JULIAN CRIBB. Our Parliament: an unqualified failure for the future

Oct 13, 2017

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).


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12 thoughts on “JULIAN CRIBB. Our Parliament: an unqualified failure for the future

  1. Good essay, – but: Does it matter? When members vote as directed by the party? And the party direction is always towards winning the next election by satisfying media demands and corporate/union interests?
    Parties endorse candidates who can (a) win elections and (b) do what they are told.
    Legislative skills are are just a bonus. That’s the Westminster system.
    It’s been that way for centuries, when shareholders of the East india Company controlled parliament, and hence the British Empire. Just like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Sir Joseph, who boasted –
    “I always voted at my party’s call,
    And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.”

  2. In this article Julian, you make a good case in demonstrating a dearth of STEM qualified people in parliament (science, technology, engineering and maths qualified).
    However, assuming this is a key or central cause behind the electoral malaise we all know now exists – your words “No wonder the decision making of recent years has been so poor” – is, I think, quite wide of the mark.

    As Martin Braden points out in his excellent comment, we know from the past (looking back to the Menzies’ era) that good government (or at least far better government than we have now) can occur without specialist scientific knowledge amongst the ranks of MPs and top bureaucrats. You acknowledge the truth of what Martin is saying, with your response to his comment “The situation that applied under Menzies no longer applies today”. However, instead of then going on to explore what is going on today in our politics that was not going on then, your rather revert back to your original premise, arguing, in effect, against Martin’s point by saying “Therefore there is a necessity for those taking the decisions to do so from an informed perspective, rather than an uninformed or ideologically-biased perspective”.

    Following Martin Braden’s lead, the real “necessity” is to re-think the whole political democratic apparatus that, over time, has deteriorated to the point where “uninformed or ideologically-biased perspectives” hold sway in a way they never used to.

    There are people exploring these issues on this John Menadue blog, such as Allan Patience with his article “The End is Nigh! Anticipating a Post-Capitalist World” posted on 1 Feb 17. And I can think of 2 books on my bookshelf that go to the real nub of the problem:
    – former Rudd Government Minister Lindsay Tanner’s “Sideshow – dumbing down of democracy” and
    – a prescient work back in 1943, by the brilliant young Christian philosopher Simone Weil “On the Abolition of all Political Parties”.
    Set against these fields of inquiry, arguing that our dilapidated and decrepit decision making by governments in our times will be solved by having more science qualified MP’s is way too simplistic.

  3. Julian Cribbs,

    I recognize your thoughtful contribution to this issue but I think you’ve been spending too much time in Canberra. While I agree that re-distribution is a primary function of government, I don’t think it (govt) should be in the wealth creation area at all – that’s the bailiwick of the private sector. Government should limit its activities to providing a level playing field upon which entrepreneurs can operate and otherwise keep well clear.

    While I’m not familiar with the work of Solow, I’d say that the STEM areas are merely catalysts to economic growth. You still need entrepreneurs to come along and envision an application which consumers would demand. To take a physical principle, a mathematical equation or a working prototype and turn it into a desirable product requires the ability to harness capital and labour and to be incentivized by at least a modicum of greed. The younger Turnbull was a fine example of this genre although the mature Turnbull pays but lip service to it.

    1. Yes and no, bushwalker. Entrepreneurs and others motivated by commercial ambition (a more honourable term than “greed”) can create virtually no economic activity beyond their family without relying on public goods – roads, land titles, a stable currency, honest banks and above all thoughtful policy analysis that steers government and private enterprise alike away from chaos, disorder, corruption and dry gullies. These public institutions are at present under siege from cost-cutting governments, an anti-public enterprise press and a hubristic business sector that seems to think that it alone creates economic prosperity.

      A large proportion of the innovations that have improved well-being or created new enterprises have arisen because of curiosity-led investigation (in public and private sectors) with no commercial motive. Indeed, most scientific research is animated by a curiosity-led desire to extend the boundaries of knowledge – claims that scientists are motivated primarily to expand their research budgets are fiction.

