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Dialogue Between Past and Present: Policy Evaluation and History


  • Diana Perche

    1. Macquarie University
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    • The author would like to thank Tim Rowse, Allan McConnell, Pieter Fourie and David Marsh for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.


While public policy is about shaping the future, it must at the same time be understood as a response to the past. Decision-makers in the present inevitably build on the accumulated policies of their predecessors. Much of this process is explained by path dependency, as policy options are shaped by the institutional structures and cultural expectations established by past policies. This explanation is incomplete, however, as it leaves unexamined the strategic, deliberate use of the past through the evaluation of previous policies, even years after implementation. As policy actors choose to revisit earlier policy decisions, policy successes can be reconstructed as failures. Indigenous policy is one area where “policy failure” has gained currency in Australia, as governments have critically re-examined past policies to justify new policy directions. The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 provides a useful case study of multiple evaluations over time, revealing contingency and continuity in the repeated evaluations of the role of the land councils.