Mike Bolan
As more information rolls in from Victoria’s rural inferno, so it becomes clearer that many mistakes have been made that have cost the lives of taxpayers and destroyed the properties of many others. How can these things be happening?
OUR politicians appear to have convinced themselves of their own infallibility. They appear to have persuaded themselves that, no matter the issue, no matter the facts, it is they who should have the determining say in what our society’s responses and actions should be.

Given their backgrounds as lawyers, accountants, public relations people, grocers or what have you, this is a very courageous position to take in the face of a modern, highly interconnected world where mistakes can have grievous consequences (e.g. Iraq, Katrina, Financial crisis, climate change, bushfires) and where systems are more complex to understand than ever.

As more information rolls in from Victoria’s rural inferno, so it becomes clearer that many mistakes have been made that have cost the lives of taxpayers and destroyed the properties of many others. How can these things be happening?

Decision making for the 21st century

Over the past millenium, it has become increasingly apparent that it is a huge risk to make decisions on the basis of dogma, or past events – indeed the whole scientific revolution (1) was based on acquiring information independently of bias (where possible) and reporting factually so that observations and theories could be tested. Science particularly studied the natural world around us with the intention of explaining how things worked and how they came into being.

The ideas of science conflicted with the established religions of the times and challenged the power of the church. The results of using science to understand our world include breakthrough technologies that have allowed astonishing growth and freedom from many of the plagues of life that existed in the middle ages.

One purpose of science (2) is to discover and understand how physical reality works. This has mainly been by advancing and testing theories, then rethinking them as evidence of their accuracy is discovered.

One key to developing a useful understanding of reality is the idea of ‘objectivity’ (3) in which attempts to capture the nature of the object do not depend on any features of the particular person who studies it.

The idea of objectivity is also captured in the ideas of ‘natural justice’ (4) developed in Roman times, which state in part ‘A person who makes a decision should be unbiased and act in good faith. He therefore can not be one of the parties in the case, or have an interest in the outcome. This is expressed in the Latin maxim, nemo iudex in causa sua: “no man is permitted to be judge in his own cause”. A person with such an interest has a ‘conflict of interest’ (5)

The reasons for these ideas are to help avoid humans’ tendency to rationalise ideas in their own favour. In social and group situations, decision making that incorporates conflicts of interest, dogma and other means to reach a decision, can pose severe threats to health, wealth and survival, particularly when studying natural systems. When dealing with complex systems, such as nature, we have learned that it is wise to consult independent experts in their field, and to appreciate the implications of decisions prior to making the decision and acting upon it.

When we’re on a ship, we don’t hold votes amongst the passengers to determine the course of the ship, we leave that to experts who are both on the ship with us, and who have independent information about any hazards in the area.

When we seek information from our doctor, we expect that doctor to provide us with recent, relevant and useful information to help assure our health. We don’t normally seek medical advice from soothsayers, bone throwers or jam jar listeners. We prefer reasoned advice supported by evidence – for our own protection.

Primacy of politics

John Howard played a major role in making ‘presidential’ decisions. It seemed that nothing could happen without his approval or intervention. The result was an increase in his power coupled with an increase in alienation of ordinary people from the political process. As a garage attendant and lawyer, Howard finally wrecked himself with ‘Work Choices’ where his workplace fantasies conflicted with the realities of many working Australians.

During the Howard years (..and years and years..) the Labor state governments started to act as though the government was qualified to make all decisions – just decide what you want then legislate it into, or out of, existence. This attitude began to bleed over into industrial projects like the Gunns pulp mill, Victoria’s water pipeline and NSW’s road tunnels.

No matter the evidence, no matter the public disquiet, if you want it and you’re in government, then the power to do it is enough. After the decision, just use more public money to ‘market’ the proposal in a round of paid advertisements until the fuss dies down.

The results of ignoring reality are all around – from failed public transport, to failed ferry systems, to failed infrastructures and failed financial systems. Yet none of this has been enough to break through the ‘I’ve got the power’ mentality of governments around Australia.

