ROGER SCOTT. Whither Political Science 2: A parochial perspective

Aug 11, 2018

The World Congress of the International Political Science Association (IPSA) was held jointly with the annual conference of the Australian Political Studies Association (AuPSA) in Brisbane in July 2018. The papers on Australia provided a snapshot of the breadth of scholarship and also underlying attitudes among political scientists towards the political system within which Australian universities function.

The opening plenary by Antony Green and Lisa Hill, ‘Australia’s Democratic Innovations’, offered an expert technical exposition of two elements of the Australian electoral system: preferential voting and compulsory voting. The closing plenary was a bravura performance by Cynthia Enloe: ‘Patriarchy is Bigger than Donald Trump’.  In between, David Forsythe addressed ‘The Future of Human Rights in an Era of Narrow Nationalism’, and a panel of speakers discussed ‘Challenging the Borders of Liberal Democracy: the Global Rise of Populism. 

Australian academics could relate to all these topics, particularly as the conference was held in Brisbane in the week preceding the Longman by-election, when narrow nationalism and populism were being purveyed in an electorate just up the freeway. The AuPSA sessions incorporated the predictable titles for a gathering of political scientists – comparative politics, environmental politics, gender and sexuality, political theory, media and politics.  

I attended exclusively international presentations but focussed my readings on a group of session headed ‘Public Policy and Governance’ and also on one of the general sessions on ‘Indigenous Politics’. A 51 further sessions organised by specialist research committees of IPSA catering for panels with more specialist interests attracted papers from Australian authors – with sub-groups on various areas of public policy.

My impression from reading a number of the public policy papers is a prevailing pessimism about the nature of Australian politics and the inability of political scientists to do anything about this beyond playing Cassandra. My University of Queensland colleague Alastair Stark is engaged in a comparative study of several anglophone countries ‘The Shelf-Life of Public Policy: An International Comparison of Institutional Amnesia in Four Westminster Systems’. He circulated his chapter, ‘Policy Learning, Australian Style’ in which he concludes that it ‘suggested that the APS has a specific policy learning style characterised by a tendency to look backwards and inwards and to excessively control collaborative efforts to learn’.

Stark’s organising principle of ‘Policy Learning and Administrative Amnesia’ is explored further in a paper ‘Memories That Don’t Stand Still? Institutional Memory for Modern Governance’ by Jack Corbett, Rodney Scott, Heather Lovell and Dennis Grube based on an article soon to appear in the journal Governance. This looks in detail at a much-criticised program in the state of Victoria, the Advanced Metering Infrastructure.  Other papers dealt with issues of health policy, early childhood education, arts policy, federal-state education finance, and Northern Territory parks.

The conference opened with the continuation of symposia organised by Griffith University, ‘Experimentation, Innovation and Policy Learning in the Australian Federation’.  This struck a more optimistic note with papers like ‘Cross-Jurisdictional Learning – How Lessons Learnt in Queensland were Utilised in Western Australia” (by Tracey Arklay and Elizabeth van Acker) and ‘Enhancing the Policy Laboratory Effect: Insights from Education in Australia’ (by Bronwyn Hinz).  Hal Colebatch picked up this thread of practicality in the following session.

Colebatch made a predictably magisterial contribution, building on the widespread scholarly impact of his long-standing monograph Policy (McGraw-Hill Education, 1998).  I was reassured that Colebatch argues that old friends like Lindblom, Wildavsky and their cohort are still relevant, citing Heclo’s observation in 1974 that ‘policy activity is not only about deciding, but is also a process of “collective puzzling” – about what is of concern, and why, what is known about it, and who might be looked to do it – in other words, it is a continuing process of problematisation’.

Hal’s second contribution was much more specific: ‘Accounting for Reform: Argument, Evaluation and Rationality’. This focussed on the nature of the critique which so often flowed from academic writing, and ‘what it shows about the different ways that practitioners and academics approach the explanation and validation of practice’. The case chosen was the ‘One Stop Shop Innovation’ in which an academic critic has argued decisions to implement this reform ‘are driven by administrative fashion, opportunistic entrepreneurialism and naïve optimism, and are irrational because they are taken without full information on costs or alternative modes of provision’.  

Colebatch suggests that there is very little evidence for these claims. From the perspective of an insider, ‘“the government” is not so much an actor as an area in which a variety of actors (including political leaders) interact in the course of pursuing their various agendas. It is traversed by stresses … not problems to be solved, but inherent tensions to be managed. … Public statements made at the time should be seen as exercises in justification rather than explanations of motivation, still less goals that the One Stop Shop was designed to achieve’. 

In addition to the general analytical papers, I also caught up with the burgeoning literature on Indigenous public policy, represented in particular by a session entitled ‘Indigenous Knowledge, Culture and Peoples and the Public Sector’ and by a throng of papers on similar themes in other sessions. The titles give the flavour of their content: ‘Governing at the Cultural Interface: Rethinking Indigenous Representation in the Modern Australian Public Service’ (Diana Perche), ‘Indigenous Knowledge, the Neo-Weberian State and Australia’s Conflicted Public Sector’ (Catherine Althaus), ‘Middlemen and Go-betweens: The Value of Indigenous Organisations as Orchestrators of Restraint (Kathryn Thorburn).

In a session convened by Morgan Brigg, processes of decision-making in Indigenous government were compared with those of the US by Burke Hendrix, and Will Sanders considered ‘Deep Structures in Australian Indigenous affairs: Federalism, Competing Principles, High Moralism and a Remote Focus’. 

The final paper in that session was from Angelique Stastny, ‘The Politics of Knowledge Production and Ignorance Cultivation: History Curricula and Teacher Training in Australia’. This reminded me of Max Weber’s ‘strong slow boring of hard boards’ – and the even slower shifting of sands on policies relating to Indigenous issues in Australia. In 1993, with strong internal backing from within the Queensland Department of Education, from my Minister and from the teaching workforce, I initiated a process of curriculum reform to confront the prejudices embedded in the history syllabus of the Bjelke-Petersen era. New curriculum materials based on input from contemporary historians created a furore in the media. This led to parliamentary debates focussed on how political correctness was demeaning the role of the pioneers:  what was wrong with Mount Isa citizens calling black people ‘boongs’, or suggesting that ‘invasion’ was not an accurate historical representation of the Indigenous experience? I lost then, and I have been a long time waiting. 

Chris Eichbaum and Richard Shaw in their paper on the role of ministerial staff in New Zealand, ‘The Future of Public Administration: Speaking Truth to Power or Fluffing the Lines?’, quoted a monograph from the US by Alasdair Roberts, Large Forces: What’s Missing in Public Administration (2013) which advanced the thesis that contemporary public administration has weakened over time due in large measure to its failure to examine ‘the larger forces’ shaping public administration. 

A disproportionate amount of research is concerned with narrow questions of administrative technique. We have lost the capacity to tell broader stories about the processes by which the administrative apparatus has acquired its present form … We are like the crew in a ship’s lower decks. We might understand how the propulsion and navigation systems work but we have no real sense if where the ship is sailing, where it is heading, or why it follows one route rather than another.

It was written in 2013 before Admiral Donald entered the wheelhouse, but Australian political scientists face the same challenge as their many American colleagues present at the Brisbane congress.

Roger Scott, Centre for Policy Futures, University of Queensland.

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