“Scientists are experts in science. Judges are experts in interpreting the law and doctors are skilled at keeping us healthy – provided we take their advice. But parliaments – composed of elected politicians – are the experts at public policy making, and neither expressly or impliedly should they ever surrender that role to others.”

This quote has crossed my mind several times lately as I’ve been trying to make sense of recent government decisions.

Who said it? John Howard. Back in 2013. During Tony Abbott’s brief prime ministership. In a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London.

Does it make sense to you? It shouldn’t – because it’s fundamentally wrong – and yet this is the character of our politics today: unable to find the confidence it needs to make the most responsible decisions.

Confident leadership trusts in expertise. It takes confidence in your own skill as a resourceful decision-maker to recognise the expertise of others as something you don’t share but can benefit from.

What we’re seeing instead is a nervous leadership, too perturbed to envision a future beyond its imagination, too anxious to trust in those who can build that future.

We’re seeing universities and the CSIRO attacked and funds cut while the government promotes an “ideas boom.” We’re seeing creative industries and the Australia Council diminished and public investment slashed while the government talks of an “innovation agenda.” The insecure rejection of expertise alongside hubristic sloganeering is reckless: our political leadership seems intent on destroying Australia’s smartest and most creative nation builders.

The arts is a particularly telling example. In Canada the Trudeau Government is doubling its investment, both to strengthen the culture and strengthen the economy. In Australia, the confident leadership of Menzies, Whitlam and Keating had made the arts a prominent element of their platforms at pivotal times in Australia’s history. Today in Australia, we’re going backwards and fast. Over the past few years we’ve gone from an ambitious and effective cultural policy created by real and rigorous national consultation, to the deliberate disruption of the entire industry in forcing hundreds of non-profit companies to re-write strategic plans for funding rounds that either didn’t happen or locked them out. Public investment in the work of individual artists has dropped to an alarming level, and every major artist and industry group has spoken out and continues to speak out in dismay. And yet despite this authoritative uproar, and despite the consistent testimony of 2,719 specialised voices combining to make the largest Senate Inquiry response in Australian history, this expertise is not honoured but ignored.

Parliaments exist to make decisions. Their entire existence is structured around centuries-old conventions for making decisions. There are debating rules and time limits on speeches to ensure multiple perspectives are heard. There are formalised inquiries designed to solicit expertise from beyond the parliament. There are bells that sound when a decision is about to be made: bells that can be heard throughout Parliament House, ensuring that nobody takes for granted this most essential of their elected functions.

We elect people to make decisions on our behalf because it’s impossible for all 23 million of us to come together and decide things for ourselves. We don’t elect people because we imagine that they’re somehow more expert than those whose advice we expect them to draw upon. To take Howard’s examples: scientists and judges didn’t become experts because somebody voted them into their jobs.

The fact of us electing politicians does not suddenly make them experts in anything at all. The only people who are experts in public policy making are the public policy experts in the public service, at universities and at other public institutions. Being elected does not confer expertise, it confers responsibility: the serious and weighty duty to make the best decisions on our behalf in the most well-informed way.

And yet Howard argued that politicians should downplay the role of experts to uphold the dignity of their office: “Politicians who bemoan the loss of respect for their calling,” he’d said just a moment before that quote, “should remember that every time they allow themselves to be browbeaten by the alleged views of experts they contribute further to that loss of respect.”

Where is the confidence to lead the nation?

The confidence to understand that a diverse nation generates sophisticated knowledge across multiple fields? The confidence to embrace that expertise in all its complexity? The confidence to imagine an Australia enriched by expert ambitions that are beyond your knowledge but within your power to realise? The confidence to overcome personal insecurities and govern for the public good: this is leadership.

When politicians make decisions that defy expertise, we lose respect for them – and ultimately, this is bad for democracy. Democracies thrive when our public institutions in arts, science and education are contributing passionately and fearlessly to the national conversation.

“Provided we take their advice.”


An edited version of this piece was first published in Eureka Street on 23.05.2016

IMAGE: Siege (1979-80), John Brack, photographed at TarraWarra Museum of Art, 2015.