I noticed an article in the press the other day where the university research community is lobbying the new Labor government not to interfere in the disbursement of ARC grants. They resented the fact the previous government had intervened and refused to fund 6 out of the recommended 587 proposed for funding on the basis that they “do not demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money nor contribute to the national interest”.
There are a number of issues at play here.
Firstly when spending government funding, ie taxpayers’ money, isn’t it reasonable to be required to demonstrate value for taxpayers’ money and show how the expenditure contributes to the national interest? Universities unfortunately seem to feel no compunction to do so. They will always complain that having to pass the assessment of peer review provides sufficient scrutiny. But we know the peer reviews are largely done by mutually supportive clubs of researchers with similar interests and such scrutiny is hardly dispassionate and objective. (Just ask Professor Peter Ridd!)
In such an environment the parochial interests of researchers are advanced without much concern for the utility of the research. At the Asset Institute and its predecessor organisation ,the Centre for Engineering Asset Management (both research organisations that I chaired), research was only undertaken if it had an industry sponsor which ensured the utility of the research.
It is surprising in fact that the Morrison government only vetoed 6 of the 587 research proposals! It is hard to argue that government intervention provided a significant impost on the selection process. It is somewhat amazing that supposedly dispassionate researchers make such subjective, emotional arguments to thwart what I would suggest is warranted scrutiny of the expenditure of taxpayers’ money.
These pampered academics no doubt believe they are fighting for academic freedom whereas they are merely being self-indulgent. If they want no restrictions on their research they should raise their own research funding. If they accept taxpayer funded research grants they should expect reasonable scrutiny to ensure their work is in the public interest and that indeed taxpayers are getting reasonable value for their money.
The triumph of emotions over rationality is very pervasive in our society. Let me illustrate with another example from the newspapers.
In August 1998 two Victorian policemen were in a stakeout trying to apprehend some persistent break and enter offenders. Unfortunately the officers were ambushed and killed. Following some (seemingly rushed and incompetent) police investigations two men were tried for the murders and the accused were convicted and subsequently given some long jail sentences. In 2017 IBAC investigated claims that some of the police reports relating to the case were amended and backdated. As a result the case of one of the alleged murderers was referred back to the courts. The Court of Appeals found that police misconduct had corrupted this accused’s trial. The Supreme Court conducted a retrial and this particular defendant was found not guilty. After more than 20 years in prison he was subsequently set free.
The police claimed that the release of the man caused “enduring grief and sadness” amongst its members. Families of the murdered officers were reportedly “devastated” by the man’s release.
No doubt the imprisonment of the man must have assuaged some need for vengeance by family members and the colleagues of the murdered officers. Whilst I don’t condone such a response it is frequently evident in the wake of such cases. But this personal need for retribution seemed to still dominate even when the subject of such retribution had been found not guilty! There seemed to be no concern for the fact that someone might have, as a consequence of police misconduct, needlessly spent more than twenty years in jail! Here again a base emotional response has dominated reason.
Now, I must attest to the fact that none of us, myself certainly included, are ever entirely reasonable. You just need to read Shakespeare or perhaps listen to the tragic operas of Verdi to understand how our passions distort our point of view.
Right now, perhaps the greatest passion distorting our point of view and resulting in irrational responses is the scramble for emissions reductions.
I was astounded to see a report of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese touring the recently flood devastated regions of NSW. Some of the locals, understandably, complained about the devastation they have had to endure over the last eighteen months or so with severe flooding asked the PM what he was going to do to ensure that there would be no reoccurrence. Albanese solemnly replied that the Federal Government had already taken action to ameliorate their suffering – the government had committed to higher emission reduction targets!
Now he said this with a straight face, and as a result I could only assume that (unless he is an Oscar Award winning actor) that he meant it! But it doesn’t take much circumspection to come to the conclusion that this is nonsense.
Let me ask the fundamental question. Is it likely that Australia with only 1.2% of the world’s CO2 emissions could possibly have any discernible impact on climate by reducing its emissions? Even Australia’s Chief Scientist admitted our efforts to reduce emissions would have negligible impact on climate. But our Prime Minister assures those people in flood prone areas that our paltry contribution to reducing carbon emissions might somehow save these people in flood affected areas from future flood events.
