Australian politics and the art of strategic ignorance

Does our Prime Ministry *really* think coal is “clean?” In today’s post, RMIT Master of Social Science student Lanie Stockman (@The_Real_Lanie) analyses government policy using the framework of strategic ignorance. This concept may explain some of the odd stances that are taken in Canberra.

“Alas, poor coal! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest.”  Does Scott Morrison truly think coal has been unfairly maligned?  Photo credit Kym Smith, Courier Mail.

“Alas, poor coal! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest.” Does Scott Morrison truly think coal has been unfairly maligned? Photo credit Kym Smith, Courier Mail.

Persistent government narratives deny inconvenient truths

While recent political events have seen Australia described as the coup capital of the democratic world (see also here) and the democratic arc of instability, is Australian politics actually a “game of ignoring inconvenient advice”?  This recent breakfast radio exchange, discussing the reliability of South Australia’s renewable energy sources, is perhaps suggestive of the latter – a case of wilful ignorance:

Energy Minister Angus Taylor: We have a real-life experiment with a 50 per cent renewable energy target in South Australia which has amongst the highest prices in the world. You’d reckon for that you’d get a good service, but they’re struggling to keep the lights on at peak times, Fran. So, that policy…

ABC journalist Fran Kelly: There was a storm two years ago, there’s been a lot of adjustments since then, don’t we need to upgrade the narrative here?

Taylor: Well, I’m not an apologist for what’s happened there because I’ve seen…

Kelly: Well, I’m not an apologist either I’m just trying to get...truth around it.

Taylor: I’m glad to hear that. I have seen when you pour intermittent generation in the system at a rate faster than the natural improvement in technology and economics and that’s the key point. There’s a natural improvement and economics of technologies like solar, which the market determines. When you try to run ahead of that, you get yourself into trouble. That’s what’s happened in South Australia and we’re not going to fall for that sort of politics.

Why and how has this narrative – about the apparent failure of renewable energy in South Australia – persisted, while another - the role of severely storm-damaged infrastructure in causing a blackout - been diminished?

On 28th September 2016, a “one in 50 year” weather event hit South Australia, whereby severe thunderstorms, winds in excess of 90 km per hour, golf ball-sized hail stones and 80,000 lightning strikes were reported. The severe storm resulted in damage to more than 20 electricity pylons, causing blackouts to nearly 1 million homes across the state.

As the new federal energy minister, Angus Taylor, made clear during this radio interview almost two years to the day since the blackout, the event has been persistently depicted as the outcome of South Australia's increasing reliance on renewable energy.  This assertion is contrary to the findings of scientists and energy analysts: that an extreme weather event caused damage to the electricity infrastructure. The weather event itself is attributed to the “well-accepted causal link between burning fossil fuels and the destabilization of the earth's climate.” The South Australian premier at the time, Jay Weatherill, claimed that no electricity system in the world could have withstood such a storm, and this has since been supported by a number of independent analysts.

The de-linking of extreme weather and climate change, coupled with the position that renewable energy has failed, continues to be contested – see, for example, here, here and here. Arguably, we now see the result in the current Government’s re-prioritisation of reducing power prices and ensuring system reliability (signalled by the Energy Minister diminutively dubbed the ‘Minister for Lowering Electricity Prices’). As current policy settings may compromise our commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change, our Pacific neighbours beg our Government to recognise that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing.”

The will to not know

The minister’s stance could be considered ‘spin’ to set the political agenda and allow Government to “rapidly adjust their policies to any changes in public sentiment.” Evidence-free and evidence-light positions may also be features of ‘information clashes’, typified by the torrent of competing views on social media about myriad hot topics. However, the concept of strategic ignorance or the “mobilization of the unknowns” in order to “command resources, deny liability in the aftermath of disaster, and to assert expert control” may offer another perspective of the politics of “unknowledge” in policy making processes and outcomes. This lens may help us to see whose knowledge counts, is acted upon and how it is dealt with, particularly when it is ‘uncomfortable’. Uncomfortable knowledge has been defined as that which presents a danger to institutions, either because particular information may undermine the principles of a group or make it prone to criticism from other parts of society because the group ought to have known it. Uncomfortable knowledge is clearly visible in debates on climate change, but is also present in a broad range of disputed and intractable policy areas such as child protection, drug and alcohol policy, pharmaceuticals industries, the mining industry, and welfare policy (including the cashless welfare card) – to name a few.

Well before social media and indeed well before the advent of television in Australia, sociologists observed that “ignorance is both an inescapable and intrinsic element of social organisation generally” and not necessarily a “passive or dysfunctional condition but…an active and often positive element in operative structures and relations,” not least for the purpose of preserving the status quo. A range of tactics to facilitate strategic ignorance have since been identified including:

  • Denial: a refusal to acknowledge or engage with information.

  • Dismissal: an acknowledgement of information, but minimal engagement up to the point of rebutting it as erroneous or irrelevant.

  • Diversion: the creation of an activity that distracts attention away from an uncomfortable issue.

  • Displacement: occurs when an issue is engaged with, but management of it is substituted by the management of a represented object or activity.

  • Shooting the messenger: publicly identifying or shaming individuals bringing uncomfortable knowledge to management or the public.

From ignorance to openness

The Energy Minister’s technique of denying the causes of the 2016 blackout in South Australia offers an insight into the political wrangling of information: the way it is used and, tellingly, dismissed. The lens of strategic ignorance provides a useful way of understanding something we instinctively know - that merely having evidence, even that which is considered robust and expertly generated, does not necessarily translate into policy.

Ignorance is a necessity. We need it to filter the 34 gigabytes of information we are individually said to be inundated with each day. At institutional and political levels, what can we do about information that is strategically deflected, obscured, concealed to our detriment? A shift away from running public services within the New Public Management paradigm, which is focused on producing value and reducing risk, may offer potential. Rather than “cultures of audit”, organisational cultures of openness, whereby information disclosures are the default could help restore public trust and promote accountability.