Business Day column: Spare us the farcical forums and pretend policy powwows

The liquor bill ‘consultation’ with stakeholders a farce of cherry-picked research and obfuscation, writes Leon Louw

Farcical "workshops", "consultations", "seminars" and "indabas" parade as compliance with the constitutional requirement that laws and policies must be preceded and influenced by public participation.

Policy making starts with ideological or emotional impulses to "do something" about real or imagined problems. Lavishly funded surrogates and propagandists, usually academics and consultants, produce ill-considered proposals with profound implications. There are reluctant calls for comment and policy events.

After the tedium of ignoring countervailing evidence, whimsical proposals are finalised and published in roughly original form. Lists of participants create the impression that contributions were taken seriously. Finally, the unsuspecting populace is subjected, without proper evaluation, to ill-considered policies.

"Final" proposals can be comically absurd, such as provisions in the Liquor Bill prescribing where liquor licences will be lawful if enacted. I offered a prize at Monday’s "liquor indaba" for anyone who can find a single authorised property anywhere. People who experience the process appreciate the extent to which policy making, with few exceptions, is a sham.

Proposals can normally be influenced only at the embryonic stage. For organised labour and business to produce sophisticated submissions, proposals must be studied, branches and members briefed, feedback collated, research undertaken, findings processed and evaluated, and formal responses produced.

Since this cannot be done in the one or two months usually allowed, the best they can do is a rushed job or nothing.

Two processes illustrate the problem. Last week, the Treasury held a sugar tax "workshop", this week the Department of Trade and Industry held a Liquor Bill "consultation", both at the behest of the anticonsumer health department.

Despite assurances that officialdom wanted to "listen and learn", victims were told their fate – not honestly and unambiguously, but in language that concealed more than was revealed.

Liquor producers and traders were told they had nothing to fear because only new licence applicants would be curtailed. They were not told that technically unlawful outlets — that is, most outlets — would be shut. Black delegates were promised racial "empowerment".

The truth is that most or all new production and trade will be banned.

All officialdom would "listen" to were single questions without substantive contributions.

Academics presented cherry-picked research including a litany of real, exaggerated and fabricated miseries "associated" with sugar and liquor. They concealed evidence of social, psychological and physiological benefits.

Tables and charts appeared to settle the case for a puritanical assault on human dignity and freedom guaranteed in the first section of our Constitution.

Many or most alleged facts were innocent or deliberate disinformation. A featured slide showed a decline in road accidents following stricter drinking-age laws. It employed the oldest statistical deception in the book. The concealed period preceding the change shows the change had no effect whatsoever — long-term rates were already declining.

Sadly, disingenuous disinformation typifies many policy processes.

The recent introduction of socioeconomic impact assessments will, if properly implemented, put an end to consultative shams and scams.

• Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation

This article was first published in Business Day on 23 November 2016

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