Another week in Canberra and another great Seven Days column from MIKE WELSH
AS medical students, we are taught from the outset of our training to be aware of the evidence surrounding the practice of medicine and to be willing to change our approach in light of new evidence as future physicians.
This kind of evidence-based practice also has applications in government and the potential of evidence-based policy making has been discussed in Australia for a number of years. In the current ACT government, election-winning promises and ideology-driven decisions made by the major parties seem to dominate the practice of the Legislative Assembly.
However, the explosion of new independent candidates in the upcoming ACT election could change all that. If elected, these candidates could form part of the push towards more evidence-based decisions in government.
The number of independent candidates for the ACT Legislative Assembly has increased from nine in the 2012 election to 21 in this year’s election. Even accounting for electoral changes this year, this increase seems to point to a growing lack of confidence in the current three-party system of government.
Speaking to Canberrans, it is not hard to find someone who opposes at least one of the major parties’ election promises. Distrust in such promises is not poorly founded – in reality, the promises are less than ideal. In the short term, there is no denying Labor’s current light rail project will have a substantial initial cost. The “hospitals” proposed by the Liberals are only subacute centres, unable to deal with the most urgent presentations. When considering such proposals, it is easy for a casual observer to wonder where the money is coming from, or whether the investments will be worth it.
Undoubtedly, promises of new infrastructure win votes and it is easy to understand why these promises have become big election issues.
One of the problems with this kind of electioneering in Canberra is that it has the potential to drown out the issues many members of the community might find important. As the Legislative Assembly must act both as state government and local council for Canberra, it would benefit greatly from community members not affiliated to a political party, who could bring a number of useful local perspectives without having to toe a party line.
As well as providing this local perspective, the presence of even a handful of non-affiliated members in the 25-seat parliament may be able to challenge the dominance of ideologically-driven decision making by the major parties and, in the process, pave the way for evidence-based decision making.
This is an explicit aim of independent candidate for Kurrajong, Peter Robinson, who cites in his candidate statement a desire to see decisions “based on evidence and reason rather than ‘tribal dogma’.” Evidence-based practice is also implicitly referred to by Kurrajong candidate Marea Fatseas, who, as well as wanting to see more community engagement if elected, wants to also focus her efforts on an independent review of light rail and other transport options and costs.
Of course, evidence-based policy is also referred to in the candidate statements of Liberals, Labor and Greens candidates alike. However, it is not difficult to find situations where the ideologies of these parties could be an obstacle. In particular, the Liberals’ ideological combination of economic liberalism and social conservatism is often incompatible with what the evidence would suggest when it comes to decision-making on public health.
In response to questions posed at the ACT Election Forum on Health, Liberal candidate Vicki Dunne, advocating for economic liberalism, ruled out any taxes or regulation of junk food, instead suggesting education on diet as an alternative.
When this education must compete against a multi-million-dollar industry, however, its effectiveness is likely to be undermined. This was a reality pointed out at the Election Forum by host Michael Moore, CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, who also noted that the evidence shows education must be combined with regulation to be effective.
Another obstacle to evidence-based decision making is the need for individual members of major parties to align with their parties’ positions on contentious issues, an obstacle which independent candidates do not have.
This roadblock was also encountered at the Election Forum on Health, when an audience member asked if the candidates would support the growing body of evidence to suggest that pill testing could reduce harm at music festivals, by taking measures to help implement it when elected. Following the parties’ current position, Labor and Liberal candidates both refused to come out in favour of pill testing at music festivals, but many of the independent candidates (along with the Greens and the Sex Party) had no problems in expressing support or a willingness to seriously consider the evidence in favour of a harm-minimisation approach.
The ability for these candidates to advocate based on their personal position on issues, and not that of a larger party, could be a valuable tool in creating evidence-based policy.
Of course, these candidates would actually need to secure a seat to have this influence, and by some accounts, it is perhaps more likely we’ll get hit by a meteorite. Perhaps this stance on moving away from partisan government in the ACT is itself ideological. However, this does not mean there is not good evidence to suggest it could work, and cities as large as Toronto have been successfully run by non-partisan municipal government.
This election, it may be well worth researching some of your local independent candidates, as they may provide a valuable community voice and a means to disrupt the ideologically-driven leadership of the current Legislative Assembly.
Jack Tarlinton is a medical student at the ANU