For future’s sake…!

Australian politics is in desperate need of a reboot

Ian Chubb

Government and governance, Science and technology, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Australia

14 September 2018

The only way Australia’s self-serving political class will move beyond quick fixes is if voters are bothered enough to make them, Ian Chubb argues. Below is his speech to the National Press Club on 5 September 2018.

I don’t have time to run through all the arguments about why Australian politics needs a reboot.

But I don’t think I have to; we all know it does. And we think we know why.

My summary in two sentences would be: we don’t think much of politics or of politicians, they know that, and they know why, and too many of them (not all) don’t seem to care. So we just hand them the country and turn away – I remind you that roughly 2.2 million of us did not even bother to vote in 2016.

And why would it change unless, or until we, the people, exercise our power to force change?

But when so many of those we employ to work in our interests can be so brazen about the supremacy of their own political games over the national interest, why would the rest of us bother?

I believe we have to bother. Because if we don’t the outcome will be the Australia we end up with after more aimless drift riddled with infantile posturing and spin, underpinned by self-interest and grounded in a breath-taking hypocrisy that demeans us all.

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To earn our respect and our trust there has to be more than endless electioneering climaxing in a three-yearly ritualistic smooching badged with the ever-new Akubra. The solemn declarations of commitment to ‘Australian values’ or to the ‘fair go’ and even to a ‘new generation’ out there ‘listening’, is risible.

If they really did listen to us we would have, just as an example, more focus on renewable energy (polls show about 84 per cent want more investment), less on coal (60 per cent support a global alliance promising to phase-out coal power by 2030) and more sensible emissions targets (56 per cent want a 45 per cent or greater reduction on CO2 emissions by 2030). And where are we? Pretending this is less important than a $3 per week reduction in electricity prices.

A combination of cliché piled upon cliché, three-word mantras, endless quick fixes, avoidance of anything intellectually demanding, dog-whistling, vengeance politics and the adjourning of democracy (as just happened), is no way to build confidence or trust.

So yes, politics needs a reboot.

But how? I can’t change a preselection process that yields both what we see and what we lament; I can’t wave a wand and appoint talent to Cabinet from outside parliament to fill the gap that preselection leaves behind.

So today I’ll settle for a plan to increase accountability and transparency. If we can’t change the people, we can at least make clear what we expect. My suggestions are: first, based on a reminder that politicians are of us and should be subjected to similar rules and obligations that the rest of us have (many of which they write for us); second, designed to start the rebuild of respect and trust in part by acknowledging that respect is a two-way street.

Capacity

There are very few jobs in 2018 which can be secured with no qualifications and no relevant experience. One of them happens to be “Member of Parliament”. Another is “Minister of the Crown”.

Maybe that is how it should be in a representative democracy – they should be of us, ordinary people full of life’s ordinary experiences (although we’ve recently seen what happens to interlopers from outside the self-anointed political class).

But these people are not only of us – they work for us.

They don’t become special or especially wise or knowledgeable just because we have given them that job; but we can surely expect from them what our employers expect from us – the capacity and the will to learn what is needed to do the job.

In 2015 the Royal Statistical Society of the UK issued a challenge to all candidates in the UK election: commit to a statistics training session if elected.

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We could extend that idea.

Nearly everybody but the contemporary Neanderthals acknowledges the importance of science and mathematics, technology and innovation in our futures. All areas in which too many politicians seem both proud to declare ignorance and to be willing to demonstrate it.

Members of Parliament should be required to complete short courses to learn how science works and its methods; how to distinguish evidence from snake oil; how to distinguish the genuine from the noisy. And to learn basic statistical literacy so they know that experiencing a ‘one in a hundred years’ event does not mean 99 years until the next one.

The MPs who choose not to attend or who appear to think that understanding was not relevant to the policies on which they vote should be listed publicly.

Competence and performance

Nominated Ministers are not required to demonstrate aptitude, interest, experience or competence relevant to their portfolio.

Any other employee in Australia with a professional or management position these days would be expected to demonstrate their performance to their employer against agreed objectives and outcomes. KPIs, indeed.

Incoming ministers should be no different.

They should be required to articulate their goals for their portfolio and report publicly and formally on their progress on an annual basis, explaining to the Australian people the relationship between what they said they would do and what they actually did.

To help, question time should be re-worked so that: first, every minister would have to answer a minimum number of questions during each sitting; and second, questions could only be taken from the Opposition.

There would be a formal and publicly available independent assessment of the goals, the achievements and the responses to questions – and importantly of the questions themselves.

