Wednesday 8 August 2007


John Howard is on a desperate pre-election scramble that shows his real contempt for accountable government and the expertise in government departments and the professions. This week's hospital debacle in Tasmania adds to a long list of policy disasters built on a contempt for specialist expertise and an obsession with tactical politics. The prospects for the massive indigenous intervention can't be good.

On Monday, John Howard told reporters that while he fully acknowledged the crisis outlined in the recent report on child abuse in indigenous communities (read political opportunity), his government felt no obligation to respond to the recommendations of its authors (read, insufficient hysteria, too many complex long term strategies and not enough guns and jeeps).

Howard has used the report as the basis for a massive intervention in indigenous affairs the likes of which we have not seen in his eleven years as Prime Minister. Yet this massive intervention is taking place with minimal consultation and widespread condemnation from the report’s authors, indigenous leaders and communities and experts who have long been dealing with issues of aboriginal health, welfare and development.

Most Australians, including indigenous leaders, would agree that the situation in indigenous Australia is chronic and requires a massive reevaluation. In the past few days, the costs of this intervention have leapt from the originally planned tens of millions to half a billion dollars in its first year. But what form should the intervention take? And what are its prospects of success when it shuns broad consultation with Aboriginal community leaders and many of those with expertise in Aboriginal communities not to mention the Opposition? After decades of failure, what prospect is there that a Government can engineer a policy revolution in indigenous affairs that has any prospect of success in six weeks?

The emergency response to the findings seemed appropriate. Who could argue with a huge, immediate effort to curb child sexual abuse? Minister for Indigenous Affairs Brough said that if you don’t agree with this intervention “you either don’t have a child or you don’t have a soul” (read - you're with us or you're a child abuser). So we now know how to view the broad opposition to the initiative.

It’s a disturbing way for a government to develop policy but it has plenty of precedent. From global warming, the Murray rescue plan, the Iraq War, the war on terror and military deployments in the Pacific and Timor, there is a common trend – condemn the expert.

Expert opinion has been ignored or condemned across most of the Howard government’s major policy blunders. In the long term, Australia will pay.

Experts should be analysed, scrutinised and critiqued. They should be heard. The Prime Minister is right in saying that good leaders will on occasions act against prevailing expert advice. Good leaders however can be entrusted to do so in the best interests of the community. Mr Howard's record on defying expert opinion speaks for itself - a series policy disasters for Australia from Tampa to Iraq and an occasional quick political thrill for the PM.

Many of the country’s most senior public servants know how it feels to be on the wrong side of an argument with the Howard government. When Treasury Secretary Ken Henry was reported to have criticised the government’s Murray Darling Plan, Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull responded dismissively,

"The Treasury does not know how much it costs to pipe a channel, how much it costs to replace a Dethridge wheel with a computerised flume gate, and how much it costs to line 10 kilometres of leaky pipe along the Murrumbidgee River," he said.

Treasurer Costello added, "Treasury's no water expert; Treasury's good at treasury; Treasury has not been engaged in water,"

The fact of course is that Treasury and Finance are normally involved in every costly policy initiative just as Finance departments would be involved in any major initiative in a corporation. It’s called responsible governance. Treasury knowing about Treasury is enough.

Police Commissioner Mick Kealty is a changed man since his 2004 brush with Howard orthodoxy that Australia’s presence in Iraq in no way impacts our position as a target for terrorists (see my previous post).

The Howard government’s oft recited contempt for elites includes the “elite” minds of its own military, science, economics, foreign policy, intelligence, police and other areas of the public service establishment. The Iraq War and climate change may be the most glaring cases of wilful disregard of widely expressed expert views. There are many others. And the quality of our most important analysts must have suffered terribly under this culture.

With the same pig headed “shock and awe” mindset being applied to the indigenous intervention, it will take a miracle for it to succeed.

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