The Morrison Government has made a hallmark of relying on expert medical advice in its Covid-19 response. What are the appropriate limits to reliance on expert advice in policymaking?
On 18 March 2020, the Governor-General declared that a human biosecurity emergency exists. He did so on the advice of Health Minister Greg Hunt under the Biosecurity Act 2015.
An emergency declaration can only be made in relation to a ‘listed disease’ and the only person who can list a disease is the Director of Human Biosecurity who is the Chief Medical Officer. Most of the powers under the Biosecurity Act work in this way, the decisions are made by the experts appointed to the role, not by ministers.
Throughout the pandemic, we have become used to our leaders stating that every restriction is based on the ‘medical advice.’
Not everyone is as supportive of the reliance on expert advice. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott writing in The Australian said:
“We are materially rich but spiritually poor, and generally more fearful. More self-confident governments would not have placed so much faith in unelected and unaccountable experts. The experts would not have so readily changed their minds about the need for mandatory shutdowns. Societies that retained more ‘faith in the world to com’ would have been less alarmed by a virus-like those that have readily been seen off before.”
While he was sceptical about some of the health measures put in place, he was more scathing of the budgetary measures. For Abbott it was a question of getting ‘the balance right between keeping people safe and keeping people free.’
Not all former Prime Ministers agreed, especially in relation to budget measures. Speaking on the ABC’s Insiders in April 2020 Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said:
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and John Howard, who has seen everything in politics, said to me, and he’s spoken to the Prime Minister – said there is no ideological constraints at times like this. That is the advice we have taken.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison four days earlier had said “So make no mistake, today is not about ideologies. We checked those at the door.” The whole address on that occasion framed our COVID-19 response in terms of exercising ‘national sovereignty.’
It seems that three people, all of whom have been Australian Treasurer and two Prime Minister, that it is alright to ignore the expert economic advice on the value of Keynesian demand management to favour ideology so long as you aren’t in a crisis.
That brings us to the question of climate policy. In the long-run climate change from carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases pose a more devastating risk for the people on this planet than the virus.
There are a vast array of experts advising that, just as Australia has done with its virus response, the climate risk can be largely averted by acting to reduce the risk (by reducing emissions).
But the Prime Minister doesn’t configure his response to the risk of climate change based on expert advice.
Most recently his government announced it will underwrite its Government-owned Enterprise Snowy-Hydro to build a new gas-fired generator at Kurri Kurri. The government is proceeding on its own assumption of the need for an additional 1000MW of ‘dispatchable’ capacity despite, as the AFR reports, the Australian Energy Market Operator (the experts) stating that between 153MW and 200MW were needed.
Energy Security Board chair Kerry Schott said a taxpayer-funded gas-fired power plant in the Hunter Valley makes little commercial sense given the abundance of cheaper alternatives flooding the market.
It has been claimed in press reports that the government’s announcement “coincided with the International Energy Agency (IEA) warning…that development of new oil and gas fields and coal-fired power plants needed to stop this year” if a net-zero by 2050 strategy was to be achieved.
The IEA report did make the statement about new oil and gas fields, but didn’t state that the scenario required no new coal generators, only that the scenario required no new fossil-fuel resources to be developed. The relevant section reads:
“Coal‐fired power plants should be phased out completely by 2040 unless retrofitted, starting with the least‐efficient designs by 2030 (Figure 3.13). This would require shutting 870 GW of existing subcritical coal capacity globally (11 per cent of all power capacity) and international collaboration to facilitate substitutes. By 2040, all large‐scale oil‐fired power plants should be phased out. Natural gas‐fired generation remains an important part of electricity supply through to 2050, but strong government support will be needed to ensure that [Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage] is deployed soon and on a large scale.”
The problem for the government’s investment is that Australia doesn’t have enough gas, allowing for the need to fill export facilities, for more use of gas. The EIS even stated that if the plant is required in the first six months it will have to operate on diesel.
Ignoring the science of climate change, the government strategy ignores the science of economics. The need for the gas plant only exists until the additional pumped-hydro storage from Snowy Hydro is available to the market in 2025.
The question is how a rational investor in both facilities would bid into the market. The short answer is that wherever they thought their resources are required in the market they would bid both resources at the cost of the gas generator and obtain that price for both facilities.
In short, the government strategy doesn’t increase competition, it increases the market power of the government-owned generator.
While the government doesn’t respect expert advice on energy policy and climate change avoidance, it does respect the scientific community on the impact of climate change.
The 2021-22 Budget included the creation of the Australian Climate Service. This service (a partnership, made up of world-leading science, information and expertise from the Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia, CSIRO and Australian Bureau of Statistics) helps its customers to better understand the threats posed by a changing climate and natural hazards, to limit the impacts now and in the future.
As the saying goes, this is a government that wants to invest in putting an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff rather than a fence at the top.
A delineating feature between the COVID response and climate action is the question of ‘national sovereignty.’
The Morrison government has a particularly robust version of nationalism that has pervaded other policy areas, including border security and our relations with other nations including but not limited to China (for example, the insistence on exporting criminals to New Zealand is another).
But this is just another form of ideology. The expert advice on climate action is set aside against a blather of talk about not trashing Australia’s economy for climate action and using ‘technology not taxes.’
But here’s the rub. The Morrison government would have you believe they can’t set a net-zero emissions by 2050 policy without a technology roadmap, but that is exactly what is provided by the aforementioned IEA report Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector.
The limitation for Morrison isn’t the choice between technology and taxation, it is that he only accepts expert advice that fits with his robust nationalist ideology. No wonder it is hard to attract students to STEM subjects – why be an expert when it plays second fiddle to ideology?
Footnote: In June 2018 at the launch of a volume of speeches titled Howard: The Art of Persuasion, Menzies Research Director Nick Cater observed ‘Liberalism, as Mr Howard points out in this book in so many places, is not an ideology, it’s a practical philosophy; it’s about doing.’
If this is true, then the question remains what ideological constraint it was that Howard advised Morrison and Frydenberg to set aside.
Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.