Andrew Leigh has announced that he has won pre-selection for the safe Labor seat of Fraser. He’ll be in the House of Representatives before Christmas.
Of course Andrew is an outstanding candidate, but this is a big loss to Australian social science. He’s always been exceptionally productive, and in his late thirties has a publication record that most academics would be happy to retire with. Perhaps that’s why he is moving on to something new, but it’s hard to imagine that the steady stream of interesting papers and articles was about to hit an intellectual drought.
I can well understand the temptations of politics. While I think a fair assessment is that Australian politicians have done reasonably well by world standards, there is so much that could be done so much better. The kind of empirical social science Andrew has done in his academic career can tell us a lot about what policies are likely to work, and which are likely to fail or achieve too little at too high a cost. Someone with Andrew’s background can provide valuable input into the policy process.
The question is whether someone like Andrew, whose demonstrated major skills are academic research and analysis, can do more good inside or outside of party politics. There is going to be a significant opportunity cost in research not conducted and papers not written, some of which could have informed future policy. The knowledge he has acquired already will have to be publicly sidelined to the extent it conflicts with current Labor policy. Some Liberal apparatchik has probably already started the job of going through his collected works to find contradictions with the government’s position (at least the apparatchik might learn something).
As he noted in his post – ‘I’m slowly making the evolution from the academic style of hard facts and sharp differences to the political style of storytelling and common ground’ – the skills required in politics are not the same as skills needed for success in other occupations. Indeed, in Peter Garrett and Maxine McKew there are already two Labor examples of high achievers who have made a difficult entry into the new field of politics. While Garrett is probably to a significant extent the victim of a bad Cabinet decision on a policy proposal that did not come from him, he has struggled to manage the politics of insulation and other issues.
I’m not saying that Andrew L can’t make the transition. He has long worked on getting his message into media-friendly formats. He is friendly and gets on well with other people. He speaks well and looks good on TV. These are desirable skills and attributes in the political world.
But any political career has risks that exceed those of most other occupations. With luck and skill, politicians can achieve things on a scale way beyond what was likely in their previous profession. The risk is that they won’t get an opportunity to do so, or that things will go wrong if they do. In those cases – I think the typical cases – their alternative career of smaller-scale but more reliable accomplishments may end up being the better option.
I wish Andrew luck. At least Canberra MPs don’t need to spend so many nights away from home.