Policy advisers could make a critical contribution towards determining what is in the public interest, if only they were more courageous.

Let’s go back to 2016. In the months leading up to the federal election, then-opposition leader Bill Shorten gave a speech outlining the Labor Party’s intention to reform negative gearing. 

As well as pledging greater fairness for entry into the housing market, he also claimed Labor’s reform would “improve the budget bottom line by $32.1 billion over 10 years”. 

The next day, then treasurer Scott Morrison hit back, claiming the ALP’s proposed change to negative gearing would not only raise very little revenue, it “could also have some very nasty consequences for everyday mum and dad investors just trying to get ahead”. Malcolm Turnbull, prime minister at the time, went further by calling the proposal “the most ill-conceived, potentially destructive policy ever proposed by any opposition”.  

These are tough, definitive words, but are they informed by equally definitive advice? 

To find out, one must fast-forward to January 2018.  Freedom of Information documents revealed that treasurer Scott Morrison had not only ignored his department’s advice—which authenticated the ALP’s policy—but apparently contradicted it. 

As treasurer, Scott Morrison ignored his department’s advice on the ALP’s proposed changes to negative gearing. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Interpreting the facts

After official policy advice is publicly released, governments are often accused of ignoring or rejecting their experts. Commonly represented as politicisation, this depiction is superficial. Digging deeper, is there something about the official advice itself that makes it easy to ignore? My book, How Government Experts Self-Sabotage, asks: does the expert advice of policy officials feature characteristics that invite its government audience to overlook or misread it? 

To help answer this question, I examined official policy advice released under Freedom of Information and found the language of the rebuffed: expert advisers reluctant to disclose what they knew to accommodate political circumstances.  

One might even suggest they were complicit in their own marginalisation, as if advice had been written with an underlying invitation to ‘reject me if you need to’. This manoeuvre doesn’t simply contribute to the erosion of experts’ integrity, it also weakens policy advice as a tool with which to legitimately govern democracy. 

What this means more broadly is that, if public institutions whose role is to furnish governments with thorough, unmistakable and relevant information are not doing so, there is no record and no public accountability for tracing how political decisions are made. The result is effectively the same as concealment—that is, despite proceeding in relatively plain view, advice is articulated in a language that tries its best to blend into the background.

Advice of a sort is being given, ‘facts’ are being provided and evaluative and accountability measures are being observed, but meaning and views are invisible and cannot be critically interpreted. What one ends up with is policy advice as a political token or plaything, symbolising facts and evidence but uninterpretable by most—and, therefore, paradoxically, infinitely interpretable. 

Of course, government experts are not the only experts who may be self-sabotaging—there may be other areas of expertise that also communicate in ways that end in some form of rejection. Climate change science, the promotion of genetically modified food, vaccine advocacy, skin cancer education and anti-gun campaigning come to mind as immediate candidates. Are they, like the rebuffed expert policy advisers I have examined, also implicated in their own rejection?

In the public interest

An obvious retort to my findings is that many of the successes stemming the spread of COVID-19, for example, may have been due to receptive governments listening to cogent experts. But in a post-pandemic world, I challenge experts themselves—whether academic or professional—to find instances of ‘rebuffal’ in their own areas of work and use them to reflect on status quo practices. 

I also want experts to be watched, chided and encouraged by those who are ultimately affected by their advice and language: ‘everyday’ readers or the public.  

Despite political rhetoric and reform efforts aimed at including the public in policymaking, public stakeholders are usually sidelined or ignored throughout the policy process. And yet they do try to become involved, such as through submissions to parliament or writing letters to government representatives.  

I was told a few years ago that, during a nine-month period, one portfolio received nearly 18,000 separate items of correspondence, predominantly letters from the public. Another portfolio, which regularly publishes its own research, received more than one million unique online pageviews for a single piece of work, while another annual publication can receive more than four million views. These numbers point to the existence of intense interest in matters of governance well beyond the media, business and the academy. 

Yet the language of the rebuffed makes it difficult for interested constituents and stakeholders to understand the advice that goes to governments as the ostensible base (or not) of policy decisions. My book is not a manual for how to make it easier; it seeks to elevate the critical contribution that courageous policy advisers could make towards determining what is in the public interest.

Dr Christiane Gerblinger is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at ANU, and author of How Government Experts Self-Sabotage: The Language of the Rebuffed, published by ANU Press and being launched on 8 February. Download for free at ANU Press.

Top image: Daniel Morton/Unsplash

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