Academics in politics

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.

40 thoughts on “Academics in politics

  1. Andrew, thanks for the generous post. You’ve raised fears that I share, but as you well know from having worked in federal politics, there’s great scope to achieve positive changes too. And in the end, the only way to work out whether you can turn an academic into a politician is to give it a shot. Keep the critiques coming!


  2. It would be interesting for Andrew if he explained why he chose labor, particularly this current crop of labor to make the transition to politics.


  3. Maybe because he is a social democrat? People make decisions like this based on long-term allegiances and goals, with current opportunities more important than the ‘current crop’.


  4. It will be interesting to see how well Andrew L does in politics. Apart from John Hewson, I’m not aware of too many recent ex-academics who have done all that much in politics. Certainly, plenty of good (and bad) policy has been implemented by people without specialised economic training. And I’m not sure if I would want interventionist academics like Gans, King and Quiggin to make policy in preference to smart non-specialists like Keating (in his heyday) or Costello. I think the main problem with academics in politics (or real life generally) is their tendency to intellectual arrogance and a lack of flexibility in their views. Andrew L seems to be aware of this, and this is probably in small part a benefit of making the move at a fairly young age.


  5. There have been at least two long-term Cabinet ministers who were former academics – Neal Blewett and David Kemp. Tony Staley was an academic for a while and a minister in the Fraser government.


  6. Are you sure Tony was an academic?

    To be perfectly honest Andrew, I have serious misgivings that Leigh is all he’s cracked up to be and there are a couple of reasons.

    The prime one is that “research” he came out with that suggested the ABC was right wing leaning. That was junk. Ordinarily one would palm that off to the gods however one obvious far left ABC presenter used the cloak of academia as evidence that not only wasn’t the ABC left wing but that an “important” bit of research had shown the ABC was liberal leaning.

    Leigh made no attempt to correct that junk.

    Secondly he signed a letter “as an economist” to somehow offer academic support to the stimulus package after he had been given a temporary political appointment in Treasury.


  7. According to Who’s Who, Staley was a U of M political science academic in the second half of the 1960s. Though I think it is fair to say that this was not a major prior career as it was for Blewett or Kemp.

    I agree that assessing public intellectuals by their parliamentary mentions was a failed methodology. Like many academics these days, Andrew releases draft papers for comment before they are published in a refereed journal. While I think this is a good idea given the limits of the refereeing process (as in this case, a flaw was quickly revealed), it will mean that more less-good ideas see the light of day. I note that this paper does not seem to have proceeded to publication in a journal. You can’t judge people just by their weakest research.

    And while I dislike the ‘important person open letter’, I though the conflict of interest claim on that letter was weak.


  8. JC,
    I guess the alternative is that you look at who it might be otherwise. First you’re worried about him being in the Labor party — perhaps you haven’t noticed the current group of no-hopers in the Libs (do you want, say, Barnaby, as Finance minister or Abbot thinking of new social engineering taxes bigger than I can remember in my life time)? Where does one fit in with such a group? Second, he’s not a Labor party hack who got their as a career politician, and that’s good too. Third, it seems to me that you want someone who thinks exactly the way you do. You won’t get that from anyone except yourself. If you get someone who is generally good, that’s far better than most (including Labors top people at the moment, who appear pretty hopeless).


  9. Congrats to Andrew Leigh – I’m glad and surprised he won – as I falsely assumed a factionally-backed candidate would win. This possibly reflects my experiences in inner-Sydney.

    I agree with conrad’s points – and a key point for me is that Andrew L is interested in public policy in a serious way and is able to think independently. This gives a big head start. We need people with such interests and capabilities in politics.

    Of course, good policy-making and politics require different skills. Hopefully politics and Andrew will mix well.


  10. How much of his social science research was causally linked to a positive policy outcome? Maybe that’s why he got into politics – he may realise that the alternative was to look back at a body of quality research with a bitter feeling knowing that it was mostly ignored by the people that make the important decisions – senior bureaucrats and ministers.