Now we are facing serious threats, from climate change stimulated rural firestorms and floods though to economic disasters. When the politicians become overwhelmed by the problems, instead of seeking the advice of experts in their field and a full spectrum of community stakeholders, they turn to legalistic bodies like Royal Commissions, as if judges in wigs make better decisions about climate threats than scientists and firefighters.
What is needed is competence, responsibility and effective action. Imagine an army officer in his tent, with shells and bombs going off everywhere – his officers rushing in with disastrous news ‘the enemy is breaking through our lines – we’ve lost our last ammo dump etc. Is it appropriate for that officer to then demand a Royal Commission? It’s too ridiculous to contemplate but that was Brumby’s first decision in the face of disaster – bring in the lawyers.

Treating scientists as just another lobby group

Independent scientists are not a lobby group. They are using their best expertise and information to advise of likely problems and likely effective strategies to deal with them.

In his excellent article (6) on the need for science in climate policy Pablo Brait writes ‘The ALP, in the absence of a clear ideological position on an issue, aims to make policy by seeking a “balance” between the left and right of the political spectrum, and arriving at some middle ground. On climate change they are claiming to have done just this — they have consulted with big business, unions and environmentalists and come out with a policy that they claim “gets the balance right” between these competing forces. While this process can be considered flawed at the best of times, its application to climate change is downright dangerous.

Why? Because no matter how skilled a negotiator you are, it’s impossible to strike a deal with the laws of physics and chemistry — which leads to our first question for the PM: “Where are the scientists?” The climate change problem is not the same as an ideological battle on industrial relations or the privatisation of essential services’.

Brait is right – where are the scientists? By imagining that independent scientists are just another lobby group advancing some personal interest, the government exposes themselves, and the whole population, to massive risks.

What should be happening is that climate problems and responses should be written up by independent parties in the know, which includes climate scientists. Our politicians should then use their political skills to bring about the changes required by the science. The idea that politicians can somehow mediate between nature and man would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.

You wouldn’t ask politicians how to treat a cancer, or remove a tooth. Were you to rely on them for those things, you’d expect to suffer serious pain, even death. These matters are no different.

Ignoring the public as if they’re uninformed

Many members of the public have considerable expertise, indeed many of them have ideas and information that is much more relevant than the ideas of government. Look at how climate denier Howard claimed that ‘working families have never been better off’. Can he really have believed that he knew better than the families themselves?

That’s hubris (6) of the worst kind

Involving the public in decision making is a matter of political survival. Howard and the state governments had disagreements about who should pay the $20 m cost of a national system to alert people to threats (e.g. floods, fires). Because Telstra was key to providing people’s telephone numbers, both state and federal governments were involved. Those disagreements took over 4 years to play out (7), delaying the introduction of a system until after the Victorian fires. How many lives were lost as a result no-one knows, but you can be pretty sure governments won’t want to talk about it or their responsibility for the problems experienced.

Such drifting priorities don’t survive public exposure when it’s the public that’s being placed at risk.

Perhaps that’s why our governments prefer ‘closed door’ discussions and decisions, leaving the public as unwitting victims to political whims and fancies. Many have even accused the public of being ‘uninformed’ – one of Howard’s favourite means of dismissing public disquiet was as coming from ‘critics of the government’. What was worse was the unquestioning acceptance of such nonsense by the media.

Looking at the whole situation we see that our politicians are ignoring science, favouring information from sources with conflicts of interest, leaving the public from consideration and allowing judgements by those with an interest in matters (e.g. forestry in Tasmania).

Ignoring the practical lessons of our history, particularly under the threats that we currently face, is insanity and I, for one, don’t intend to stand still for it.

In insisting that they take all important decisions, our politicians are acting with breathtaking arrogance and a total disregard for the well being of their constituents. A good CEO delegates decisions to those best equipped to make it.

Politicians do have a job to do and it doesn’t involve interceding in matters beyond their comprehension, instead it involves helping us to organise to survive the threats that face us.
Can they do it?

Watch this space

Mike Bolan

Mike is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive and management coach.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_revolution
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivity_(science)
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_justice
5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_of_interest
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubris
7. http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/editorial/failure-of-fire-communications-demands-answers-20090212-85xw.html?page=-1