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Pre-selection of candidates for political office is failing us

Our national governance is failing because the process for selecting political leaders is inadequate for the role that our system of government assigns to them, says Dr Geoff Edwards.

“I’m really angry that the government isn’t listening to us, to the evidence we’ve been providing to them since 1998” proclaimed Prof Terry Hughes of James Cook University in March 2016[i], after observing coral bleaching over some 1000 km of the northern Great Barrier Reef.

This observation came to mind recently while watching our national leaders continue to stumble over electricity and climate policy. We elect, fund and expect governments to solve collective problems that are too complex or large in scale to be amenable to individualist solutions. Governments are failing in this responsibility. I need mention only energy, climate, housing affordability and Indigenous disadvantage as unresolved issues to demonstrate the point.

Further, initiatives by one side of government nowadays are vulnerable to later destruction by the other side, regardless of their merit. I need mention only the NBN and the Gillard carbon price to demonstrate the point.

The failure of our governors to heed environmental advice is particularly egregious. Scientists despair at the lack of progress in even acknowledging the evidence of cascading assaults being visited upon the life-support systems of the planet, let alone progress in remedial action. Something has gone badly astray.

I wish to argue that one reason why our national governance is failing is that the process for selecting political leaders is inadequate for the role that our system of government assigns to them.

Party branches don’t select for policy skills

The skills necessary to set high policy do not seem to feature in the job description when a local branch of a political party pre-selects candidates for political office. At the entry level, candidates are chosen for their electability – that is, their personability – and their factional support – that is, their ideological profile. However, it is from the pool of such candidates after they are elected that the ministry is chosen.

For ministers, personability is not particularly relevant and a fixed ideological profile is positively dangerous. The traditional method of selecting politicians has not caught up with the expectations of our representatives under modern conditions of complexity and public sector reform.

Complexity

Let us consider complexity first. The role of an elected member is and always has been of course to represent their community. This requires skills in communication and an ability to absorb expressions of public opinion from numerous sources against a background of political noise.

As a former local government politician, I hold in high respect the role of a non-expert representative of the people, whose primary skill is to form judgements based on common sense and knowledge of their district. But while practical common sense is an attribute essential to policy-making, it is no longer sufficient.

Policy analysis is nowadays too complex. Globalisation enmeshes what were once regarded as local issues into international movements. Social media has given every citizen a megaphone. Tax law has become more complicated as it endeavours to catch up with tax avoidance. The previous autonomy of the Australian states to make decisions is now hamstrung by instruments of national coordination. It is no longer adequate for our representatives to be competent as retail politicians.

More is required of ministers and their advisers than just technical knowledge. They are also expected to exercise strong analytical skills. They are expected to possess a coherent conceptual framework – a world view – which is on the one hand coherent and consistent with evidence but, on the other hand, possesses sockets to accept new information which information technology now delivers in a daily torrent.

Public sector reform

Since the 1980s, the reform agenda has paradoxically weakened the capacity of our system of government to cope with complexity. Traditionally, the public service mustered evidence about a problem at hand, sieved and translated technical knowledge from various specialists, coordinated across portfolios, digested public opinion and forecast the consequences of optional policy choices.

“In the market economy that the reformers have been so anxious to impose upon our society, starving the public service will guarantee ineffectiveness.”

The Victorian government in 1982, then the Hawke government in 1983, imported from the USA a model of public administration called ‘new managerialism’. The reforms were intended to counter the reputation of the public service as slow, conservative, rule-bound and liable to frustrate the will of elected governments. Central to the model is a corps of generalist managers with portable rationalist skills who would be more responsive than the traditional Westminster service to political direction.

With the experience of more than 30 years, it is now arguable that this model, reinforced by repeated budget cuts, has resulted in dumbed-down and politicised analytical capacity.

Under traditional models, the public service had a twin duty: to serve the government of the day honourably, and to serve the public interest. Under new managerialism, elected ministers determine what is in the public interest, a view now widely entrenched in government circles Australia-wide.

Andrew Podger, then Australian Public Service Commissioner, in 2002[ii], opined that public servants have “a particular public interest role: to promote due process”. This conception seems to confine the role of the public service to simply applying the rules of the game, leaving policy formulation to ministers who must juggle competing perspectives from lobbyists, pressure groups, the media and the political arena. They must differentiate self-serving pressure from civic-minded advocacy.

Deferring to ministers as to where the public interest lies obliges ministers to form judgements about complex technical information themselves, directly and personally. There seems no room within this model for frank and fearless advice deriving from expert in-house knowledge. Nor does there seem room for dispassionate analysis from the public service to feed out into the public arena in an orderly manner without being bleached of substance – the national Energy White Paper of 2015 being a case in point.

