Everyone agrees that the quality of public discourse in Australia is dismal. Most of us blame politicians and the media. But the constant carping is getting tedious and irritating. Isn’t it time the rest of us thought about what we can do to lift the quality of public debate?
… the level of political discourse is not high. That is partly the fault of the media, but also the fault of the politicians, some of whom at least are happy to join battle, mouthing jibes and slogans (Let’s move Australia forward, Stand up for Australia, The real Julia, Stop the boats, End the waste), seldom bothering to explain a policy or answer a question without short-term political gain being uppermost in their minds.
It’s a familiar complaint. In 2008 George Megalogenis wrote: "The media has reduced politicians into thinking by the minute." He argued that politicians have come to see the winning the media cycle as an end in itself and devote more attention to ‘selling’ policy than developing it.
Ex-politician Lindsay Tanner has devoted an entire book to the issue. In Sideshow he argues that there’s little reflection and deliberation in public debate. Rather than examining the philosophical principles behind policy differences, "Political debate is now largely composed of empty posturing about trivial matters." And too often it seems as if experts who know what they’re talking about sidelined in favour of focus group and poll findings.
Peter Shergold, a former secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, argues that university academics have little incentive to engage in policy debates. Speaking on Radio National’s Late Night Live he said that universities and academics are rewarded for publications in academic journals, but not for their influence on policy debate. He’d like to see more academics engaged with the policy process.
But the policy game is tricky for experts. Politicians and senior bureaucrats want solutions that have remained intractable for decades. They don’t want to understand why the problem is difficult — they want a one page list of recommendations. And to be acceptable, these recommendations have to be media friendly and not attract nasty co-ord comments from Treasury or the Department of Finance. In most cases that’s just not realistic.
Experts who play that game enjoy only a brief time in the sun. Their policies may end up being implemented (after various tweaks and compromises). But chances are the problem will remain unsolved and the policy will be branded a failure — as will the academic.
A good start for serious policy debate would be to acknowledge that some problems are difficult. Only a charlatan will offer you an affordable, politically popular solution that fits on a page. But by understanding problems better, experimenting with new ideas and using evaluation to see what happens, we can gradually learn what works and what doesn’t.
The public sphere doesn’t belong to politicians and journalists. Many Troppo readers and contributors have jobs that give them a keen interest in policy. Some are public servants, some work for think tanks or community sector organisations, some are consultants and others academics. What can we do to improve the quality of public debate?