Politicians as policymakers: the interaction of ideology, interests, information and institutions in an Australian state

Author: David Waterford

Waterford, David, 2021 Politicians as policymakers: the interaction of ideology, interests, information and institutions in an Australian state, Flinders University, College of Business, Government and Law

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Politicians are involved in all aspects of policymaking, being the ultimate decisionmakers. While their overall role is extensively theorised, there is limited empirical research investigating how and why politicians exercise their policymaking role. This thesis examines the processes and information used by the political executive in policymaking, using Carol Weiss’ ‘Four I’s of Policymaking’ (4I’s) framework. Weiss holds that policy is the outcome of negotiation based on an interplay of the actors’ ideology, interests and information in an institutional arena. Using the 4I’s framework brings the examination of values, court government and political approaches to the fore, challenging the dominance of rationalism, individualism and knowledge-based perspectives found in many policy paradigms and approaches.

The 4I’s framework is applied to investigate policymaking by the political executive in the state of South Australia in 2002–10, in three policy areas: bioscience industry development, the management of radioactive waste and urban water supply. Primary sources collected and used in the analysis include two unique sets of material: exclusive interviews with members of the political executive from the era and previously confidential Cabinet documents, which have only recently become accessible.

Application of the 4I’s framework reveals that collective leadership mattered, with the dynamics of court government playing a significant role in policymaking. Also, it suggests that none of the four elements was the primary driver. Instead, a multivariant relationship existed.

The investigation finds that the political executive sought out and relied upon information – including ‘scientific’ evidence – from various sources but they were generally taken up as ideas. For example, state government policy to ensure adequate urban water supply in a time of severe drought was presented first as conservation and later as water security. Such information was interpreted through a set of values (including economic rationalism, sustainability and state developmentalism) that functioned individually as policy frames and collectively as the executive’s ideology. Interests operated as the motivational force that activated these ideological values; predominantly political self-interest regarding radioactive waste management, and pursuit of the public interest regarding bioscience industry development and urban water supply policy.

Further, the case study reinforces that policy decisions were constrained or enabled by the institutional arena. For instance, the legacy of Labor’s state election defeat in 1992, which was blamed on economic mismanagement, generated a conservative political identity, especially in economic matters. This led to the primacy of the value of economic rationalism in many policy decisions, trumping other values such as state developmentalism and sustainability. This is seen in an initial reluctance to build a desalination plant to address the urban water supply crisis. In contrast, the executive’s reluctance to sanction a national radioactive waste repository, while consistent with its value of sustainability, was motivated by (political) self-interest. Throughout, it was corporate agency – mediated through the dynamics of court government – that mattered, with the cultural aspects of institutions more relevant than their structural aspects, expressed in shared patterns of cognition and behaviour and leading to shared approaches to policy problems.

Keywords: Agency, Beliefs, Bioscience, Cabinet government, Corporate agency, Court politics, Culture, Decision-making, Desalination, Framing, Ideas, Ideology, Information, Institutionalism, Interests, Knowledge, Politics, Policymaking, Public interest, Radioactive waste, River Murray, Statecraft, Uranium mining, Values, Water policy

Subject: Politics thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2021
School: College of Business, Government and Law
Supervisor: Professor Gerry Redmond