'queue' they could find, was the equivalent of being asked to form an orderly line in an office fire so that 1 in 100 people could escape. If you were put in such a situation, you wouldn't just jump the queue, you would jump out the fucking window. The average Australian is less respectful of such queuing situations at KFC.

Sam Harris' TED talk has this brilliant exposition on domains of expertise, and how in some debates, certain views are simply invalid. John Stuart Mill is the first place I at least, read the concept of the tyranny of the majority. Popularly held beliefs can be intuitive rather than fact based, and that is to say, simply wrong.

But Tony Abbott's job as opposition is not some Kantian position to righteously uphold the moral imperative, his job is to become Prime Minister. I'm sure his position isn't entirely arbitrary, but the point is that what policy gets you elected, and what policies experts recommend are not going to always line up.

And this isn't just true of Tony Abbott, Gillard, and Rudd before her take expert advice and accept, dilute or reject based on what is politically feasible.

The fact is that they as individuals, and the greater organisations and interests they represent are rewarded and punished by popularly held beliefs.

George HW Bush once said "Think about every problem, every challenge, we face. The solution to each starts with education."

We are fortunately living in a society that is unlikely to vote its way into legalised rape of virgins, but this is only because every school child for generations has been taught to trust the medical experts and not be superstitious, maybe its time that schools stopped just lauding the boys and girls that do so well they grow up to be doctors, but also celebrating the boys and girls that do well enough to grow up to be scientists, engineers, philosophers etc.

Maybe one day too, we'll learn to stop listening to economists, who possess no real expertise at all.

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