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Opinion and fact: ministerial expertise, cancers, cars and climate

By Rob Cover - posted Friday, 15 August 2014


While off-hand, ideologically-driven or politically-motivated opinions disguised as facts are nothing new in political discourse, the past week in Australian politics has seen an intensification of, sometimes weird, outdated or irresponsible opinion articulated as fact.

In the realm of material informed by religious discourse, long notable for its use of non-factual statements and bent truths, Senator Eric Abetz made links between abortion and breast cancer relying entirely on outdated factual studies from the 1950s.

Problematic here is that Abetz - as a minister, a senior member of the cabinet and the leader of the government in the Australian Senate - has among some of the most powerful capacity of any person in Australia to seek expert advice, fact-checkers, the most recent and up-to-date information, and independent authorities who can verify whether or not (and to what extent) the 1950s studies continue to be valid in terms of contemporary medical science and oncology.

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The average person who is not a cancer scientist, a gynaecologist or a medical researcher - including myself - does not have the same ability to judge. So this becomes a matter of the kinds of responsibility we expect our senators to have when citing information and facts: the obligation to make use of studies, expertise and facts using the best available resources.

Facts about Australians from lower socio-economic backgrounds were treated more respectfully in terms of drawing on available knowledges than were pro-choice women this week.

Treasurer Joe Hockey stated that increasing taxes on petrol would not hurt the poor very much, because the poor "don't have cars or actually drive very far".

This statement left him open to substantial criticism from commentators that he is out-of-touch with public sentiment and seriously threatening the possibility of convincing the electorate that his budget has any value.

Rather than withdrawing the statement or backing away from his argument, the Treasurer reiterated it, stating that while he was "sorry" if he sounded callous he was merely pointing out the facts, derived from ABS studies.

That use of one of the primary Australian resources of factual information should be congratulated. The facts were a surprise to many, including myself. Being a surprise, they warranted further explanation as to how they were derived, the extent to which they applied to all persons from the socio-economic groups the Treasurer was discussing, and the extent to which there were exceptions to the rule (and how much, then, the tax change would affect those who were the exception).

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Facts, however, became suddenly less factual and less grounded in common agreement or common fields of debate, when Mr Hockey stated on Sydney Radio 2UE: ""The fact of the matter is that I can only get the facts out there and explain the facts, how people interpret them is up to them". While facts are, of course, open to interpretation, Mr Hockey rendered them available to broad opinion. The other option available to him was to be the Treasurer of the Australian Government and explain the link between the facts, drawing on further expert advice if needed and stating that he was doing so in order to make the best decisions. As he was elected to do so.

Climate change issues have been subject to an ongoing public stoush between complex and difficult-to-understand expert opinion from scientists (whose work, even if driven ideologically or through personal opinion, is always verified through peer-review to count as scientific work) and some of the most ignorant opinion that relies on the assumption the average non-scientist's opinion should be taken as equivalent to fact, research and expertise.

Senior business adviser to the Abbott government and chairman of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council, Maurice Newman, drew on some interesting facts and some published research to pursue his fringe argument that climate change cannot be human-induced.

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About the Author

Dr Rob Cover is Associate Professor in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia where he researches and publishes on digital media theory, youth suicide and cultural studies. His recent book is Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity (Ashgate 2012) and his work on GLBTIQ youth suicide and self-harm has appeared in a number of scholarly journals, including Reconstruction.

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