THIS topic/ issue, call it what you will, has come up with monotonous regularity in this column over the last 20 or so years.
To refresh your memory, “consultation is a meeting to discuss, plan, or decide something”, according to the Collins Concise English dictionary.
That is, those charged with making a decision sit down with stakeholders and hammer it out.
This rarely happens – the latest example is the decision by the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator to impose a new set of regulations on heavy vehicle use.
It was highlighted by the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association in a media release on January 17. They noted:
“There has been little or no consultation with affected stakeholders, particularly in Tasmanian agriculture… several local municipalities are unaware of these new proposals.”
This regulator is based in Queensland – in all fairness, Tasmania is a fair way for them to travel for a genuine consultation with us Southerners.
This is the latest example of the ritual. They keep on coming.
It seems to be a fact of life that genuine consultation is rare. I take pride in facilitating one of the rare exceptions.
In a previous role as Director of the North–West Council for Community Education, I put in place a policy to ensure that consultation happened.
I used a modified version of the Nominal Group technique, first developed in the 1960s by Andre Delbecq as a tool for planning purposes. I spelt out the details in a previous column some years ago.
Andre came to see me and was impressed with my modification. It ensured that community education reflected what the community wanted in the North-West.
Needless to say, it ended when the (Hobart-based) University lobbied successfully to have the Council axed.
I made sure in subsequent projects that stakeholders were kept in the loop.
Classic examples are industry self-regulation of chemical spraying (Tasmanian Agricultural Productivity Group) in the early 1990s and of fertiliser use (Australian Fertiliser Services Association).
In both instances we had good (guess what) consultations with appropriate government departments, said we would do their job for them, but asked for them to audit our activities to keep us honest.
That earned us brownie points.
A key issue is listening. Hugh Mackay wrote an incisive book in 1994 entitled “Why Don’t People Listen?” (Pan Macmillan). He makes numerous very astute comments.
“People are more likely to support a change which affects them if they are consulted before the change is made. Why don’t people listen? Sometimes it’s because they weren’t consulted about the change which is going to affect them and so, when we tell them about it, they say: ‘First I’ve heard about it’ and that’s the end of that.”
“Being consulted about a decision is not the same as making the decision.
“Consultation is the process of involving all those who will be influenced by a change in the development of the strategies which will bring about that change.”
The TFGA had a lot more to say:
“The TFGA will not stand by while a mainland regulator attempts to impose its will on Tasmanian operators and the State’s economy, and certainly when there has been no decent attempt to consult or communicate with stakeholders.”
“This is not the first time that we have seen a failure of communication and consultation.
“It’s time for government agencies, regulators and others to recognise that trying to impose their will from on high is a recipe for failure… for any regulation to achieve its outcome and goals, stakeholders must be an integral part of the process.
“The idea that an adversarial approach to policy-making will achieve the required outcomes is a flawed concept and one that belongs in a previous century.”
And as my late-lamented Nan very often said:
“There’s none so deaf as them who don’t want to hear, Our Mike.”
- Dr Mike Walker is a Tasmania-based columnist.