The COVID Pandemic and the public sector – So maybe expertise isn’t such a bad thing!

Posted on June 9, 2020

For some time, the world of government (or at least the Western world) has operated with a disdain for experts and evidence. This extends back to George Bush’s ‘book facts’ through to Trump’s ‘fake news’, alternative facts and outright contempt for expertise:

You know, I’ve always wanted to say this….The experts are terrible. Look at the mess we’re in with all these experts that we have. Look at the mess.

Australia, of course, has not been immune. We have 10 lost over years to deal with the most pressing global issue, climate change, in which there is virtual unanimity of scientific and economic opinion about the solution.

More recently, the Morrison government dismissed the public service as out of touch and unaccountable when its advice was ignored on the allocation of sports grants, subsequently found by the Auditor-General to be skewed towards coalition seats and without any clear legal basis.

In his 2019 speech on the role of the public sector, the Prime Minister introduced his six guideposts and made it clear that the public service is subservient to the government:

“The Treasury shouldn’t tell the Treasurer what to do. They should tell the Treasurer what they think of what the Treasurer plans to do, of alternative ways in which he can do what he wants to do…Treasury needs to remember its job is to advise the government on the government’s agenda – not to decide the agenda”.

A political narrative is hence constructed, with experts tasked to stay in their proverbial lane as it is only the government’s advice we can trust – the experts just do not know what they are talking about when it comes to the everyday reality of politics.

All of a sudden, however, we have seen a shift back towards a respect for expertise. During the COVID-19 epidemic, one statement has been on a playback loop: ‘we are acting on the advice of the medical experts’. The Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, and his counterparts across the states and territories, have largely driven the governments’ response to the crisis (although, quite correctly, governments are ultimately responsible for the decision-making and accountable for those decisions). Similarly, in the guise of fire commissioners the experts were front and centre in the management of the bushfires in late 2019 and early 2020.

So is this swing back to a respect for technical expertise likely to rebalance the relationship between the government and the public service? One would hope so because a lesson the Prime Minister and other leaders may draw from the COVID and bushfire crises is that the experts not only have something to offer – there are political benefits to gain from listening to their advice and managing successfully! However, as business return to something like normal, so will politics with its hyper-partisanship and point scoring.

Similarly, as we will discuss in our next blog, we anticipate that the hyped national cabinet will be a false dawn rather than a new era in cooperative federalism.