Australia is ruled by ‘experts’ - The Centre for Independent Studies
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Australia is ruled by ‘experts’

Politicians can’t live without experts. Faced with technical complexity all around them — whether in public health, climate science, economics or infrastructure costing — it is understandable that few elected politicians have either the time or the talent to gain mastery over so much detail.

Sometimes they even seem to need experts to tell them when they need experts. What else can explain Finance minister Katy Gallagher’s decision to sign a $32,000 contract with the Ethics Centre, an expert consultancy, for advice on when her department should engage external consultants.

The thinking behind Gallagher’s decision seems to be that only experts can know best when it comes to, well, signing expensive contracts about when to use other experts. Yet sometimes the expertise for sale can do more harm than good – especially when the advice is about costly ventures for which tax payers are going to foot the bill.

When consultancy firm PwC told the South Australian government it could expect a generous return on the $1bn investment it would cost to host the Commonwealth Games, Adelaide’s response was that the numbers looked wrong. But the numbers looked right to the Victorian government. Buoyed by a report from another consultancy firm, EY, which promised rich rewards for hosting the games for $2.6bn, the Victorian government signed up — only to pull out recently when the bill looked like blowing out to $7bn.

The advice was bad (and expensive), the decision flawed, and egg is still being wiped from faces.

So-called ‘rule by experts’ is understandably attractive to those who dislike the tumult of democratic politics, or to those who don’t think the people are to be trusted to make their own decisions.

That’s one reason why during the pandemic, politicians allowed what they said was the best ‘expert’ medical advice to set the rules by which we were to live. Now we know that some of that advice turned out to be contradictory, and even wrong.

But the problem is that by deferring too much to unelected and unaccountable experts, politicians run the risk of subverting the healthy working of our democratic politics. After all, it is the politicians who are elected to parliament by us who are the ones responsible for weighing the competing rights and interests of citizens — and not the experts.

So if we can’t live without experts, we at least need to learn how to live with them.

That means we need to keep experts on a leash. The trick is to make the leash long enough so experts can exercise the autonomy and responsibility they need to do their job properly, but also short enough to ensure they remain fully accountable to elected politicians — and through them, to us, the people.

No snappy formula exists for calculating the precise length of an expert’s leash for any given situation — but we can identify three cultural features that can help ensure experts are able to make an appropriate and responsible contribution to the working of democratically elected governments.

First, we need to get better at tolerating dissent. Only then can we expect to engage in open debate and evaluate critical differences of opinion that prevail not only among experts, but between experts and the wider public. ‘Cancellation’ and public denunciation of those with dissenting opinions simply undermines the whole purpose of seeking expert advice in the first place.

Then, we need our political leaders to put steel in their spines and have the political courage to risk upsetting public and political opinion in determining the policy trade-offs which are an unavoidable part of government. There are times when hostile reactions to decisions based on expert advice are unavoidable, and our elected representatives need to steel up and face them.

Finally, we need to accept that no modern government can dispense with experts; but we need to foster the means of ensuring they discharge their duties responsibly. Oversight of budgets, adherence to codes of ethics and conduct, and effective oversight are just some of the mechanisms that can promote the institutional integrity essential for the effective use of expert advice.

Expert knowledge is never simply an end in itself, but always a means to accomplishing a greater good in any modern democracy.

Therefore, there can be no justification for allowing experts to usurp the role of elected representatives and to claim that their specialised knowledge provides some kind of warrant to rule over the rest of us in their place – or even to tell us when expert advice is necessary.

Experts fail in their duties when they fail to persuade, when they shroud their pronouncements in complex, impenetrable language, or when they forget the importance of cultivating the informed consent of the wider public.

Yet citizens in a plural democracy also have a responsibility to foster a civic culture that promotes appropriate use of experts.

After all, it is the character of citizens, rather than the efficacy of experts that makes any liberal democracy work effectively and efficiently.

Risk, complication and failure are an inherent part of life. As citizens, we need to remember this and also cultivate a degree of expertise in evaluating the expertise of experts — who need to be on tap and not on top.

Peter Kurti is Director of the Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia.   

Photo by Karolina Grabowska.