Accountability

The payments to politicians are administered by the Department of Finance. And we have seen how (inappropriately named) ‘entitlements’ can be repaid to ‘avoid ambiguity’ when unusual expenditure is exposed.

But we have a large and highly capable infrastructure that is purpose-built for the administration of payments to citizens from the public purse. It’s called Centrelink.

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Let’s achieve some efficiencies, and improve accountability, by transferring responsibility for parliamentarians’ so-called entitlements to the same agency. After all, they are of us.

No changes to practice guidelines would be required. MPs would be held to the same standard of proof regarding, for example, their personal arrangements, the declaration of their assets and liabilities, and their travel, exactly as required of other Australians in receipt of public benefits.

Debts would also be recovered using the approach that MPs have mandated for others.

Any MPs who considered the standard of service to be inadequate or wrong could call the Centrelink helpline, or argue the toss with the Robocall.

Summary

We have been told that Australia is the land of the fair go. Henry Parkes toasted “one people, one destiny” way back when he and his colleagues persuaded us to vote ‘yes’ to federation – four words that capture one important characteristic of the nation the people of the time committed to.

Politics and politicians, for all their faults and glories, their failures and their successes, all the good ones (and there have been and are good ones) and bad ones, were a means to that end. It is what was wanted, along with prosperity and security, and what they tried to deliver.

To presume nation-building will be a priority in an era dominated by a self-serving political class infiltrated by a ‘born-to-rule’ mob, is folly of a high order.

We must lift our expectations. We must require talent and principles and ethics in our politicians, and competence, consistency and vision. And leadership, along with courage – sometimes they will simply have to persuade us that they have to do things that some of us might not like. That might even include the so-called ‘base’ we are now hearing so much about.

Getting better politics, means more politics, I suggest, not more disinterest.

Change is what we have to demand.

And we will have to engage to get it.

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2 Responses

  1. Liam Cahill says:

    Great stuff. Kidding yourself but. You must know how hard it is to get people to band together nowadays. Unions try it but get nowhere. But its ok because politicians wages keep rising and no need to mention they have a life time pension paid for by us eegits that never see a wage increase, infact the contrary because of penalty cutbacks and eba shortages.
    No need to worry though because the banking commission will be swept up in a bin and atrocities will get unpunished but ceos families will benefit from all that cash.

    All good in oz

  2. Clive says:

    “Members of Parliament should be required to complete short courses to learn how science works and its methods; how to distinguish evidence from snake oil; how to distinguish the genuine from the noisy. And to learn basic statistical literacy so they know that experiencing a ‘one in a hundred years’ event does not mean 99 years until the next one.”

    It’s great to hear from Ian Chubb on this issue and gives me hope that others will connect the dots.

    In principle many would agree with his proposal above – but we all know that this isn’t going to happen. To begin with it underrates the difficulty of addressing a large cultural and educational chasm in a short course. At the heart of the matter is that science and clear thinking has been de-emphasised by our society for decades. The problem is now more fundamental and without a quick fix. It is systemic and needs a longer-term solution.

    There is a real problem with the ‘scientific literacy’ argument that was once popularised. It risks science becoming wedged as an ‘ideological’ lobby when this is best avoided. Politics is ideological – science should not seek to be. The mechanisms that once existed meant that it did not have to toy with ideology.

    Ian Chubb probably knows this elephant in the room better than most.

    The public service (PS) was supposed to offer advice to Ministers and to make the case for evidenced-based policy in our national interest. That the PS has been progressively dismantled as an independent institution and ‘put to work’ for the Minister is the main event. This has been part of the push for “economic rationalism” that aligned science with a market economy.

    What we see now is the consequence of scientists failing to keep science independent – let’s be honest. This is not a blame game, but honest reflection must be had about why science and reason has been deemphasised. It required a strategy and agenda to do so.

    The Westminster system requires an independent PS for our democracy to function – and the independence of public science.

    Science and reason once had a strong voice via independent agencies (CSIRO) and the PS – and even the Chief Scientist. Both major parties sought to align these functions with political policy and set up governance models that gags public discourse and makes them easy to ignore. This is by far more important than attempting to teach Pauline Hanson basic statistics and the current PM that the earth is not 6000 years old.

    The British ‘neoliberal’ reforms that saw public science as a ‘purchaser-provider’ model since the days of Thatcher have now been largely reversed. We have yet to do this in Australia and still live with the legacy of a failed neoliberal conception of public science.

    Hence, I’d be very interested to read Ian Chubb’s thoughts on the effectiveness of the Chief Scientist’s office and the greater role it might play in giving reason a voice once more – and re-establishing the independence of public science and the PS.

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