Australia’s former chief scientist Ian Chubb thinks government ministers should be subject to a public performance management system, so voters can judge how seriously they take their actual jobs versus their political careers.
Chubb saw seven science ministers over five years in that role, but was only certain that one “really wanted the job” itself; he suspected the other six were mostly just interested in the front-bench experience.
“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 us Australians … the relationship between what they said they would do and what they actually did,” he told the National Press Club last week.
Chubb thinks citizens are entitled to expect ministers to “stay in the job long enough to grow into the job, and to make a difference” as a general rule, and that a more formal performance framework would both encourage to higher public expectations of government leaders, and encourage ministers to live up to them.
The former Australian National University vice-chancellor is known for his dry humour and some in the media pack weren’t sure if one suggestion was entirely serious: that parliamentary entitlements go through Centrelink.
“Let’s achieve some of the efficiencies that we’re endlessly after and improve accountability by transferring responsibility for MPs’ so-called entitlements to the same agency, because we have to remember that after all, they are of us, they are not separate from us,” said Chubb, keeping a straight face as quizzical looks were exchanged and laughter began breaking out.
“So, you wouldn’t need to change practice guidelines. 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 all the rest of us Australians. Any MPs who considered the standard of service to be inadequate or wrong could call the Centrelink helpline.”
The former chief scientist joined businesswoman Heather Ridout and Griffith University professor Anne Tiernan to give an address called: Rebooting Australian Democracy: Renewing Faith with Voters.“Governments and political parties generally aren’t much better (than business). And we’ve seen it on display in the last two weeks: dishonesty, disloyalty, bullying, misogyny, short-termism, and no accountability.” – Heather Ridout
The trio made plenty of acerbic observations about careerist politicians and the malaise they believe has infected democracy over the past decade or so. The symptoms — like droves of voters turning away from the major parties, and a growing proportion of the electorate failing to vote in recent elections, or even to enrol — are well known.
Ridout said governments appeared to use their electoral mandate “to legitimise their own actions, rather than to support the people” and pointed the finger at the culture of political parties and their lack of ethnic and gender diversity.
“Governments lecture business all the time about bad culture and how terrible it is in business,” she said. “We see it every day, but actually … governments and political parties generally aren’t much better. And we’ve seen it on display in the last two weeks: dishonesty, disloyalty, bullying, misogyny, short-termism, and no accountability.”
The former Australian Industry Group chief noted the big parties were running short on members, as well as moral authority. She supports campaign finance reform, fixed four-year terms and thinks the Liberals should adopt rules that make it harder for the parliamentary wing to replace a prime minister, as Labor did.
“We need to adopt a genuine people-first culture, not just lapel badges and populists who claim this mantra and then call anyone who disagrees with them illegitimate,” Ridout argued.
“We need a genuine leadership around shared values. We also need to develop a more win-win culture with government, business and the people working together, not this win-lose, I win, you lose, this binary argument, which has been so dominant in the debates around climate change and things we’ve been listening to lately.”
Tiernan also linked the declining enthusiasm for civic participation and loss of trust in public institutions to a drop in ministerial standards and respect for the conventions of responsible government, with more time devoted to partisan mud-slinging and internecine battles, undermining public policy outcomes.
But all of this is a chicken-and-egg situation, at least to some degree — a vicious cycle that might be turned into a virtuous cycle — and part of a bigger global phenomenon: the erosion of trust in experts, authority figures and widely accepted facts.
Why ministers need short courses
Chubb suggested his “plan to increase accountability and transparency” was a practical way to rehabilitate Australian political culture from both ends, by empowering citizens to demand higher performance from executive government, and creating new incentives for ministers to try their hardest and put the public interest first.
He proposed the end of Dorothy Dixers in question time, along with rules requiring a minimum share of questions about each major portfolio. That way, opposition parties would get to question the government relentlessly, but they would also be forced to probe a broader range of policy areas every sitting day.
Representative democracy means no qualifications or experience are required to hold office and ministers often have little expertise that is relevant to their portfolio. But, all three speakers argued, they should still be doing their best, trying to learn all they can and striving for the best outcomes.
“They don’t become special, they don’t become especially wise or knowledgeable just because we’ve given them that job, but surely we can expect from them what our employers expect from us — the capacity and the will to learn what is needed to do the job,” Chubb said.
