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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Jonathan Boston

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Jonathan Boston

Calls for a four year fixed parliamentary term, and for no early elections unless in extreme circumstances
Wants a parliamentary select committee to look at long-term policy making, to incentivise the government to consider creeping issues like obesity and environmental degradation
Calls for a parliamentary commissioner for science to scrutinise how governments are using scientific evidence

Lisa Owen: With the looming challenges of climate change and an ageing population, is it time for governments to start looking more to the future and less to the next election? Well, that’s the question Jonathan Boston tackles in his new book ‘Safeguarding the Future’, which comes out next week. Professor Boston joins me now. Good morning.
Jonathan Boston: Good morning, Lisa.
Why would politicians bother worrying about voters that haven’t even been born yet?
Well, first of all, they have to be concerned about the future selves of current voters. I mean, currents voters are going to be alive in most cases for decades. So that’s quite a long time. And quite apart from that, we have responsibilities to future generations.
Moral responsibilities, absolutely. Yes. Most parents would recognise that in wanting the best for their children and grandchildren, and as a society, we should be concerned about the wellbeing of the collectivity for generations to come.
But the thing is — what is the incentive for them to plan that far ahead when they’re worried about who’s going to vote for them at the next election?
Yes, well, that’s one of the challenges we have. In other words, we have a situation in modern democracies where there are very strong pressures for politicians to focus on the present to protect current interests sometimes at the expense of future interests. So one of the big challenges we have is — how do we incentivise governments to govern well for the future? How do we incentivise them to be anticipatory, to be concerned about future risks? How do we take care of tomorrow today? And the book I’ve just written is directed at trying to find ways of shifting political incentives, of trying to extend the temporal horizon of governments and citizens so that we can act to protect the future and safeguard the interests of not just the future generations but of our future selves.
I want to get to some of the solutions you propose shortly, but let’s look at some of the areas where you think the government is making, well, politically expedient decisions when they should be looking longer term. Super. Now, arguably the most powerful bloc of voters, some of them we’ve just seen — the boomers — don’t want that change, most of them, and that’s democracy, isn’t it?
Yes, but it also highlights the kind of challenges we face, doesn’t it — that if people do vote purely on the basis of the self-interest, they won’t be taking adequate account of the generations that are coming. So with respect to Super, we had a prime minister who said he basically wasn’t prepared to consider change because of a perceived political cost. Well, that is very unfortunate, and I’m pleased that the current government under Bill English is revisiting that. My own view is, on this particular matter, any change in that policy should be a negotiated one with a cross-party agreement, because I think it’s really important we have stable policies for things like pensions.
But the thing is — why would they reach a cross-party agreement, because it takes away their point of difference, it takes away their political leverage. Because some people think that Super policy may win or lose the election for one particular party or other.
Sure. But I think we have to understand that there are some issues which are so important we need cross-party agreement on because the stakes are so high. So with pensions we need a stable policy environment so people can plan for their future and where we can protect the wellbeing of people who are retired and where they’re not fearful of constant government policy changes. With respect to the environment, we have to be concerned because we can do irreversibly damage and create havoc for people in the future. So there are some areas of policy where, in my view, there’s a kind of moral imperative for us to try and reach bipartisan, multi-party agreements.
One of those things you’ve just identified — climate change. Problems like climate change, obesity, poverty, which are arguably the big long-term, slow-burning problems, why do they seem to get the least attention?
Well, partly it’s a question of human impatience, partly it’s a question of causal uncertainty, partly it’s a question of simply the asymmetries in the political system. Future generations don’t have a vote, and they don’t have a voice, so they can’t speak to protect their interests. If we don’t speak and vote to protect their interests, no one else will. So the political system operates in a way that tends to intensify the pressures to protect current interests at the expense of future interests. And the question, Lisa, is — how do we shift those incentives?
Exactly. So one of the things, having a longer parliamentary term, you suggest, would perhaps do that. You’re not so beholden to the voters’ mood of the moment. What would be appropriate as a parliamentary term?
Well, I think we should have a four-year parliamentary term and it should be fixed so the prime ministers can’t call early elections, except perhaps absolutely in extreme circumstances.
But a four-year term’s been jettisoned twice before.
Yes, I know. But that was before we had proportional representation well in place, so I think it’s time we should be revisiting that issue. Having said that, Lisa, I don’t think simply extending the parliamentary term would make much difference. An extra year is only one year, so there’s lots of other things we should be doing.
Right. Let’s look at some of those, because we’re running out of time and I want to get through them. Parliamentary select committee to look at long-term policy making and the rights of future generations. You’ve got to know some people watching this are going to think, ‘Man, that sounds like a bureaucratic talkfest.’
Sure. Well, we have to incentivise both the government of the day but also our parliamentarians to consider long-term issues and to take the creeping issues, like you mentioned obesity, environmental degradation and so on, more seriously. Having a parliamentary committee that is dedicated and committed to thinking about future-oriented issues, that is committed to exercising greater foresight, that’s committed to looking at these sort of creeping issues and wrestling with them, that’s thinking about assessing what the impact of the fourth industrial revolution is going to be. Having a committee that’s dedicated to the future, in my view, is one of a whole series of things that would be helpful in, kind of, shifting the temporal horizons of people and attempting to overcome some of these, sort of, attentional deficits that exist in democracy about future-oriented things.
So in line with that, you are suggesting we need a parliamentary commissioner for science. What would that role do, and why do we need it?
Well, again, having a parliamentary commissioner for science would be one of a number of, if you like, voices for the future. One of the ways we can try and incentivise governments taking the future seriously is having voices, institutional voices within the political system that speak for future interests. So we currently have a parliamentary commissioner for the environment that in a sense speaks for the environment. We have a children’s commissioner that speaks for children, and in many ways children are our future. Science and scientific evidence is absolutely critical for protecting the future. Without robust evidence, we’re not going to make sensible long-term decisions.
So do you think that commissioner would encourage the government to make evidence-based policy?
Well, that would be one of the tasks of such a person. It would be to scrutinise the extent to which governments are making the best use of existing evidence.
But as you say, we’ve got a commissioner for children, we’ve got a commissioner for the environment, and, you know, the commissioner for children, for example, has made some suggestions based on solid data; government refuses to sign up to that target. So you can have them, but listening to them is another thing.
Yes, I agree, but if we didn’t have them at all, then those voices would be even more muted. Al Gore once said, ‘The future whispers; the present shouts.’ So part of the task of incentivising democratic political systems to take the future more seriously is to enhance the voice of the future. And one of the ways we can actually do this is through having specific, dedicated institutions, Lisa. We need more of them. I’m not pretending that we can solve this problem, Lisa. This is an enduring, wicked problem. But we can, in my view, chip away at it and through a variety of sensible reforms begin to give more weight to future-oriented interests.
All right. It’s nice to talk to you this morning. Thanks for joining us.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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