Australia today faces multiple challenges. They include the fact that we are unlike any other continent with species and ecosystems that are found nowhere else. If we don’t look after ourselves, who will? There is global warming and climate change, and its impact on so much that we take for granted; an economy heavily reliant on what we dig up and sell, in a world less eager to buy. There is the spread of artificial intelligence and automation, and the impact on work and people; there is the increasing requirement to understand ever more sophisticated data, and its wise use; a growing need to grapple with almost unfathomable technologies rushing fast from the world of research into our lives. There is health care: pandemics, epidemics, complications from the spread of antibiotic resistance to bacteria, and how to keep a growing population in good health.
In Part 1 I spoke of the challenges we face and leadership failures..
It is 32 years since my move to the sharp end of Australian universities. In that time, Australia has had 8 Prime Ministers (two of whom lasted a combined 17 of the 32 years, and five lasted 9 years). There have been 25 or so Federal Ministers and Assistant Ministers with ‘Science’ in their title, and about 26 with Education and/or Training in theirs. I have dealt with many of them personally.
I have seen Ministers who were very smart, some were very committed, and the one or two were deeply knowledgeable as well. Sadly, too many of them played to the spectacle so the game subsumed their decency – their version of white line fever.
Public servants came, paused and went. Many were smart but education, or innovation, or science or industry, or training were stepping stones to something else.
In amongst the churn, my colleagues and I still expected a bit of stability, or coherence, even consistency. A bit of vision that stood longer than the tenure of a Minister, or a parliament.
There is a long game, education (and research) is a long game, and it has to be played.
But we rarely had discussions about how to make the big picture better. Or the very characteristics (and purpose) of our sector.
Instead, we were reduced to fiddling endlessly with programs, funding rates, budget cuts, study profiles, underfunded research (with a notable exception)… and reviews. We did have discussions about our budgets, our student numbers and their enrolment profile, or whether we were preparing ‘job-ready’ graduates. Or why we were reluctant to embrace the Minister’s whims of the moment or the whims of the Minister of the moment. The slam dunk, when all else was exhausted, they turned to our salaries.
Why are we prepared to put up with what we get? Why do we not demand more?
Is it because we have had 26 years of continuous growth. Do we think that’s normal? Life is that easy? She’ll be right, no worries. Complacency rules.
Maybe. But she won’t be right and there will be a reason to worry if our leaders continue to think more about themselves and keeping their job than they do about their nation – notwithstanding the piety of their rhetorical commitment to the ‘Australian people’.
We see through that, and we turn away. The 2016 election saw the lowest turnout since compulsory voting was introduced in the 1920s – about 1.4 million Australians did not vote in what turned out to be a cliff-hanger. Add the informal votes, and the close to 800,000 who did not even enrol to vote, and 2.5 to 3 of 16 million eligible voters did not see it worth their while to register a vote.
An ANU poll after the 2016 election revealed that only 26% of people trusted their representatives in government – the lowest number ever in the 49 years of that poll.
Why might that be? Are we fed up with the intellectual laziness, the shallowness of modern politics? The obfuscation and the puerility? The notion that you should ‘vote for us… because we aren’t them’. Is it because we don’t know what we can believe anymore, so why believe anything?
We are now used to a diet of platitudes, thought bubbles, half-truths, outright untruths, opacity and focus group-driven populist approaches based on whatever it takes to get re-elected. We see disgraceful episodes such as the one that occurred in Senate Estimates a few weeks ago. And the leap to defend the indefensible.
I can see on television the people we employ to work in our interests behave in a way we would not tolerate in our own small children.
Sadly at a time when trust is so low, contempt so high it appears they don’t even try to get better. They seem not to understand that trust is what we give them when they earn it, not what they get because they are where they happen to be.
And the shallow self-interest is breathtaking.
We get told, for example, to drop our ‘pre-occupation’ with climate change (and control immigration) to win the next election. A vision for our country that extends all the way to, what, maybe August this year or May next year at the latest. After all, we are told, those tactics won one in 2013.
We have climate science experts dubbed “alarmists” and “zealots” for whom “the cause has become a substitute religion”. We are told that policymakers should not become subservient to the advice of scientists; it seems it is OK to ignore expertise and run a scare campaign to gather a few more votes.
We are told that the age of entitlement is over, for us. But not for everybody. Look at some recent events. Mr Joyce conceded he thought he was a goner from the beginning but stayed in Cabinet – pay, perks, power and all – until he was ejected by the High Court. Some ejected Senators expected their replacements to resign so they could get ‘their’ job back – pay, perks, power and all.
Questionable expenditure is ‘within entitlement’, although ‘to avoid ambiguity’ some is paid back – when the ‘clerical error’ is discovered.
We were told, by a senior member, that we shouldn’t trust them to get the legislation right after the same-sex marriage vote so we should vote ‘no’.
Did they care about the further damage he might do when he (and others) willingly trashed the political brand because they are too intellectually lazy to build a case for their cause – if there is a case for their cause to be built?
Conflict of interest is an expression most used in conjunction with ‘I don’t have one.’ But how would we know? We are told we don’t need a corruption commission because we have Senate Estimates. In the meantime, we learn that lobbyists are not deregistered when they break the rules.
How did we let it come to this? More significantly, why did we let it come to this?
I said in that Henry Parkes Oration, that we were fortunate to have had leaders who argued principles, who were consistent and coherent, and who used evidence and logic with patience and commitment. People who could negotiate and compromise without losing sight of their primary goal.
They did not take people, for granted; they …they knew how to construct and use a narrative to paint the picture as they made their case.
What do we get? Three-word mantras and self-serving self-interest.
Too many of the people whom we employ to lead us are not up to the job. Not all of them, but too many.
And the game they play won’t change until we re-write the rules of our expectation; when we demand that the people we employ to work in our interests actually do.
Ian Chubb is an Australian neuroscientist who was Chief Scientist of Australia from 2011 to 2016.