He thinks short courses in basic science and maths would be a good start, offering lessons like “how to distinguish evidence from snake oil, how to distinguish the genuine from the noisy” and a crash course in statistics and probability. “The MPs who chose not to attend, or who appeared to think that understanding was not relevant to the policies on which they vote, should be listed publicly.”
Chubb contrasted contemporary political leaders with those who persuaded the sceptical people of the Australian colonies to form a federation.
“To presume now that nation-building will be a priority in an era dominated by a self-serving political class that’s infiltrated by a born-to-rule mob is a folly of the highest order. We have to lift our expectations. We must require talent and principles and ethics in our politicians, and competence and consistency and vision.
“And we should require leadership — and leadership along with courage — because sometimes, they will simply have to persuade us that they have to do things that some of us might not like.
“We can’t run this country by getting a unanimous position on everything, and we employ leaders to show us the way.”
Chubb observed that any solutions to the downward spiral must involve persuading the public to re-engage with democracy. “It does not mean more disinterest on our part. Change is what we have to demand, and we will have to engage with the process to get it.”
Institutional thinking and collective leadership
Tiernan has been thinking about these issues for a long time and made a series of razor-sharp observations about the structural areas she believes are most ripe for reform.
The political science and public administration expert acknowledged that Australia’s political system was largely successful by international standards, and expressed confidence that democracy might be reinvigorated by renewed participation in mass movements, especially from young people and women.
Chubb lamented a lack of courage on the part of political leaders but Tiernan believes the era of old-fashioned “heroic” leaders is past. If a healthier democratic paradigm is to emerge, she argues it will require “collective leadership, which means alliances across sectors” and “institutional thinking – thinking about things that are bigger than us and that are going to endure long after we’re gone, and that actually give us a set of responsibilities”.
Tiernan sees destructive partisan rivalry — self-interest over the public interest — evident in recent changes to the way oppositions typically behave and how governments treat them, how changes of government are handled, and in contests for party leadership.
“The second impediment is embedded in the advisory arrangements that have evolved to support the Prime Minister and Cabinet,” she added.
“These, and the constant interruptions, deprive them of institutional memory and the capacity to learn. They also empower the enemy within.“I worry that some members of Australia’s political class either don’t know, or have forgotten, the obligations and responsibilities conferred on our elected representatives.” – Anne Tiernan
“That Australia has had five prime ministers in five years highlights a third structural factor that has become intrinsic to modern politics — the rise of careerists in political parties whose primary raison d’être is to gain and maintain power; not policy or reform.
“Nowhere have we seen the toxic consequences of this development more clearly than in the challenge to Malcolm Turnbull. We know it was all about politics, not policy, nor, as we’ve learned, about the government’s electoral prospects.”
Next is increasing disrespect for the conventions of responsible government. “I worry that some members of Australia’s political class either don’t know, or have forgotten, the obligations and responsibilities conferred on our elected representatives,” said Tiernan.
“My list of casualties includes the conventions of ministerial responsibility, cabinet confidentiality, the merit principle, the caretaker conventions, and the tradition of treating the opposition as an executive in waiting; others would likely add the inability to comply with section 44 of the Constitution, and the failure of senators to reflect their state’s rather than their party’s interests.”
Tiernan sees this corrosion of conventions creating more “uncertainty and confusion” about the roles of the executive, judicial and legislative arms. “It has created a spiral of dysfunction which, at its heart, is about disrespect — for the self, for others, for alternative points of view, and for anyone outside the faction, the tribe, the base, including, as we have seen, those on your own side.”
Tiernan said the biggest public issue being ignored by the “people in the bubble” was growing inequality, and suggested the battlers — especially in her home state of Queensland — would decide the next election.
“Democratic disenchantment in Australia is palpable and it’s been exacerbated by the hyper-partisan revenge politics that has destroyed careers, wasted time, money, and opportunities, and left the Australian public bewildered and dismayed,” she said.
But the professor noted that “rehabilitating institutional thinking among the political class” is only one side of the issue. A well-functioning democracy also needs “active citizens” who understand how the system works and the key principles and conventions it is based on.
“We must be prepared to hold to account MPs, senators, and others who show disdain for those principles,” she told the Press Club, with a nod to her fellow panellist.
“I personally hadn’t thought of publishing them, Ian, but that’s not a bad idea. They must feel the political consequences of their recklessness, their short-termism, and their disrespect.”
Top image: (from left) Sabra Lane, Anne Tiernan, Ian Chubb and Heather Ridout at the Press Club event.