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Are our leaders asking too much of Australia’s democracy?

By Chris Hubbard - posted Friday, 4 November 2011

Leadership in any field or context is an amorphous and plastic concept at best, and an inherently dangerous one when used or abused by those with the fierce eyes and minds of the true believer. So it is with increasing numbers of individuals and groups in Australia who seek not to lead but to direct public debates and conversations in important, sometimes crucial areas of national life and policy.

As they do so, the scouring and debilitating effects of their efforts on the national marketplace for ideas are becoming increasingly clear, and a cause for significant concern among adherents and defenders of Australia's durable, stable, liberal and plural democracy.

As the need for increasingly complex, often science-based, explanations of (and thus solutions to) phenomena such as changing climate patterns and their effects presses in on the national psyche, busy or distracted Australians will often prefer to deal with that pressure by turning away. Rather than face discomforting predictions of a life less and less worth the living, some inevitably react by brushing the future away.


Others are not so inclined - if not for their own sake then for that of their children and the broader community. Many of these engaged and concerned people will make at least some effort to find out just what it is that is causing so much angst, and consuming so much of the lives of so many scientists, politicians, media pundits and journalists, policy activists, attention-seekers and governments.

This outcome is nowhere more apparent than for those – both with and without relevant knowledge and skill but with abundant hunger for knowledge - who sincerely and urgently feel the need to understand how Australia must reset its energy policy patterns and vectors in order to establish a relatively seamless and environmentally sustainable pathway towards its future flourishing.

People of this stripe are likely to look for themselves in many public places – for example, in on-line journal databases, or the web sites of myriad organisations at home and beyond - for a wide range of complementary or alternative explanations or accounts of what seems to be happening in the world around them, and ultimately to themselves and their families.

They intend by this exercise to gather together sufficient information and analysis, with the qualities they value and deem necessary to allow them to make up their own minds. In essence, to think for themselves. Along the way, they will see no reason to ignore those sources of data and their interpretation, which occupy the extremities of opinion and advocacy on both ends of the policy continuum.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that many prospectors for information and understanding which is broad in scope, even handed and honest, clearly expressed and carefully balanced, will promptly discover that explanations and solutions which have a fighting chance of satisfying that kind of search are noticeably thin on the ground.

I am not talking here only about stories told of the future, which have been generated by specific individuals, groups, interests or points of view. I am pointing to accounts of Australia's fate with several quite distinct and necessary qualities or characteristics. Such people - and especially those with curiosity, vigour and persistence – who are determined to build for themselves a vision and view of the world as it truly is (at least for them) will seek out data and its analysis, interpretation and application to real world cases that, ideally, are scientifically-based, rigorous and reliable (being peer-reviewed) as well as intellectually independent, analytically balanced, apolitical, intellectually honest and, above all, usable.


One immediate reaction to such a startling lack of coherent public debate in vital areas of Australia's national life and future ought to be to ask: "Have our leaders failed us?" Why is debate and discussion about what to do in these crucial issues limited to the usual suspects – the government and its internal and external advisors, the Opposition parties, the senior departmental mandarins and policy experts, and those with a material or ideological investment in a particular outcome? In other words, to those who speak loudly and carry big sticks.

A first response in Australia to this kind of question might be: "Because most people are not interested in this kind of thing" or "why not just leave it to the government to sort this out? – That's their job." Another initial reaction will increasingly be along the lines: "I don't know enough about this issue to hold an opinion, and I don't know how to find out." This is the reality behind the corrosive effects of allowing national conversations about policy choices to fall silent by quarantining its life-blood. Understanding born of knowledge, leads to empowerment.

As a direct result, pent-up demand for reliable and usable analysis of the full extent of national choice is stymied and denied, while interested generalists with concerns for their country's future become increasingly and cynically disengaged from participation in important national policy debates.

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About the Author

Dr Chris Hubbard is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the School of Social Sciences and Asian Languages in the Faculty of Humanities, Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia.

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All articles by Chris Hubbard

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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