It is interesting how the climate narrative has changed. It was not so long ago that Tim Flannery (Australian of the Year in 2007 for his environmental advocacy) was telling us that Australia, because of global warming, was about to face eons of droughts when our dams would never fill and even the rain that fell would never flow into any of our catchments because the land would be so dry. Yet we have since experienced major flood events.
Conveniently the climate change narrative has now changed such that we are not so much concerned about global warming and extended periods of drought to climate change which will result in extreme climate events such as floods, bushfires, storms and cyclones and other climate disasters.
Those who believe in climate catastrophism are really cultists. Whilst they pretend to be informed by science they really are besotted by an irrational belief system which is not informed by the evidence. Just recently the National Electricity Market was suspended because electricity supply could not be guaranteed. Our security of supply was compromised because the price signals are not strong enough to ensure that there is sufficient baseload power contracted into the market to “firm up” the renewable generation.
Inexplicably when the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, was asked how he was going to resolve the issue he insisted the solution was to commission more renewable energy projects! One would have thought he was sufficiently informed about the deteriorating energy situation in Europe to understand that reliance on renewable energy alone will inevitably end in grief.
Surprisingly Bowen makes the claim that the use of renewables helps shelter us from geo-strategic impacts on our electricity supply. He ignores the fact that China is the dominant supplier of these technologies!
Surely even if you believe climate change is caused by manmade CO2 emissions you must be cognisant of the fact isolated action by Australia will only have a miniscule effect and major emitters like China, Russia and India are taking no significant action. You could only expect any variation of climate change when all significant emitters buy in and even then it would take many decades to have an amelioration effect. Prime Minister Albanese is misleading those in NSW vulnerable to flooding that the actions of his government will have any discernible effect any time soon!
Another area of concern where passion trumps reason is in the sphere of race relations. I could give you a number of examples here, but I will confine my discussion to what is currently making news viz the so-called indigenous “voice” to parliament.
Following the First Nations National Constitutional Convention that brought together 250 Indigenous representatives from across the country, the Uluru Statement was issued in May 2017. The Uluru Statement website explains:
The Uluru Statement is an invitation from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to “walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future”. It calls for structural reforms including constitutional change to establish a Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution.
Following the release of the Statement a good deal of effort has been put towards gaining some sort of consensus about what The Voice might look like. As has come to be the norm for indigenous issues gaining consensus is almost impossible.
Some of the more vexed issues regarding The Voice are:
- What powers will it have?
- Who will it represent and consequently who will be allowed to elect representatives to The Voice?
- If it is installed in the Constitution what would be required to abolish it if it doesn’t work? (Remember ATSIC?)
Despite the controversy about The Voice, Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney seems determined to “crash through” on the issue. She says that her thinking is informed by what happened to the referendum on the republic. She maintains it was clear that in the 1999 referendum a majority of people wanted a republic but confusion over what form the republic would take resulted in a vote against the proposal. She is advocating that The Voice referendum merely ask whether Australians wanted the constitution amended to set up an indigenous voice to advise parliament and then leave the parliament decide the form of that voice.
But I am certain unless the questions raised above are satisfactorily answered the referendum has no chance of gaining widespread support.
No doubt those actively caught up in the struggle to create The Voice believe passionately in that cause, but wiser minds than mine are asking what practical effect will it have. Is it going to reduce domestic violence amongst indigenous people? Will it see more indigenous children completing education? Will it see more indigenous people employed? Will it restore sanity and good order to such wretched places as Wadeye? I don’t see the evidence.
Instead of seeking to bring all Australians together The Voice proposal seems to invite into Australia some form of apartheid. Researcher, Anthony Dillon, wisely counsels us that indigenous and non-indigenous Australians have much more in common than those things that set us apart. On the face of it as things stand now, The Voice seems more like a bit more virtue signalling that will further divide us with little prospect of improving the lot of indigenous people.
(We should also acknowledge that our democracy is robust enough for there to be 4.4% of federal parliamentarians identifying as indigenous in a population where 3.3% claim to be indigenous.)
Passionate believers in many causes are often well-meaning but allow their zeal to cloud their rationality. I well know this for a fact because I display my passionate irrationality by being an inveterate supporter of the Australian men’s test cricket side!