It is not surprising then that the status of the public service as custodian of technical excellence and its capacity to cope with complexity has been eroded through repeated restructuring, market-led outsourcing, inefficiency dividends and downsizing. It is easy to dispense with services that aren’t valued.

Throwing money at the public service doesn’t guarantee effectiveness, but in the market economy that the reformers have been so anxious to impose upon our society, starving the public service will guarantee ineffectiveness.

When policy analysis gravitates upwards to the ministerial level, policy becomes vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of political life and the tabloid headlines, pressuring ministers to make policy on the run, making reflective policy analysis more challenging.

Missing scientific literacy is a particular case of missing expertise

“How can parliamentarians inoculate themselves against the relentless hostility towards environmental science emanating from the conservative press?”

Scientific method is an invaluable tool in forming policy, in all portfolios, not only those such as energy, agriculture, environment and health where technical scientific knowledge is obviously foundational. The assumption-led discipline of economics and the faith-led ideology of modern neo-conservatism or religious fundamentalism cannot match science in its ability to trace cause and effect and anticipate consequences. Science embraces a never-ending search for causation.

Public policy must be grounded upon an understanding of the causative influences that have led to the current ills and the preconditions for successful remedies. Yet few parliamentarians have been trained in scientific method.

Where does a non-expert parliamentarian turn for reliable scientific advice? How can non-expert ministers and backbenchers differentiate solidly grounded science from ideologically distorted versions or self-interested interpretations by lobby groups? How can parliamentarians inoculate themselves against the relentless hostility towards environmental science emanating from the conservative press? Time and again, public sector institutions competent to translate and validate scientific knowledge have been rendered impotent. They have been:

  • Abolished – examples Department of Climate Change, National Land and Water Resources Audit or Land and Water Australia;
  • Defunded – example The Conversation;
  • Bypassed – example the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; or
  • Instructed not to enter policy debates and obliged to align with commercial sponsors – example CSIRO.

Scientists are rarely invited onto government boards such as Building Queensland, Infrastructure Australia or the Productivity Commission and scientists are rarely funded to attend business dinners at which access to ministers can be purchased.

In science, we now have a convergence of incapacities: loss of content expertise within the portfolio departments and weakening of independent science-based statutory agencies; yet no corresponding program to select for content expertise or competence in policy formulation when recruiting political candidates, or to train them after election.

It has been written that parenting is the most responsible job on earth for which no qualifications are specified. The job of a political leader is surely even more widely influential than that of a parent. Again, no qualifications are required. Knowledge of philosophy, history, literature, sociology, economics, science or public administration is not required. Truly, we are no longer electing philosopher kings, but partisan gladiators.

It is easy to come to the conclusion that our method of selecting representatives is no longer fit for purpose and fundamental reform of our system of government is required.

The coral bleaching mentioned at the head of this article is a warning that it is too late to avoid catastrophic destruction to the great biophysical systems on which human and planetary life depends. However, disruption will be episodic and at every locality will be of unpredictable scope and intensity. Our society will need much greater problem-solving expertise and much better brokering of scientific information if it is to navigate serviceable pathways through the problems that are now demanding policy and political attention.

Dr Geoff Edwards is President of The Royal Society of Queensland. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the society.


The article is adapted from the presidential address published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland 2017. It elaborates on an article “Where does the ‘public interest’ lie?” in Public Administration Today (April-June 2011)

[i] McCutcheon, P. 28 Mar. 2016. Great Barrier Reef coral bleaching at 95 per cent in northern section, aerial survey reveals. ABC News. Available at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-28/great-barrier-reef-coral-bleaching-95-per-cent-north-section/7279338?pfm=ms (accessed 12 November 2016).

[ii] Podger, A. [Public Service Commissioner]. 5 Oct. 2002. “The Australian Public Service: A Values-based Service”. Paper presented to the biennial conference of the International Institute of Public Ethics, “Reconstructing ‘The Public Interest’ in a Globalising World: Business, the Professions, and the Public Sector”, Brisbane.

However, that may not now reflect Podger’s considered opinion. In his submission to the Independent Review of the APS, summarised in Verona Burgess’s article in The Mandarin, Podger seems to concede that there is such a thing as a normative public interest above and beyond the enthusiasms of a politician of the day.

READ MORE ON THE APS REVIEW:
Martin Stewart-Weeks: what is the point of the public service?
Andrew Podger’s brilliant reimagining of the APS
Agency heads allow regulations to wilt ‘until failure’: Treasury insiders
Back-to-back MoGs induce ‘dysfunction’, warn academics
David Thodey Q&A: your burning questions about the review answered
Tom Burton: do we really need a public service commission?
Coombs 42 years on — looking back at the review that shaped the APS

Author Bio

Geoff Edwards

Dr Geoff Edwards is President of The Royal Society of Queensland.