Turning the tide on presentist bias in policy-making

High profile speakers at an Improving Intergenerational Governance Symposium examined how governments are influenced by short-term interests and considerations.

Professor Jonathan Boston, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Professor Wendy Larner were among the IIG symposium’s speakers.
Professor Jonathan Boston, Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Professor Wendy Larner were among the Improving Intergenerational Governance symposium speakers.

How well is this country protecting future interests?

That was a question put to the 200-plus crowd gathered at Parliament in March for a day-long Improving Intergenerational Governance Symposium.

The answer, according to symposium organiser and Professor of Public Policy Jonathan Boston, is not so well. Humanity is facing looming issues such as climate change, mass migration, environmental degradation, population ageing, disruptive technologies and rising inequality.

However, governments are influenced by a presentist bias where short-term interests and considerations take priority over long-term interests, often at the expense of future generations.

Guest speakers at the symposium included Deputy Prime Minister Hon. Paula Bennett, economist Dr Andrew Coleman, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics Petra Tschakert, and members of the student network Make A Difference with Economics.

The symposium was sponsored by the School of Government in collaboration with the Advancing Better Government theme, and Victoria was well represented across the disciplines.

Provost Professor Wendy Larner spoke on how universities can contribute to fostering intergenerational governance, particularly through their teaching, and discussed her current research that identifies four increasingly influential, collaborative forms of governance.

Professor Larner says public service delivery is no longer exclusively the domain of the state and markets. Rather, policy-makers are relying on think tanks, academics, NGOs, the public and the use of big data to inform, adjust and adapt public service delivery.

"This allows for ongoing assessment and appraisal, experimentation and importantly, the flexibility to negotiate through the issues of the increasing uncertainties and complexities of our time."

Professor Boston evaluated New Zealand’s current institutional and policy frameworks, and presented ideas on how to enhance our capacity to safeguard long-term interests.

The discussion panel saw a rich exploration of perspectives. Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Māori) Professor Rawinia Higgins provided a Māori perspective, explaining how in tribal governance, the notion of whakapapa—which includes multiple layers of one’s ancestral make-up—is fundamental to conducting business.

Professor Higgins pointed to the Whanganui River, which has recently been granted the same legal status as a person, as an example of Māori understanding of intergenerational governance.

"Whanganui Iwi’s pepeha is 'Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au, 'I am the river, the river is me'. The river is deeply entrenched in their whakapapa, their tikanga, and so is protecting the awa for future generations."

Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a Distinguished Fellow in the School of Law, argued that an effective shift towards intergenerational governance was not possible without constitutional change.

"Democratic ministers are tied to voters in a three-year election cycle, so they are geared towards present issues of their voters.

"Much of our policy-making is reactive not proactive, and that’s what dominates the agenda of governance. We need a comprehensive set of requirements to ensure that legislation is better designed and better scrutinised and not passed in such a hurry.”

His book A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, co-authored with Dr Andrew Butler, proposes some constitutional requirements in this regard, such as introducing a fixed, four-year term for Parliamentary elections.

Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) Associate Professor Marjan van den Belt’s presentation focused on the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals and advocated the need for creating interdisciplinary networks across the goals beyond a fragmented focus on individual goals, to tackle the goals.

The symposium concluded with the launch of Professor Boston's two books on the subject, Governing for the Future: Designing Democratic Institutions for a Better Tomorrow and Safeguarding the Future: Governing in an Uncertain World.