Australian politicians have next to no qualifications or skills when it comes to deciding the focal issues of our time. No wonder the decision making of recent years has been so poor. Julian Cribb argues that a continued political bias against science, technology and education risks placing Australia among the also-rans of the 21st Century.
While Australia waits with bated breath to find out whether the High Court considers ignorance of the law qualifies a gaggle of gormless Federal MPs to sit in the Parliament (as the Government itself contends) a far more serious issue is receiving almost no attention.
Nine out of ten members of our Federal Parliament are unqualified for their job in the 21st century.
This stark statistic explains much that perplexes the electorate about the behaviour of recent Australian Governments: where an issue involves science, technology or tested evidence of any kind they haven’t a clue what they are doing.
In the 21st Century it’s hard to find any issue that doesn’t involve science and technology in one form or another. The entire world economy, including most of its star performers, is driven by it. The human future, including that of all nations, will be defined by it. Even Australia is only a prosperous country thanks to the technical mastery of our miners, farmers, our IT whizzes, our medicos and even our money people.
As the OECD puts it: “Scientific advances and technological change are important drivers of recent economic performance. The ability to create, distribute and exploit knowledge has become a major source of competitive advantage, wealth creation and improvements in the quality of life.”
But when you examine the composition of the Federal Parliament you soon find that most of its members have no skills or training whatever in this regard. Of its 226 MPs, just nine (4%) have science degrees, only one with a qualification in environmental science. In all, only 20 MPs (9%) have qualifications in STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – the skills we are told will shape the world and provide the jobs, as robots and AI take over more manual and repetitive tasks.
In short, Australia has a Parliament which is unqualified to meet the future – unqualified to clearly understand either its threats, or its opportunities.
Don’t get me wrong: having a science degree isn’t indispensable to being a good politician. But understanding the principles of science and the testing of evidence underpin the world we live in today – and a Parliament that collectively doesn’t grasp them is always going to make poor decisions. Not just in one or two cases – but in most cases.
The infestation of the Federal Liberal and National parties by hard-core climate deniers is the most vivid example. Because they do not understand the evidential principles of climate change, they are willing to sacrifice the health, wealth, wellbeing and safety of all Australians for the rest of history to their unfounded assumptions about the world. They are willing to sacrifice the Great Barrier Reef and the Outback to the selfish dogma of ‘development’ and to technologies like coal which the rest of the world is abandoning at a spectacular pace. They are prepared to pawn Australia’s energy future – our industrial and economic future – for the sake of a 19th or 20th century energy model that can no longer compete.
The NBN is a further case. While Mr Turnbull may argue our internet is not as bad as Kenya’s, it is undeniably a donkey track compared to the lightspeed information superhighways that are ramifying through Asia, Europe and the Americas, as anyone who has been overseas can attest. The deliberate decision to build a donkey track was both political (save money) and technical (they really didn’t get the technology and what it could do for the economy). It was in effect a strategic decision to relegate Australia behind places like Singapore, Malaysia, China, India and the brighter African countries in terms of development.
However, it isn’t just the LNP: ignorance is bipartisan. Labor effectively smashed water science in this country when it closed Land and Water Australia and other water research in 2009. In the world’s driest inhabited continent and in an era of climate instability, how dumb a decision was that?
Australian governments of all political stripes have presided over the slow wrecking of CSIRO, the conversion of universities from centres of learning and knowledge into semi-privatised export degree-shops, the long-running erosion of agricultural science, earth sciences, environmental science, climate science, marine science, nutritional science and many other essential fields and disciplines. Successive Australian Parliaments have taken bad decisions about all these.
Earlier this year a ‘science report card’ by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) found that Australia Year Six students were falling behind students round the world in science literacy. Surveys over the years suggest that science literacy among Federal MPs is also in decline. Could there be a connection? Either way, with scientific illiteracy rising among both youngsters and policymakers, Australia is less fit to meet the future.
Ninety of our 226 federal lawmakers have arts degrees and 55 have law degrees. Many others have degrees in fields like accounting and economics. Nothing wrong with that – except that it reflects a huge preponderance of people who know how to redistribute wealth, rather than how to generate it. In the 21st Century, the core of wealth creation is scientific, technical, engineering and mathematical knowhow. This has been well understood for half a century, since Robert Solow received a Nobel prize in economics for explaining how knowledge, education and technology – rather than capital and labour alone – drive economic growth.
For two generations Australians have been trapped in a time-warp, governed by redistributors, rather than wealth generators. It is the lead in our national saddlebags that is dragging us behind the lithe competitors of the Asian century, who value knowledge and its application to the betterment of society. It means we have a legislature which is, broadly, unqualified to plan the future or even to grasp its possibilities.
Like many of his predecessors back to Hawke (remember the ‘Clever Country’?) Turnbull has echoed the political rhetoric of innovation: “The Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda will help to create a modern, dynamic, 21st century economy for Australia,” he says. But Australia’s poor record for innovation is the evidence that rhetoric alone doesn’t work. For a brief and mediaeval moment of Australian history, the Abbott Government began smashing our scientific icons with all the enthusiasm of ISIS or the Taliban for destroying things they don’t understand or value.
Hopefully this was the low point of the anti-science crusade in Australia – but given the ownership and control of conservative political thought in this country by the US extreme right, and the weak understanding of the parliament generally, it is doubtful.
Without STEM, Australia has a limited future, among the lagging also-rans of world development. It has no Barrier Reef, no iconic landscapes, no competitive and sustainable farmers, miners, manufacturers, IT, medical or creative industries. It will leave us slow and naked in a hot, overpopulated and resource-stressed world.
Until Australia overcomes its standing political bias against knowledge, wisdom, science, technology and education our future will be in jeopardy. By our own choice.
Julian Cribb is a Canberra science writer and author of ‘Surviving the 21st Century’ (Springer 2017).