Cures worse than the disease? Rethinking complex problems

New regulatory minefields like AI and driverless cars will only compound the difficulties of people-centric policy. Collecting more perspectives during the deliberation stage could mean fewer unintended consequences later.

What happens when regulation goes wrong? What happens when well-intentioned policy-makers fail to foresee the negative impact their decisions may have? History is littered with examples of the legislatures and policy makers that have tried to address a perceived problem, implemented a response targeted at resolving the problem, only to see it do more harm than good.

Last week statistics were released which showed that the Queensland government’s lockout laws had had a negligible impact on the number of alcohol related presentations at hospitals. Sydney, which has similar lockout laws, saw alcohol related assaults fall by 43 incidents per month but in the same time the laws have seen a 40% drop in live music ticket revenue. In the United States, implementation of mandatory seat-belt laws saw a decrease in risk of fatality resulting from car accidents, but an increase in the overall number of accidents. Three-strike mandatory sentencing laws create an incentive for previous offenders to evade a third arrest and studies have shown an increase in police fatalities as a result.

It is no coincidence that the above examples tackle three difficult, engrained problems: recidivism, traffic fatalities and binge drinking. The risk of unintended consequences and (often) unforeseeable damage is one that increases with the complexity of the problem policymakers seek to solve.

And this is not an easy fix, nor is it one that is going away anytime soon.

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  • Owen Hayford

    Hi Bruce,
    You are probably aware that the National Transport Commission has done quite a bit of work on the regulatory framework required for driverless cars in Australia. Clayton Utz has also published a report on regulating for driverless vehicles in Australia. Here’s a link to the Clayton Utz report: . As you say, a broad dialogue with relevant stakeholders is needed to ensure that new laws enacted in response to driverless vehicles are constructive. This dialogue is underway, and is being encouraged by organisations like the NTC, Clayton Utz and Roads Australia.
    Regards, Owen Hayford

    • brucemuirhead

      Thanks for your comment Owen. It’s encouraging. The further upstream our government leaders work on emerging disruption entering the market – the better chance we have of aligning regulatory frameworks. This week I argue that we need to acknowledge the difficulty in getting regulation right and the governments who are increasingly more open to tools and methods to engage a broader discussion. Here’s a link: