Evidence-Based Policy Versus An Ugly Old Pig


Those readers with especially long memories will recall that when Kevin Rudd surged to power in November 2007 — the "Summer of Love" as we called it back then — he positioned himself as a politician who believed above all in "evidence-based policy", or to put it more simply, policy that was based on evidence.

It is difficult to overstate just what a break with Australian political tradition this was. Governments had in the past been based on many things — personality, incompetence, unpredictably violent rage — but never before had one been based on evidence. Evidence had been viewed with suspicion, as the sort of thing that effeminate, over-educated academics used to corrupt the youth and confuse the working man.

Australians, it was thought, did not take to evidence. We were a land of action, of hard work and honest sweat and mateship and the courage to act on whatever gross misconceptions and prejudices happened to be drifting through our minds at the time.

That’s why it took a man like Kevin Rudd to come along and show us that evidence could be manly. One look at those steely, slightly threatening eyes, at those powerful, decisive hand movements, and we were sold: evidence was the way of the future. Where Howard might have made decisions based on his wife’s orders, where Keating might have made decisions based on perverted sadism, where Whitlam might have made decisions based on the increasingly grandiose voices in his head, Rudd would base everything solely on evidence, and we would enter a new Enlightenment, carried forward on the zephyr of reason to the New World of hope, to enjoy the luscious tropical fruit of solid and sustainable economic growth.

And all this is why it is so disappointing to see the Rudd Government’s betrayal of its own evidence-based principles, opting instead for the path of cheap populism and sexy sound-bites. You see it everywhere in this Government. See, for example, Penny Wong address the Victorian Farmers’ Federation on the need to adapt and modernise to deal with the effects of climate change, despite the overwhelming body of evidence indicating that farmers are not worth talking to.

See Joel Fitzgibbon, letting his brother use his office for meetings with defence officials, despite a preponderance of evidence suggesting that practically every successful Australian defence minister has not been a moron. See Peter Garrett, pretending to be a politician despite the evidence that he’s not one. See Simon Crean. Just see him. (You can’t, can you! Where the hell is he?)

And yes, this rebellion against evidence goes to the very top. Kevin Rudd himself has tragically abandoned his love of evidence, seduced by the slick glamour of the office.

Now, rather than weighing the data and making measured, considered moves, he goes about shooting his mouth off in the most disgracefully emotional way. Let us take what is, according to Australia’s most popular newspaper, the biggest news story of the year, and possibly the decade: the trading of insults between celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay and near-journalist Tracy Grimshaw. So Ramsay calls Grimshaw an "ugly old pig", to which Grimshaw objects in between exposing single mothers and introducing bra-testing segments. And then, the Prime Minister wades in to the debate, claiming that Ramsay is a "new form of low life", presumably joining people smugglers, Bill Henson and Mark Latham. The old Rudd would not have made such a rash comment. He would have made sure any observation he made in his capacity of statesman/celebrity watcher was purely evidence-based.

It is a sad day when our own Prime Minister, having sworn himself to follow the evidence, will condemn a man for calling a woman an ugly old pig, without first checking the evidence to see whether she actually is one. And it saddens me that even now, no studies have even been commissioned to find out the truth of the matter. Is Tracy Grimshaw an ugly old pig? We just don’t know! And thanks to Kevin Rudd, we may never know.

It seems he just can’t help himself. See now, how he comes out in public and uses the phrase "fair shake of the sauce bottle", blithely ignoring the conclusive evidence that "fair shake of the sauce bottle" is a very stupid thing to say.

Even his wife, Therese "come ride my treadmill" Rein has been infected by this disregard for evidence, announcing her plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, when a quick look over the available facts would have shown her that Mount Kilimanjaro is really, really high. When she collapses and rolls 3000 feet to her death, she may well regret taking up her husband’s evidence-hatred.

Yes indeed, the Government now treats evidence as nothing more than a shabby whore, and its policies are the small change it leaves on the bedside table.

Not that the Opposition’s much better. Malcolm Turnbull prances about acting as Opposition Leader, when the evidence clearly shows Peter Costello is. And that’s not all — why, Tony Abbott’s very existence goes against all currently accepted theories.

It has come to the sad point, I am afraid, where the only Australian politician willing to stand up for evidence-based policy is faithful old Steve Fielding, the dancing bear of the Senate, who is willing to go to any lengths — international travel, high-level talks with foreign dignitaries, tiresome blanket media coverage — to find out what the evidence is, and base things on it.

You will have heard how Senator Fielding, showing the rigorous adherence to reason and respect for facts that caused him to take up fundamentalist Christianity, decided to skip away to America to attend a conference of climate change deniers. The reason? He wants to know what the evidence is for human-caused climate change. And fair enough too. For too long we have heard only one side of this argument. It’s time alternative views were given a fair hearing. Oh sure, if you seek out obscure underground media sources like the Herald Sun or The Australian, you might hear a whisper of climate scepticism, but it’s time such opinions were brought out into the open. And Senator Fielding is just the man to do it.

The conference was sponsored by the Heartland Institute, a collection of brave men and women willing to stand up against leftist dogma and strike blows in the name of evidence. So dedicated to evidence is the Institute, in fact, that it has stood up to the powerful anti-smoking lobby, refusing to accept that secondhand smoke is harmful until all the evidence is in. It takes the same attitude to climate change. "For every study showing that human actions cause global warming," it points out, "there is another study showing that major corporations are extremely rich. And we’ll be damned if we take sides here." And that’s the attitude Steve Fielding himself has taken.

And thank God he has. Thank God that someone in this bizarre menagerie of delusional paranoiacs and borderline sociopaths we call Australian politics is courageous enough to withhold judgment until such time as he has been in the papers well over a thousand times. Thank God that someone is willing to see through the spin, the political agendas, the mad Green tree-worship, the Marxist temperature measurements, to bring some sanity to the conversation.

Steve Fielding is not asking much. He is simply asking that the Government answer his very pertinent questions before he gives them his vote on their carbon reduction scheme. Questions like, Why has the earth not warmed since 1998? Isn’t it true that the sun is extremely hot? Don’t you find Tim Flannery kind of annoying? Did you know I’ve been to America? — and so forth.

And I call on the Government to answer his questions. He’s done the legwork. He’s gone to the trouble of going halfway across the world to make sure he’s in possession of all the facts, while lazy dullards at home lounge around reading scientific literature and turning their lights off once a year, reluctant to go that extra mile in the name of evidence.

But now, the government has the chance to show it still retains a skerrick of evidence-based philosophy. It has the chance to show it still believes in rationality and truth and placating the religious fringe whose presence in Parliament is the Government’s own fault to start with.

It has the chance, in short, to shut Steve Fielding up. And if that’s not incentive enough to line up 8000 scientists and a Powerpoint presentation or two, I don’t know what is.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.