Community influence on governance

Community influence on governance.

Speech to ACT Planning and Land Authority seminar on sustainability. 1 December 2008


We all want a sustainable future for subsequent generations. But we all want the good life now.

Whether we get sustainable future and what comprises we will have to make with the good life will be almost entirely due to land use and population policy.

Let’s take the extremes: we can use land for mining, oil wells, clear-felling, cotton-farming, rows of residential McMansions, shopping malls and factories and so on. We can use it for national parks, organic farming, public open space, cycleways and so on.

The former uses tend to jeopardise sustainability but contribute to the good life. And vice versa for the latter. Somewhere between the extremes lies the balance that will maximize the good without threatening sustainability.

Alas, we don’t know exactly where that balance is, or even how to find out where it is. Some of us have different views about where that balance is. Some of us will be unduly alarmist; others too optimistic; and others too selfish.

The people who decide on land use – both political and bureaucratic — may have better knowledge or greater understanding, or at least the means of getting it. But they may also be influenced by a range of other factors which will prevent them for making optimal decisions – ideology, emotion or religion might influence them; a desire to be re-elected might drive them. A desire to return favours or get wealthy might influence them.

So how are decision-makers (elected and unelected) influenced (for good or bad)?

In an ideal world it would be a reasoned appraisal of all the facts and advice and deciding in the long-term interests of the whole community. And in that ideal world a well-informed, altruistic community would support the decision either because they understand it and see the decision-makers have done the right thing, or because they trust the decision-makers on past performance or from knowledge of previous sound decisions about which they have knowledge.

But it is not an ideal world. There are many other factors influencing decisions.

1. The link between the community and politics (the media) has a profound influence.

2. Political systems have influence.

3. The way decision makers behave – their personal contacts and relationships (people of influence and others who impress); party leader; party; pre-selectors.

4. The personal qualities of decision makers: gut feel; principle; ideology; religion; corruption; laziness.

Let’s look at some of these influences.

1. Media. The great cases on free speech – Sullivan in the US and Theophanous in Australia (why do the villains get naming rights by the way) – both stressed the importance of a free media in a democratic society. Without it, voters could not be well-informed and democracy would not work.

Unfortunately, the media does not do an especially good job at informing the voters. I do not say that in the glib way that people blame the media for everything from the conviction of Lindy Chamberlain to global warming. I am not pointing a finger of blame here. Rather I want to try to help you understand why the media is not especially good at informing.

For a start, the main aim of media organisations is not to inform the public. Rather it is to stay in existence. To do that it must make a profit, or in the case of public broadcasters get enough public appeal so the public continues to support public broadcasting in a way that prevents political masters withdrawing the money that runs it.

How do you keep those public eyes on your media product so you can make a profit or keep support – not by mere production of information. Rather the media produces “news” which is quite different from “information”. News is determined by “news values”. And these are different from “information values”, which are based solely on importance and usefulness – though there may be a little intersection.

News values are: Impact (consequence), conflict, timeliness, prominence, proximity, currency, human interest, emotion, novelty and the unusual.

Impact and consequence are similar to information values, but the other values are not. And you can see how they can warp information.

Good examples are the public perception of breast cancer, climate change, crime and dangers of all kinds.

Human interest means media covers only the tragic cases of young mums or sports stars suffering breast cancer. Journalists with honest intent cover these stories and report them accurately. The public perception becomes that breast cancer is a disease of women in their 30s and 40s.

On dangers, car crashes are the most likely cause of injury and death, but gets little coverage. Aircraft are much safer but get big coverage.

Crocs, spiders, sharks and snakes get lots of coverage, yet accidents at work are a far bigger killer and maimer.

Novelty and timeliness are critical – the infomation value is the same from one day to the next but if it is “old”, the news value is less. If it is eclipsed by a dead pope on the day it happens it will not be revived later even if the information value is still the same.

Some land-use information gets downgraded or shoved aside this way.

Some politicians are very astute at using the timeliness and novelty requirements of “news values”.

1. Creating “olds”. John Howard often would make a general announcement on refugees or industrial relations – then when the nasty detail arrived later he would brush it away as an “old” story not worth coverage.

2. Creating novelty. Former ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell would go parachuting or ballooning to get coverage.

The media is ephemeral. If you miss coverage on the day it is gone.

The internet provides a place where information is always available, but the trouble is the main media companies dominate the net and draw the lion’s share of the eyes that see it.

Worse, the hits on prurient stories send messages to news selectors on internet sites that the prurient stories should get great prominence because they will attract more eyes and more ads.
2. Political systems:

We have a vicious circle of politicians doing stunts to get votes and getting media coverage and therefore votes and therefore doing more stunts and spin.

Dangers of single-member seats and majority governments.

They make branch stacking and pre-selection rorts easier.

They make it easier for donations to sound in favourable decisions – particularly development decisions.

Personal contact:

Personal contact can warp decision-making based on sound research.

The testimonial is the most effective advertising. You research extensively and decide an Avanti mountain bike is best buy for you. Day before you buy a mate tells you of a pedal coming off his mate’s Avanti bike. Your research goes out the window and you buy a different bike.

Party, Party Leader, Pre-Selectors:

The need to please the party, the leader and pre-selectors detract from rational evidence-based decision making.

Ideology, Principle, gut feel or Religion

These can get in the way of rational decision making.


Taking the simple populist way out happens often. It is easy and you can get away with it for a long time.


These influences that militate against rational decision-making in the long term interest of the community often result in simplicity being preferred over complexity. Land use and tax are good examples.

But the world is complex. Problems often require complex long-term solutions. Simple solutions are all too often the wrong one.

I don’t pretend that fighting these influences is easy – particularly the media. But at least armed with some understanding of the influences on decision-making you might be in a better decision to take up that fight.

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