The art of listening: why we struggle to learn from wayward policies

I was coming home from Sydney in the bus and, as we rolled down Northbourne Avenue, a conversation broke out about light rail. As most people are either still asleep, on their smartphones or plugged into one device or another, any sort of conversation at this point of the trip is unusual. But the choice of topic was very understandable. Canberra’s light-rail route runs down the centre of Northbourne Avenue and, from the bus window, we could see over the top of the advertising shrouding to the full glory of the site works below.

The couple ahead of me were very pleased with what they saw, seeing the tram as an inevitability, a sign of Canberra’s growing maturity. Where would “they” run the tram next? they wondered. The hospital? Russell Offices? Parliament House? Queanbeyan?

They were joined by a youngish chap who got quite fired up. “It will get people out of their frigging cars,” he proclaimed. “The naysayers,” he said with glittering eyes, “should be ashamed of themselves. We would not even have jumbo jets if everyone thought like they do.”

I shrank further into my seat. I am (while being a proponent, and indeed regular user, of public transport) a bit of a naysayer when it comes to the ACT’s light rail. But like two diverging tram tracks, there was no way I could have engaged in any sort of debate with my fellow passengers. At some point along the way, the debate (or at least the debate we should have had) about public transport turned into one about a tram.

When do those proposing different ideas about the same subject cease to be able to talk to each other? It is almost like a form of speciation. Whatever they might once have had in common, the two sides grow further apart until they find they are talking past each other, and no further communication is possible.

 In any case, it is always easier to label than to listen. Listening implies being open to the other person’s ideas. This is easy when there is substantial agreement. It is more difficult when there is a difference of view. It’s not easy to have a discussion with people you disagree with. For a start, they must be wrong, which suggests that, on this issue at least, they have missed something important. What passes for debate takes on a predictable or, at times, ill-tempered air.

Anyone who thinks that governments should help innovative industries, or at least not discriminate against them, gets used to being called a “protectionist”. If they happen to be part of one of the said industries, they are dismissed as a “vested interest”. Any form of strategic economic thinking that takes Australian interests seriously is labelled as “nationalist”. People who oppose same-sex marriage are “homophobes”. Those who question climate change are “deniers”. Those who object to high levels of immigration are racists. Those who genuinely worry about discrimination and prejudice are “politically correct”.

I often wonder why, despite many reports, we do not spend more time just puzzling about the big issues. Perhaps it’s to do with the inverse agenda law. This is the law that says the more important the item is to talk about, the more likely it is to be down the bottom of a fairly lengthy agenda. Even if you survive the “matters arising from the minutes” unscathed, this is not cause for hope. After the chair’s obligatory throat-clearing, the chief executive’s self-congratulatory ramble, the treasurer’s grim admonishments, the report of the sub-committees for this, that and the other, the future of the organisation is listed under “other business”, by which time everyone is too tired to talk about it.

I have spoken many times to chairmen and women about this. “Why don’t you put the budget problem first? The reports can surely just be noted.” But the answer is already plain: not to conform would be considered suspect. Even if we could get the big items up first, I am unsure there would be much discussion. Something about us humans makes us reluctant to do this.

We prefer to keep the real decision-making under wraps. Take public consultation, for example. You go to a public consultation about a particular policy or proposal. The officials (or, more often these days, the consultants reporting to the officials) spend a good deal of time filling in the background, and giving the authorised version of the facts. They listen attentively to the views of the small group interested enough to show up. Sometimes, they even take notes. But the consulters are not the decision-makers. Even if they knew what was really going on, they would not tell you. The purpose of the meeting is to tick the “consultation” box rather than to engage with citizens.

Many go to the trouble of producing a written submission, which in theory, should reach decision-makers. But for the most part, government agencies and departments lack the time or interest to respond properly to issues raised in submissions, no matter how cogent they may be. For particularly contentious issues, there may be a formal inquiry run by an ad hoc committee or by a body such as the Productivity Commission. These bodies have more resources to process what they are told, but it would be a very unusual inquiry whose recommendations were swayed by the views of those whose inputs are made via the public record.

In the age of the sound bite, public debate at election time revolves around slogans rather than ideas.

It is not necessarily the case that the detail has already been decided. But the main outlines of what the answer will be are almost always predetermined by political factors or, just as frequently, by the ideas of the time – the received wisdom. Policy wonks know this all too well. There are good ideas around, but you simply can’t propose them. They will not “fly”, not even as the alternative course of action that the minister concerned is expected (or intended) to reject.

Ideally, making and implementing policy should be a learning exercise. All too often, lessons learned are forgotten or distorted. Indigenous policies are a prime case in point. Goals are enunciated, and well-intentioned people try their hearts out, in some of the remotest parts of the country, trying to implement them. But goals don’t mean anything unless communities (like communities everywhere) are listened to – properly. Unfortunately, we lack the places, the spaces and the patience for this to occur. As a result, the same mistakes are made over again.

Politics is powerful, but crude. In the age of the sound bite, public debate at election time revolves around slogans rather than ideas. Tony Abbott was a great master of the necessary compression. “End the carbon tax; reduce the waste, stop the boats,” he proclaimed. Malcolm Turnbull’s “jobs and growth” did not cut through, both because it was boring and, if you want people to believe you are going to do something, you still need a verb.

First appeared in The Canberra Times 3 Oct 17

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