Government approaches to risk often overblown

Canberra’s Mr Fluffy disaster reminds us how very bad governments can be at managing risk. The decision, 25 years ago, to attempt to remove all the asbestos from roof cavities seems both too little and too much – too little, because as we now know, loose fibres remained, and too much, because in seeking to eliminate the risk, the governments of the day were simply creating further problems in the future.

How can we know the risks we face? Research shows that much of our response to risk is conditioned by the risk objects themselves. We feel more threatened as a society if exposure is involuntary, if the results of the exposure are irreversible, if children are affected, or if there is a “dread” – a deep fear – associated with the risk.

We see all these factors at work in relation to the asbestos-affected homes in Canberra. While quantifying the health risk to those living with house-based asbestos is extremely difficult, it is certainly higher than the “background” level of asbestos-related risk experienced by the general population.  But the risk seems all the greater because it is (or should be) unnecessary, and it affects the place where we want to feel safest, our homes.

In fact, homes are quite dangerous places, because families live in them, people have all sorts of accidents cleaning and cooking in them, and like any structure, they are prone to fires, falling trees and other hazards.  But remnant loose-fill asbestos makes owners feel that their homes are tainted. The word “contamination” is regularly used. And mesothelioma is indeed a dreaded disease.

So we understand the anguish of residents caught in this trap. Chief Minister Katy Gallagher, anxious to deal with the problem once and for all, has decided that the best way forward is to offer to buy all the affected homes, then demolish them and resell the sites. No doubt, Katy Gallagher has taken the best decision she could in the circumstances, although one feels there may still be a bit more of this story to run.

In public policy terms, though, the “one size fits all” response is unlikely to suit many, if not most, residents. One hopes that there will be flexibility and clarity, as well as fairness, in the way the policy is applied. Those who want to wait before selling up and moving on should be allowed to do so.

We all expect governments to make us safe. And in fact, over time they have done a remarkably good job of it. Think of random breath testing, social security, the health system. Most developed countries are a good deal safer than they were in the 19th and even large parts of the 20th century.

But as the Mr Fluffy experience shows, governments are inclined to overrate their ability to deal with some kinds of risk. The steadily escalating domestic response to the problem of terrorism seems another example of this misperception. We are all terrified of terrorism, but despite the dread that these behaviours evoke, it makes more sense to think of them as issues to be managed, rather than threats to be eliminated. Often, the politics of risk pushes governments into ill-considered and overly hasty reactions.

While clamping down on misguided young men is obviously necessary, over-the-top counterterrorism raids involving at times hundreds of officers run a very real risk of alienating entire Muslim communities in Sydney and elsewhere, potentially exacerbating the very problem such actions were meant to prevent. Every community has its miscreants. Surely it makes more sense to think of young would-be jihadists in this sense, rather than as some kind of existential threat to our entire society.

Giving security agencies, like ASIO, more power may seem like a good way of making us safer. But there are risks in using ASIO assessments as the basis for an ever-increasing array of sanctions against Australian citizens. Experience shows that zealous security officers, operating in secret, not infrequently get things wrong.

Other measures seem equally likely to backfire. Proscribing certain forms of speech, on the grounds that they might encourage terrorism, seems more likely to drive these activities underground, rather than to curtail them. Overreaction can sometimes be worse than a lack of responsiveness.

Perhaps we reach for these kinds of “strong-minded” risk-management solutions precisely because they will impact on others, rather than upon ourselves. When more self-critical approaches are needed, we tend to flounder. The risk of catastrophic climate change, for example, has so far produced very little in the way of action from the nations most responsible for the problem.

It is easy to blame governments for this tardiness, but the underlying issue is not so much the nature of the risk, as the uncomfortable nature of any real solution – few of us are prepared to accept cuts to our standard of living. We cling to the idea that our technological ingenuity will save us, when the real need is to figure out and apply a new mindset to halt the overexploitation of our increasingly battered planet.

First appeared in The Canberra Times 24 November 2014

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