      If by “providing a level playing field” you mean that governments should not grant monopoly favours, I agree entirely.

  4. Thanks, Julian Cribb.

    I would be interested to hear of suggestions from you or other respondents as to what the scientific community can do to remedy this shortfall in scientific literacy. The Royal Society of Queensland, using a grant from the Queensland Government, has instituted a series of forums titled “Science for Decision-makers” aimed at strengthening the scientific literacy of leaders in government, business and civil society. The need is so great in all sectors, it is difficult to know where to start. As Martin Braden indicates, the public service can no longer be regarded as a countervailing centre of excellence in multidisciplinary policy analysis, capable of applying scientific method to contemporary problems on behalf of elected members. It is also difficult to know what type of forum is going to appeal sufficiently to encourage attendance by those who would benefit.

  5. You are right. But we live in an age when the ‘public service’ has been replaced by the ‘political service’, and its members are often obliged to consider their next contract before the good of the nation, rather than being ‘frank and fearless’.
    The situation that applied under Menzies no longer applies today. Therefore there is a necessity for those taking the decisions to do so from an informed perspective, rather than an uninformed or ideologically-biased perspective.
    And being informed in the C21st involves having at least a passing familiarity with the processes of science and the value of evidence (as distinct from opinions like T. Abbott’s).

    1. I agree I ageee with you in pricipal,however I think it far too difficult in practice. When Gareth Evans wasappoited Minister for Minerals, the first thing he did was to lear

    2. I agree I ageee with you in pricipal,however I think it far too difficult in practice. When Gareth Evans was appointed Minister for Minerals, the first thing he did was to learn the Periodic Table, and then study as much of the basics of geology and mining engineering in an effort to gain expertise in his portfolio.
      It proved to be totally ineffective, as he was soon moved on to the AG’s portfolio.
      Politics and ministerial are both too mercurial for the luxury of the time needed to develop expertise.
      I suppose the American cabinet system, where members are drawn from outside of the parliament can provide the avenue for what you propose. Otherwise you are on what I might call a wild goose chase !!
      Martin Braden

  6. Under the classical Westminster system, that Australia followed prior to the Whitlam government, Ministers were not expected to be experts in the detail of their remit. They relied on the experience and expertise of the permanent public service. Career public servants in the policy areas of government provided the detailed advice on an objective basis, from years of experience, or so the theory goes. Menzies had no qualms about receiving advice from the “seven dwarfs’ as the heads of the major policy departments were known, nor was he interested in their personal political leanings, which tended to be small “L” liberal to left of centre. Importantly there were no political operatives in ministerial offices, although ministers could and did seek outside advice from outside of Canberra from time to time.
    The clear gap between political decision making after receiving informed advice from the public officials was understood by both sides. Ministers couldn’t and didn’t feel at all hoodwinked by the process.
    There were always times when the politicians ran against the advice, for purely political reasons, but it was generally clear cut when it happened.

    Menzies appreciated the depth of knowledge and expertise that resided in a permanent head and his career cohorts. The permanent official could give unalloyed advice without fear, as his employment was permanent.

  7. This is undoubtedly my political bias showing, but I sheet home major proportion of blame to the Coalition govts of recent years, ably assisted by the Murdoch media, who keep them in office. The author does the usual cop-out by blaming “politicians” whereas should be more specifics ” The calibre of too many of the Libs is embarrassing. Think Eric Abetz, George Christenson, Bernardi, Leyonhjelm and endless others. Turnbull and Abbott both supposedly Rhodes Scholars? Pffft.

    1. I thought I highlighted coalition failing re climate and the NBN. But the decline in science – and as a journalist reporting it for decades – is entirely bipartisan. Labor may be less bad in some respects but they are still bad. So this is not a political issue, no matter how much you might wish it to be. The science degrees, and culpability, are evenly distributed.

  8. Mmmmm … Sadly, they glory in their own ignorance, and absolutely will not accept any professional, scientific or other expert advice that conflicts with their various ideologies, prejudices and biases.

    Indeed they have problems recognising their ideologies, prejudices and biases as limitations.

    We are poorly served indeed.

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