  11. Conrad:

    I not worried in the least that Leigh joins the labor party. In fact I never had any doubt he would as it seemed it would be his natural home.

    As for Joyce being a no hoper… Joyce made several misstatements and wasn’t lucid enough in being to convey his thoughts and ideas. However Joyce would never have signed that appalling little letter and he wouldn’t have ever tried to palm off that ABC-is-right-wing research.

    I could think of a number of people who I think would be better. Andrew Norton would be great and John Humphreys would be as well. They don’t think exactly like me as they present themselves as slightly more left wing than I am 🙂

    Nice attempt to try to the compare the best apples with the worst.



    Sorry I wasn’t trying to question you about Tony. I know Tony and I was a little surprised he was an academic as I thought he went straight into politics after Uni as an adviser.

    As far as I know Leigh never made any attempt to ask for a clarification from Media Watch when they presented that junk research on the program that the ABC was right wing. He could have but didn’t.

    I also beg to differ about his conflict at the time he was temporarily appointed to Treasury.


  12. Tysen – Causal links are very difficult to prove. But two aspects of Andrew’s research come to mind as having played a helpful role in public policy debate. I think his work on teacher quality contributed to the understanding that previous policy preoccupations such as class sizes were misguided. His research showing that teacher qualifications made no difference to teacher performance may have helped clear the way for policy experiments such as those that put bright graduates more or less straight into the classroom (though I can’t recall whether he specifically advocated that).

    I think his work on the minimum wage was also helpful in demonstrating the potential for negative employment effects and the value of good economic analysis. This I think contributed to the Fair Pay Commission’s analytical rather than adversarial approach to minimum wage setting, and their final decision not to increase the minimum wage, which contributed to Australia’s good employment performance during the GFC.

    This work did not break theoretical new ground, but it did use previously unutilised Australian data. The fact that it was evidence-based social science coming from a social democrat helped ease the political problems caused by results that ran contrary to left orthodoxy.

    That said, I can well understand why he wants more access to the levers of power – not just to make use of previous findings, but to encourage policymakers to make greater use of social science methodology.


  13. Andrew:

    I thought the class size issue was research that came out of the US west coast from one of their research universities. I’m not sure that Andrew broke new ground with that.


  14. JC – As I said, the examples I gave do not break theoretical new ground. Much of what AL does is inspired by similar research overseas. The question was one of influence. Replication using Australian data is much more powerful than simply reporting overseas findings. And because AL has always been good at promoting his research, his findings have greater impact.


  15. That perhaps is true Andrew.

    It’s pure co-incidence that you raise those issues about schools. I recently met up with an Australian friend who is now heading a group of New Yorkers attempting to improve the quality of NYC ed and introduce charter schools. Nearly all of those points you raised about AL’s research were mentioned by this fellow.

    Class size wasn’t a large factor.. teacher qualifications… and so on. In fact they found that the idea about smaller class size was a cynical attempt by the NYC teacher unions to raise membership rather than offer better schooling.


  16. JC – I agree that the unions are important in explaining the push for smaller classes, partly because the teaching workforce is dominated by people who would prefer shorter hours to higher pay (I argued this here, following on from AL research). The push for performance pay is an attempt to partly get around this problem, though personally I am more sceptical than AL that this can work in highly centralised systems.

    However, teacher unions are not the full explanation. There is demand for parents for smaller classes. Maybe this is because they have been duped by the unions, or it may also be because while smaller classes do not correlate with superior academic achievement parents observe other benefits. There is a big political obsession with quantifiable academic results, but school research also consistently finds that non-academic factors are important in school choice.


  17. Well there goes the post I was going to write. Guess I’ve got to learn from my namesakes and get more productive. None have been highly successful though F. W. Eggleston, Paul Hasluck, H.V. Evatt and Gareth Evans were all politicians who wrote academic type work during their careers.

