It is well known that his in his farewell speech the great American president Dwight Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex. Today, of course, it is not just the military-industrial complex that we need to be wary of but also many other industrial complexes, whether it be superannuation, universities, renewables or the bureaucracy itself. But what is often overlooked is his warning about a scientific-technological elite. He said:
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.
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The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system—ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.
The key words here are ‘within the principles of our democratic system’.
Our democratic systems depend on accountability and transparency. It is my view that these elements have been severely undermined by unelected bureaucrats, many of whom could be considered as belonging to a scientific-technological elite and who are neither accountable nor transparent. This erosion of democracy has been justified on the grounds of independence, that somehow bureaucrats are independent as opposed to politicians, who are not. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ultimately bureaucrats will be the servant of whatever system hires them and they will perpetrate it in order to protect their own self-interest or perpetrate their ideologies rather than serve the interests of the people.
In many ways this is to be expected. It is not inhuman to put self-interest first. For governments to be effective, the decision-making process must be transparent and a decision-maker must be held to account. This is not the case with independent statutory authorities. These bodies have become a law unto themselves. They are not accountable to the people, and their decision-making process is not transparent. The bureaucracy is the government. Politicians turn up and debate ideological points before going back to liaise with the community. But we are here only 19 weeks a year, of which only four weeks are given to estimates. Ministers will spend more time in Canberra with their departments, but it is extremely difficult to drill into the detail when there are so many demands placed upon them. However, it is imperative that the minister, as part of an elected government, has the final say in the running of the government and not the bureaucrat.
There are too many examples of the bureaucracy being in charge of the decision-making process or setting a narrative that is completely false. There is the RBA controlling interest rates. Could you imagine if the ATO set the tax rates or the CSIRO released a GenCost report, as it did just recently, without oversight of the assumptions from the minister’s office? It is elected representatives and ministers who must be responsible for the decision-making process and not those who hide behind the curtain of anonymity.
Politicians have a responsibility to scrutinise bureaucrats. It is their job. At senator school, we were taught that our role was to inquire, debate and legislate. Yet there is a movement being peddled among those opposite us and the media that you are not allowed to question the experts. In the late John Le Carre’s novel The Russia House, the dissident Russian scientist codenamed ‘Goethe’ sums up experts thus: ‘I do not like experts. They are our jailers. I despise experts more than anyone on earth. Experts are addicts. They solve nothing! They are servants of whatever system hires them. They perpetuate it. When we are tortured, we shall be tortured by experts. When we are hanged, experts will hang us. … When the world is destroyed, it will be destroyed not by its madmen but by the sanity of its experts and the superior ignorance of its bureaucrats.’