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Good leaders need the confidence to listen



'Scientists are experts in science. Judges are experts in interpreting the law and doctors are skilled at keeping us healthy — provided we take their advice.

Expert offering advice'But parliaments — composed of elected politicians — are the experts at public policy making, and neither expressly or impliedly should they ever surrender that role to others.'

This quote has crossed my mind several times lately as I've been trying to make sense of recent government decisions.

Who said it? John Howard. Back in 2013. During Tony Abbott's brief prime ministership. In a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London. Does it make sense to you? It shouldn't, because it's fundamentally wrong.

And yet this is the character of our political leadership today: unable to find the confidence it needs to make the most responsible decisions. Confident leadership trusts in expertise. It takes confidence in your own skill as a resourceful decision-maker to recognise the expertise of others as something you don't share but can benefit from.

What we're seeing instead is a nervous leadership, too perturbed to envision a future beyond its own imagination, too anxious to trust in those who can build that future.

We're seeing universities and the CSIRO attacked and funds cut while the government promotes an 'ideas boom'. We're seeing creative industries and the Australia Council diminished and public investment slashed while the government talks of an 'innovation agenda'.

The insecure rejection of expertise alongside the hubristic sloganeering is reckless: our political leadership seems intent on destroying Australia's smartest and most creative nation builders.


"Democracies thrive when our public institutions in arts, science and education are contributing passionately and fearlessly to the national conversation."


The arts is a particularly telling example. In Canada the Trudeau government is doubling its investment, both to strengthen the culture and strengthen the economy. In Australia, the confident leadership of Menzies, Whitlam and Keating had made the arts a prominent element of their platforms at pivotal times in Australia's history. Today in Australia, we're going backwards and fast.

Over the past few years we've gone from an ambitious and effective cultural policy created by real and rigorous national consultation, to the deliberate disruption of the entire industry in forcing hundreds of non-profit companies to rewrite strategic plans for funding rounds that either didn't happen or locked them out. Public investment in the work of individual artists has dropped to an alarming level, and every major artist and industry group has spoken out and continues to speak out in dismay.

And yet despite this authoritative uproar, and despite the consistent testimony of 2719 specialised voices combining to make the largest Senate Inquiry response in Australian history, this expertise is not honoured but ignored.

Parliaments exist to make decisions. Their existence is structured around centuries-old conventions for making decisions. There are debating rules and time limits on speeches to ensure multiple perspectives are heard. There are formalised inquiries designed to solicit expertise from beyond the Parliament. There are bells that sound when a decision is about to be made: bells that can be heard throughout Parliament House, ensuring that nobody takes for granted this most essential of their elected functions.

We elect people to make decisions on our behalf because it's impossible for all 23 million of us to come together and decide things for ourselves. We don't elect people because we imagine that they're somehow more expert than those whose advice we expect them to draw upon. To take Howard's examples: scientists and judges didn't become experts because somebody voted them into their jobs.

The fact of us electing politicians does not suddenly make them experts in anything at all. The only people who are experts in public policy making are the public policy experts in the public service, at universities and at other public institutions. Being elected does not confer expertise, it confers responsibility: the serious and weighty duty to make the best decisions on our behalf in the most well-informed way.

And yet Howard argued that politicians should downplay the role of experts to uphold the dignity of their office: 'Politicians who bemoan the loss of respect for their calling', he'd said just a moment before that quote, 'should remember that every time they allow themselves to be browbeaten by the alleged views of experts they contribute further to that loss of respect.'

Where is the confidence to lead the nation? The confidence to understand that a diverse nation generates sophisticated knowledge across multiple fields? The confidence to embrace that expertise in all its complexity? The confidence to imagine an Australia enriched by expert ambitions that are beyond your knowledge but within your power to realise? The confidence to overcome personal insecurities and govern for the public good: this is leadership.

When politicians make decisions that defy expertise, we lose respect for them — and ultimately, this is bad for democracy. Democracies thrive when our public institutions in arts, science and education are contributing passionately and fearlessly to the national conversation.

'Provided we take their advice.'


Esther AnatolitisWriter and curator Esther Anatolitis is director of Regional Arts Victoria and an advocate for the arts. She tweets @_esther

Main image: Shutterstock

Topic tags: Esther Anatolitis, arts funding, Australia Council



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Existing comments

Control, control, control. Power is diminished if there is dissent. Control.

DonaldD | 24 May 2016  

An excellent thought piece Esther. Our public institutions have a seat at the table as you say. However, it is unrealistic and to think they should be the only voice or accepted as the most important voice. Investment in any area does not survive without savings it without profit growth. We are not generating the later and so we borrow for all of these great institutions you name. Curtailing spending in areas allows these great institutions to survive over the long term. I don't disagree with many points you make but your focus is short term and in this respect the commentary is like most other commentators. Every area of public spending needs to be cut. Doing so ensures the strength and guidance from these institutions for generations to come. Albeit, it will require public administrators like yourself to make some hard decisions in the short term.

Luke | 24 May 2016  

A very accurate perspective of the Howard legacy born out of an arrogant ignorance and failure to recognise expertise in others. Malcolm Turnbull has always expressed greater vision than the Howards and Abbots of this world and their current band of disciples with his acceptance of those things that will bring Australia into the modern world. Science and the Humanities (of both types) have always been beyond the understanding of these troglodytes. Let's hope Turnbull can survive their ignorance manifest in the obvious undercurrent of treachery that he has stimulated in the "Liberal" party.

john frawley | 24 May 2016  

When the words "leader" and "listen" are in the same sentence, and especially related to politics, I think of that wonderful British TV series "Yes, Minister". I have no doubt politicians listen to their trusted advisers, recruited from amongst sympathisers, and trained to keep their ear to the ground. Listening to those in no position of influence - now that would be 'leadership'. Respect is built little by little and self-respect is even more difficult.

