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Politics and leadership in a post-truth world

Politics and leadership in a post-truth world

episode 2

The fracturing of our political system and the growing need for hard evidence in a post-truth world.

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Show notes

Former Victorian Premier The Hon. John Brumby and former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs on the fracturing of our political system and the growing need for hard evidence in a post-truth world.

Episode transcript

JOHN BRUMBY: The world in which our political and business and community leaders operate – this distortion has occurred about what’s truth and what’s not truth, what’s fact, and what’s not fact. The post-truth era.

ALI MOORE: From the University of Melbourne, this is Expert Hack, a show about the changing world of work and how industry experts are finding clever solutions to tricky problems. I’m Ali Moore.

Today, you’ll hear why one politician is calling for public policy to be based on hard evidence.

I’m speaking with the Honourable John Brumby, former Premier of Victoria and and Professor Gillian Triggs, a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne and former President of the Human Rights Commission.

First I asked John how he rates policy makers of today.

JOHN BRUMBY: Oh, I think that’s a difficult question. I’m often asked about it and I’m not critical of the policymakers of today, but I think they are presented with bigger and deeper challenges than we probably had in the last 10 or 20 years.

So, you think of all of the wicked policy problems which we’re talking about, which can range from climate change problems where the solutions are long-term – and it’s difficult, because many of the changes that you have to make have a short-term impact – right through to what we do about terrorism, right through to what we do about, you know, this terrible problem the world faces at the moment with more than 60 million people who are homeless refugees around the world. So, these are all extremely difficult policy problems.

And I think our institutions, which were really set with rules and frameworks established 100, 200 or more years ago, are really struggling to keep pace with the need for more agile decision making and more consensus-based decision making.

ALI MOORE: Gillian Triggs what about you? How do you rate the policy makers of today and it doesn’t just have to be in the political sphere?

GILLIAN TRIGGS: I rate them very poorly and I think one of the problems has been this phenomenon in recent language of the post-truth world – why we’ve always been subject to propaganda, to spin, to misinformation – there’s an odd phenomenon that appears to be emerging at the moment, which is that there is an intolerance for expert opinions; for reports, for inquiries, for facts, and evidence. And a growing need to satisfy ideology and or subjective views – partly reflecting the sheer volume of information that’s available.

But I think on the major policy issues that John has quite correctly raised, we’ve actually had really good science, evidence, reports, data collection. All sorts of serious minds going to resolve major policy issues – whether it’s a mass movement of peoples across the world, managing global trade, the digital economy, particularly obviously climate change. I think, in Australia, we have not been able to turn that information into the agility that John quite correctly says we need. We’ve lost that ability to respond and we’ve moved into highly polarised political positions.

And I think that’s a real problem for the future and something we have to learn from.

ALI MOORE: By its very nature though, isn’t policy making going to be politicised?

GILLIAN TRIGGS: By its very nature political decisions have to be made, but those political decisions need to be made on an informed evidence base. And I think, in the past, in this 20th century, emphasis on science and evidence and facts that inform policy to a higher degree perhaps meant greater trusted public officials.

Now we find that, although there’s always a political element to policy and politics, this is where you’ve got to make a decision. You’ve got different balances and you’ve got to come up with an answer. But my concern is not with that. My concern is that the policies are being developed are almost rejecting fundamental expert advice. I mean the Finkel report is an example, but we’ve seen it on climate change, we see it on refugee policy. We see it on domestic violence, on crime. So many of the issues that are relevant. They’ve become far more politicised than they should, when we’ve really got to solve the problems.

ALI MOORE: So what’s the motivation? It would appear if we look at the topic that we’re talking about today, from what you’re saying, policymakers of today are actually ignoring the past.

JOHN BRUMBY: You know when we talk about it at Melbourne University, it’s about evidence-based policy. And I’m a big believer of public service – an independent, impartial public service – that’s highly skilled, that gives advice to governments without fear or favour. That’s the best public service. And that’s what it should aspire to.

And the best policy will be evidence-based policy. So, I don’t think it’s that there’s a shortage of people in the public service, or amongst department secretaries, that don’t believe in evidence-based policy. They do. It is just that, you know, in the world around us – the world in which our political and business and community leaders operate – this distortion has occurred about what’s truth and what’s not truth, what’s fact, and what’s not fact. The post-truth era. And that, for many voters, the people who decide who make and break governments, for many of them, they’re having trouble, you know, distinguishing between what is fact and what’s not.

And then if you’ve got that interaction between meddling in the facts on social media and political systems, then you get a parliament on the issue of climate change for example, which has just been a – you know – horrific mess in Australia, really for what now, the best part of a decade since Kevin Rudd should have called the double dissolution election on climate change. Since the Greens voted down the climate change bill, and it’s just been a mess – aggravated particularly by Tony Abbott, by former Prime Minister Abbott – and there’s just been a mess since.

And you can’t get a consensus. Why can’t you get a consensus? Because there are elements that the extremes on both sides that can’t agree on a single course forward. That’s what’s happening.

And I don’t think it’s a lack of commitment between the mainstream of the Labor Party and the mainstream of the Liberal Party. I think it’s a fracturing of our system on extreme left and extreme right.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: Perhaps I can say to John that I think it is a leadership problem. I think we have not had the courageous leadership to stand up against these extreme views, whether from the left or the right. And we see very able people, well-educated, like our leaders Mr Shorten and Mr Turnbull, being pulled into areas and issues that they will perhaps not otherwise be comfortable with.

And that comes back to something that I think has become very important, and that is the question of authenticity of leadership. And I think that’s something that Mr Trump was able to achieve in America, because he’s reached back to the people we’ve left behind. And we’re missing that authenticity in our own leaders in Australia, because we sense that they’re actually being driven by political concerns from extreme aspects of their parties. That’s actually driving them down pathways that we know, as Australians, they don’t actually believe in.

