The Poor Relation: A history of social sciences in Australia
Melbourne University Press, $49.99 pb, 402 pp, 9780522857757
During the lead-up to the 2008 United States presidential election, I found myself waiting for a train at the Princeton railway station with nothing to read. I picked up a copy of the student newspaper. Much of it was standard Bush bashing, intermingled with unrealistic expectations of what Obama might achieve. But one sentence in an editorial caught my eye: ‘It is time to end amateur hour at the White House.’ One of the great failings of George W. Bush’s presidency was the neglect of expert advice on the complex issues that faced America during his two terms. Ideology, prejudice and vested interests trumped properly informed judgements based on good research.
There is a lesson here for Australia. Policy decisions need to be based on good research. One of the depressing features of the recent election campaign in Australia was the almost wilful neglect by both parties of the available evidence on issues such as climate change, immigration and population policy, refugees, crime and taxation. Let me give one example. The Gillard government’s ‘cash for clunkers’ program (the proposal to give people with old cars a $2,000 payment towards the purchase of new, more fuel-efficient cars) overlooked three facts known to anyone with any expertise in the area. The first is that the relative success of the program in the United States depended on the fact that its car industry was in crisis. Cash for clunkers in the States was a version of our $900 stimulus package. The second is that making cars has a carbon cost. The third is that people with new cars drive more (fancy that). The latter two points mean that encouraging people to trade up is probably bad for the environment.