|dc.description.abstract||The 'public interest' (including 'national interest' in foreign affairs) has long been recognised as a yardstick in public policy. Intuitively, one would expect that first-rate policy analysis, including multi-disciplinary inquiry and public consultation, should be adequate to document a reasonable approximation of the public interest to guide- political debate. Yet the precise nature of the public interest remains enigmatic. The concept plays out in three primary ways: as a rhetorical device, as a statement of current policy, and as a normative standard. Error arises from assuming that these usages are equivalent. When it is found that rhetorical and current formulations are inadequate, the temptation is to discard the concept as meaningless without further normative inquiry. Indeed, the academic literature on the subject seems to peter out in the 1970s without reaching any consensus on whether the term has meaning other than as a device for propaganda.
Since economic rationalism rose to prominence in the 1980s, governments have allowed markets to determine what is in the public interest and have neglected other standards such as ethics, the wisdom of the ages, the deliberations of a non-partisan public service, international treaties and biophysical limits to economic growth.
As a working definition, the present research describes the public interest as the stake that the community at large has in public affairs and searches for some objective criteria in the literature and through case studies, survey and logical analysis. The three case studies related to (a) real property rights, (b) international free trade and (c) aviation safety. It was found that: the private rights and public responsibilities of holders of real property are poorly defined; the Australian Government's insistence that free international trade is a major limb of national interest is defective on both theoretical and evidentiary grounds; and in aviation a search for a widely accepted definition even of 'safety' was unsuccessful.
The research also explored the features of gross domestic product, a universally accepted measure of economic growth popularly taken as an indicator of public well-being. The concept was found to be riddled with defects, even as a narrow measure of economic prosperity. Nor did any of several philosophical lenses evaluated in the thesis lead to a clear benchmark (though 'natural law' was found to have promise as it holds that some ethical traits are inherent in human nature and are augmented by a corpus of moral standards that have gained consensus over the centuries). The analysis did not support the prevalent view that government ministers determine the public interest or that public interest arises as the pluralist-style resultant of contending interest groups.
In short, no authoritative or objective standard could be discovered. Further, the hold that relativism and neo-liberalism have within the social sciences and the policy community makes it unlikely that scholars will reach a consensus on how to crystallise the public interest in the foreseeable future.
The research therefore turned to look for some foundation in the biophysical environment and in global affairs. Two findings rescued the quest: the demonstrable limits of the natural environment and the existence of international treaties. Some axioms are derived from these for the biophysical, social and public policy arenas. The thesis argues that it should be possible to align government policies and actions to achieve objectives consistent with these, though this process is inconsistent with the predominant market-led model of framing public policy. In brief, the public interest can be served by progress towards internationally accepted ideal conditions even if, by definition, a normative standard remains elusive.||en_US