Queensland chief heath officer Jeannette Young (left) and New South Wales chief health officer Kerry Chant (Images: AAP/Dan Peled; AAP/Bianca De Marchi)

Political leaders have clung to the mantra of “following the health advice” right throughout the pandemic, with almost obsessive intensity. Chief health officers have been dragged out of obscurity to become media stars in their own right, almost used as human shields by politicians desperate to justify their decisions — whether to go hard and early in lockdowns, or, in what was until too recently the NSW and federal thinking, take their sweet time.

Any perceived failure to “follow the health advice” seems to be regarded by politicians as politically dangerous. One claim that’s had steady circulation on Twitter among progressives is that NSW is somehow unique among states and territories in making the health minister the final decision-maker about public health orders, rather than the chief medical officer — thus explaining why the NSW government foolishly declined to go into lockdown quickly.

Whether true or not, the thinking behind that is to elevate a bureaucrat, albeit one of considerable expertise in their field, above a democratically elected official in terms of decision-making — and that politicians can’t be trusted to make decisions in the public interest (though only, of course, if it’s politicians from the party you don’t support).

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There is naturally a small but firm minority of anti-experts, who reject medical evidence and substitute their own gut feelings, condemn experts as hysterics, or participants in some sort of anti-freedom conspiracy — an approach that is as much about tribalism as it is about rationality. But as we’ve seen, these hardliners crop up in relation to any scientific issue.

But we already employ that deference to experts elsewhere in public policymaking on a more bipartisan basis. We don’t let politicians near monetary policy any more. In fact politicians don’t even comment on interest rates, let alone try to set them. We take regulation out of the hands of politicians in most cases and give the job to independent bodies. We don’t allow politicians any role in running the tax system, or deciding who gets prosecuted for non-national security matters.

In other areas, however, politicians brook no interference and bridle at the suggestion they should follow the experts. Global warming is one such issue: Scott Morrison, who ostentatiously parades his adherence to health expert advice — even scolding journalists who might suggest he does not — rejects and ignores the most basic science around climate change, and seeks to undermine international efforts to address the crisis.

It happens on a more venal level too — neither infrastructure bureaucrats nor experts at bodies like Infrastructure Australia are permitted to have any role in directing major infrastructure spending. As the car park rorts demonstrated, departmental advice on the efficient allocation of taxpayer funds is so unwanted the bureaucrats simply gave up trying to offer it. And if you suggest to politicians on either side that they give up the power to allocate things like infrastructure grants, they’ll bristle and complain that that would be undemocratic.

There’s no policy rhyme or reason to this — no reason why independent experts should run something as economy-dominating as monetary policy (with politicians not even allowed to comment), but should not run carbon policy or infrastructure investment policy, comparatively small fry in terms of economic impact compared to interest rates.

What there is, of course, is self-interest, both on the part of politicians and on behalf of corporations. Capital markets prefer independent central banks because they provide greater certainty — screen jockeys understand the inputs into decision-making and can make their own guesses as to where policy will go, without having to pay extensive bribes to political parties.

On the other hand, traditionally, fossil fuel and energy corporations have preferred politicians running carbon policy, because — as with the Morrison government — they can be bribed with donations and controlled by industry executives inserted into decision-making processes.

Increasingly, however, the same logic of capital markets and monetary policy is starting to extend to carbon policy. Energy companies — beyond a couple of blatant rorters and Coalition supporters — want greater certainty, and can make a good guess as to where carbon policy is going. The establishment of an independent carbon policy institution would now be welcomed by many major corporations. In fact, it has been — Innes Willox of Ai Group, the business sector’s most realistic and committed supporter of climate action, has criticised the government’s refusal to back independent MP Zali Steggall’s bill to establish an independent (though, I’d argue, not independent enough) carbon policy mechanism.

The Business Council has also backed Steggall’s bill, though that body has a long history of pretending to support climate action but then working to sabotage it on behalf of members like mining and energy companies and News Corp.

The COVID virus, alas, doesn’t have an industry group or deep-pocketed donors to lobby for it, otherwise there’d be no lockdowns and tens of thousands of deaths in Australia as governments resisted health advice. If that sounds over the top, smoking still kills over 20,000 people a year. Coal-fired power stations cause massive numbers of deaths due to cardiovascular and respiratory illness. Climate action is already responsible for thousands of death a year from heat stress alone around the world.

Then again, the virus doesn’t need its own lobbyists — those for sectors affected by lockdowns have been pushing heavily right from the start of the pandemic to open borders, remove restrictions and let the virus rip.

If nothing else, maybe the pandemic is an opportunity to re-evaluate the relationship between politicians and independent experts, and begin to sort out the inconsistent and biased allocation of power between them. As it stands, it’s utterly incoherent and self-defeating.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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