Pam | 24 May 2016  

Thank you Esther for a thought provoking article. There is a lesson here for the Catholic Church, in Australia and universally. Church leaders have for too long cast aside (ignored) the lived experience and therefore the expertise of its lay members in decision making. I am a little less hopeful now that Pope Francis can turn this around given the reaction to his efforts.

John Casey | 24 May 2016  

Great article, makes a lot of sense. I wish more people realised that 'Being elected does not confer expertise, it confers responsibility ...'

Maureen O'Brien | 24 May 2016  

A great statement and oh so true it is frightening. Cuts to the arts and to any science organisations mean that all Australia's creativity is stifled. Why study science or the arts?

Helen | 24 May 2016  

Parliamentarians are experts, or as close as we can get, NOT in what should be done for the common good, but in how to get re-elected. What should be done for the common good requires not election but Vision, as pointed out in Proverbs 29:18. There are various translations. The King James puts it starkly, 'Where there is no Vision, the people perish.' The sense seems to be, 'When we do not see and understand the Call of God, we regress back to primitive forms of self-centred instincts that destroy the unity and harmony we should enjoy. Just as each human body is made up of trillions of cells each with a life of its own, but all cooperating for the good of the whole, so each human person is part of the Great Human Body, the Human Race, the Family of God, and each needs to find and fulfil their role, no more and no less. Even religions fail here, each seeking their own promotion instead of learning to unite in harmony with other interpretations of God's universal call.

Robert Liddy | 25 May 2016  

I too think this is a very thoughtful and well written article. We have to be aware that John Howard's remarks were conveying what many of his class really think ie he and his friends are a ruling elite and people are expected to obey without question. Deferring to "betters and elders" is very much part of their political outlook. People in their position - no matter how ignorant, arrogant or lacking in compassion they may be are born to rule. Sadly, some people are conned by this attitude and continue to return ultra conservative governments that make big cuts in the budgets of programs for the needy while ensuring that their wealthy friends are looked after. I agree with some comments that Malcolm Turnbull sounds more progressive, humane and "liberal" than Tony Abbott. It has to be realised that the ultra right in the "Liberal" Party have him concreted in to supporting Abbott-type policies. The fact that Malcolm Turnbull stays in that party is an indication that, despite the fine and eloquent words, he is committed to the welfare of his class and not that of battling Australians or others who will be adversely affected by LNP cuts.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 25 May 2016  

Parliamentarians are jurors, generalists who exist to determine 'facts'. The specialist expert too needs to determine 'facts'. Otherwise, she won't be able to draw conclusions from the theoretical apparatus that, standing on the shoulders of the giants before her, she is using to comment upon that part of the world in which she is licensed by her official expertise to 'know'. A jury is society's decree that while judges are experts in interpreting the law, the jury tells him the facts upon which he is to base his interpretation. Perhaps a jury should have restrained the US Supreme Court in 1973 from interpreting the law to condone the slaughter of millions. But, a highest appellate court is a finality of 'experts'. Parliamentarians on the floor and in caucus are also experts - in herding cats, the thousands of us who sense our 'facts' from the myriad of ways in which we are impacted by life, of whom an expert or several are but individual sensors. "The only people who are experts in public policy making are the public policy experts in the ...." is an interesting piece of megalomania, something Thomas Sowell would describe as 'the vision of the anointed'.

Roy Chen Yee | 26 May 2016  

Roy, parliamentarians are no more 'jurors' than are company directors, otherwise we would select both by lottery, MPs and board are there to set directions, supervise the executive, and allocate scarce resources. Sure, they need to ascertain the 'facts', and, more importantly, their relevance, but the most important - the hard bit - is the vision bit, Robert is right, 'without a vision, the people (or the company) perish'. A vision is a necessary but not sufficient condition. There can be many competing visions, and good leaders will listen to and engage with other perspectives. The military needs to listen to historians, the engineer to the social scientist, the church of celibate males to, dare I say it, the sexually active laity, and a parliament of almost exclusively lawyers and economists to almost everyone else, but especially those from science, the humanities, and the arts.

Ginger Meggs | 26 May 2016  

Beautifully written Esther, your words echo my thoughts. " There are none so blind, as those who will not see".

Pat | 27 May 2016  

Ginger Meggs: Who goes into the jury pool may be by a form of lottery. Who goes onto a jury itself is decided with some care by discerning lawyers. Who gets to be preselected is, we trust, decided with some care by party preselectors. If company directors are chosen with some care by company boards, I guess parliamentarians are as much jurors as company directors as are empanelled jurors themselves. As for the rest of your post, economists have credentialled schools (New Keynesian, Neoclassical, etc.) to which they can attribute their views and would a lawyer be so careless as not to have an expert whom he can cite, seeing that citing precedents is what lawyers do when under the glare of a judge? Silently gliding under the main article seems to be the theme of why do those in power consult other experts than me and my intellectual cohorts, a plaint of Sowell's anointed visionaries.

Roy Chen Yee | 30 May 2016  

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