JOHN BRUMBY: I think you know that our institutions haven’t kept pace with the world that is changing around us. And I’m talking particularly about our parliamentary systems and the way we do question time – it’s still a very adversarial system and it’s not the best way to solve problems.

If you got the best Chairs, or CEOs, in a room today and asked them “how do you solve a problem?” most of them would say: you get half a dozen clever people around the table and you talk about the problem and you come up with a consensus and that’s how you change it. Parliament doesn’t work like that.

It’s a very, very adversarial system. But you’ve got to try and find the mechanism to develop that. And our parliament isn’t that mechanism – it’s a very old-fashioned institution. Whereas universities, which are very old-fashioned universities, have managed – I think – to evolve and have managed to become more modern. And maybe there’s a lesson in that and the Melbourne Model, you know, is an example of an age-old institution, Melbourne University, as old as the state itself, evolving in changing times with a different offer. And I think it’s been very successful.

ALI MOORE:  But this was going to be my question: that if we’ve got the institutions that we’ve got, and while there might be reform, it’s not coming tomorrow. So, how in our current environment – which you both paint as relatively depressing I should say – how do we get better policy making?

GILLIAN TRIGGS: Challenge the preconceived ideas, but do so from an evidence base. But to be willing – to use John’s word – to be agile, to be intellectually sceptical, demanding, critical and analytical.

And I think the point about that is whether you’ve done veterinary science or business or law or arts, if you have developed that intellectual skill of agility and original thinking, then you can allow Australia to deal with these problems.  They can then go through the public service and up hopefully into public positions.

Where you say there is a set way of thinking and doing something, and you promote that thinking without proper evidence, then I think you become stultified.

JOHN BRUMBY: Universities have got a crucial role in contributing to public debate and policy. We see that in things like the School of Government here at Melbourne University. We see it in things like the Grattan Institute, which isn’t the university, but part of this Parkville Precinct and it’s about independent critical thinking.

And the other role I would add to what Gillian said about the universities, is that universities now are economic powerhouses. And so, if you look at this Parkville Precinct, it’s an economic powerhouse of Melbourne and the state. If you go out to Monash, ditto out in that cluster and, you know, you look overseas. The role of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. You look at the UK, Cambridge, that Cambridge cluster – there are something like 50,000 small businesses – many of them in the science area, clustered around Cambridge.

So, universities’ critical role: thinking, public policy, public debate, research, but also increasingly economic drivers in this whole creative economy, if I can use that expression.

ALI MOORE: So against this very extensive backdrop that you’ve both painted. And I know that we started this whole chat with you John, pointing out how much more complicated policy-making has become today. But, what would your advice be to policymakers of the future? Bearing in mind that the institutions are not necessarily the correct institutions, the issues are so much more difficult to grapple with. The political discourse is so much more extreme if you like.

JOHN BRUMBY: Well, I don’t think the advice is too much different from what we’ve been talking about this morning. And that is, that if you’re looking at developing policy, it needs to be evidence-based. So, you’ve got to find the evidence, the clear evidence and the facts and build policy off the back of that.

I think the other point I’d say about policy is, the two bits that are crucial are the evidence. And secondly, what I call the collaboration, the round-tables – I used to call them – in government. If you’ve got a difficult policy problem, and it might be on health, get all the players around the room, you know, from the doctors through to the practitioners; through to the consumers; through to the unions – get everyone around the room. Here’s what the facts say. The facts say that diabetes is growing at an alarming rate. The facts say you will go blind and you will die of heart disease if you don’t treat your diabetes. So, what do we do about that?

And that to me – it’s a bit old fashioned, but it is still the best way. Now you can meld into that collaboration – all the social media things we’ve been talking about, so you can use technology to help get a wider range of views, but evidence and listening to people – listening not just to the experts, but to everybody who’s a stakeholder is still the best way to develop policy.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: Yes, well I completely agree of course. Although, of course, it’s been so sad in my view to see that that kind of consultation went out to our indigenous Australians to make proposals for constitutional change. They came up with a reasoned view about wanting a constitutional amendment to allow some form of advisory body in, I think, the confident belief that they would be listened to and that at least there would be some attempt to respond to their proposals. But it’s been apparently rejected out of hand. That looks extremely disrespectful to Indigenous Australians and has left us with a brick wall or an impasse. We’re going nowhere.

I think, of course, we need to be more respectful of the evidence. I completely agree about the necessity for greater levels of consultation with the people affected. I would like to see a reform of parliamentary processes. I think it’s very distressing that so much that happens by people of goodwill and good faith in parliament is lost in the polemic ideological debate.

But I’d like to see our leaders standing up for evidence-based decision making. But I think we also need to be much more respectful of civil society and of the various groups within the community that know what they’re talking about. It may not be possible, politically or constitutionally, but at least to be respected and drawn into the discussion to find – as John has said – some form of consensus. It’s not impossible, but it needs to be done before positions become so polarised that nobody can move in any direction at all. And then you end up in a situation where actually nothing will happen.

So, we don’t have the vision and we don’t have a nation that’s behind that vision anymore.

ALI MOORE: There are so many issues and clearly so many challenges that face policymakers today and I thank you both enormously for giving your thoughts about, well I guess the environment that we live in and let’s hope that we can go forth and do better.

Thank you very much to both of you.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: Thank you very much.


ALI MOORE: If you like this conversation, stay tuned, because later in the series, we hear how despite the rise of artificial intelligence, lawyers are using their human skills to deliver better outcomes.

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Expert Hack is a podcast from the University of Melbourne, where the Melbourne Model is preparing students for the future beyond their degree. Learn more at