Public Seminar - Attaining Utopia: Exploring Policy Success and Failure in Environment and Sustainability Policies

Two PhD exit seminars will be presented exploring topics related to ‘policy success’ in the context of Australia’s environment and sustainability policies. The research topics investigate efforts to develop and implement policies which purportedly attempt to ‘balance’ or ‘optimise’ social, economic and environmental interests. The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD), agreed to by Australian governments nearly thirty years ago, offered the promise of institutional change. But has the promised utopia of ESD eluded us? These seminars will assess the pathways taken in sustainability policies and consider perspectives of sustainability policy influencers, politics, design and discourse.


Good-Practice Policy Making For National Strategic Sustainability Policies

This seminar looks at research which adds to the literature on policy success and on complex policy evaluation with a specific focus on Australia’s national sustainability policies.

National sustainability policies are often associated with some degree of industry reform to influence resource use to effect environmental outcomes. The research classifies these as strategic sustainability policies given that they establish principles-based frameworks wherein detailed implementation occurs through subordinate policies and programs.

Australia’s sectoral policies are assessed for good and bad practice and an evaluative framework is presented to inform policy design and implementation attributes. The framework is applied to the 2018 National Drought Agreement, revealing numerous deficiencies in policy processes given stated sustainability objectives. The framework serves to guide the development of new policies as well as to evaluate current and past policies.

About the Speaker

Nadeem Samnakay brings to this research some thirty years of experience in various aspects of natural resource management across all tiers of government and in the NGO sector. His career has focussed on land and water planning, working in areas of integrated catchment management, conservation planning, vegetation management and water policy - where considerable policy reforms have taken place since the development of ESD as a national framework for sustainable development. From 2013, he has worked as a PhD scholar, researching sustainability policies. He has a degree in Agricultural Business and a M.Sc in Natural Resource Management and his PhD is in-part a synthesis of experiences gained on Australia’s ‘unsuccessful’ attempts at sustainability policy, and a desire to improve policy making.


From Burning Books to Fish Kills: an anatomy of the Murray-Darling Basin policy disaster

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is widely regarded as a public policy disaster. Many reasons are proffered in the public discourse to account for this perceived failure, with concomitant instrumentally rational policy remedies suggested. In my research, I suggest the explanation for the policy outcomes observed runs much deeper and that a ‘wicked problem’ framing assists in understanding the paradox that, while the assumption of instrumentality is fundamental to the idea of policy, we cannot expect to resolve such policy problems through technocratic analyses alone. We must take account of how political argumentation occurs and analyse the broader societal, political and institutional contexts in which such policy problems are embedded.

This seminar will take an analytical approach to explore the paradoxes and conundrums evident in environmental and sustainability policy making and implementation, and argue that despite the advent of ecologically sustainable development nearly three decades ago, institutionally, nothing has really changed about how we go about developing public policy. In particular, there has been little movement in how we integrate economic and ecological considerations in public policy deliberations. The objectives of this policy area remain ambiguous and contested at a deep ontological, and hence ideological, and political, level. I suggest that while the alternate ecological perspective challenges dominant cultural and political ideas of how we conceptualise the relationship of humans to nature, and how we should think about governing ourselves, it is yet to demonstrate an ability to be operationalised in a way that can guide policy, or provide a convincing political strategy for change. In short, ecology remains a difficult challenge for public policy analysts and we look set to remain in an environmental policy funk for some time yet.

About the Speaker

Jim Donaldson is a PhD scholar at the Fenner School of Environment & Society, ANU. His research seeks to answer the question of ‘Why environmental and sustainability policy looks the way it does?’ How can it be explained? And what is the best way for thinking about how policy should work? The Murray-Darling Basin provides a rich case study for his inquiries. Jim’s line of research interest falls broadly in the domain of critical and interpretive policy analysis, with a focus on discourse analysis. Objective observation confirms he enjoys being a member of the ‘slow research’ movement.

Prior to starting the PhD, Jim had a long career in natural resource and environmental management within the Australian Government, with senior roles in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Land & Water Australia, and variously in the Departments of the Environment and Agriculture and Forestry. His focus has been on policy issues to do with water, forests and native vegetation, biodiversity, environmental accounting, research and development. More recently, he’s been on home duties and come to realise he’s learnt as much about sustainability from working in the garden and the insights gleaned from travel and art as anything else.