    Russell Trood is to my knowledge the only other academic currently in politics, (though he will surely lose his senate seat in the election), but I know Craig Emerson also has a PhD in economics, and Dennis Jensen a PhD in Engineering.

    Lets just hope Rudd’s office doesn’t blame Leigh for the rebuff of their preferred candidate and seek to use his immense talents.


  18. On second thoughts I’ve missed quite a few. Hawke was studying for a PhD when poached for the ACTU, Kim Beazley and Geoff Gallop lectured at University. (Along with David Kemp & John Hewson who have been mentioned above. It would be interesting to go through the data to see how many there have been.


  19. Sharman Stone also has a PhD, in ‘economics and business’ according to her website.

    Swan, Tanner, Abbott, and Turnbull have all written books, though aimed at a general reader type audience.


  20. You could do an impact analysis too as there’s a huge difference between getting a PhD (which isn’t especially hard in many areas if you have an organized mind and are persistent) and actually writing things that get widely read and cited — There’s many people in universities that have a PhD but don’t write much and many that write a lot but write about stuff no-one cares about. AL isn’t either of those two categories, but I’m sure some of the others must be.


  21. Certainly, I would not expect any strong correlation between some skills and attributes favouring PhD completion – eg interest in obscure topics, preference for lonely tasks – to translate into successful political careers.


  22. Andrew:

    Honest question.

    Every where I look I see bloggers and commenters applauding Leigh’s win with some suggesting this is a win for more evidence based policy.

    Okay, let’s certainly hope that happens. But here’s my problem. There is more than enough evidence that the cap and trade was based on some seriously flimsy evidence such as the Garnaut report which in turn used Stern’s report as strong support.

    What is Leigh going to do and say. Is he going to publicly criticize it?

    What would Leigh’s position be on fuel and grocery watch for instance? Would he rightly condemn those two policies as nonsense?


  23. JC – Unless he becomes PM, AL would be well advised to focus on a few issues he can hope to seriously influence rather than try to measure every policy against his theoretical standards. a) he will maximise his credibility on those issues, b) he won’t make a martyr of himself unnecessarily.


  24. He’ll be just another labor politician then?

    I was sold on the idea that Craig Emerson would be great as he’d spoken to the CIS numerous times.

    Craig seems to have been on a toilet break when the cabinet made the decision to continue protecting the book industry. LOL. He may have missed that one.

    I was sold on the idea by a bunch of you guys incidently. John Humphreys, Jase, Sinc, Berg… All of you.

    All you dudes were heavy into him and look what happened 🙂

    I bet one could get Craig to offer his support for fuel and grocery watch if you tried only a little these days.


  25. Well he will be a politician – that was the point of the post. Government decision making is a collective process, and AL will need different skills to those that have made him a success in his currrent career if he is to make a difference. All we can say for sure at this stage if that he starts with a better approach and ideas than most of them.

    Emerson isn’t in Cabinet.


  26. JC, Andrew N is right – in party-based politics you have to convince many other people of your view for them to adopt it – it doesn’t matter if you are convinced of its correctness as either policy, strategy or whatever. There’s only so much an individual can do.

    Given that, it’s positive for someone with an active interest in policy and its complexities to go into parliamentary politics, as they have a head start in making better policy on people who have little of either. There are so many woeful government policies (at all levels) that more informed policy making can only be a positive. The problem is in translating the “more informed-ness” into better policy that is explained to voters.


  27. Academic economists have a poor record in politics.

    Harry Edwards or David Watson, some would include John Hewson.

    Overseas Bertie Ohlin and few would consider Harold Wilson or Andreas Papandreou a success.

    Let us hope Al is an outlier.

    AL stood as the ALP candidate for Bradfield against David Connolly as a young man.


  28. What’s next – Alex Robson won the liberal preselection for Fraser!
    Now that would make for a good fight, but perhaps not in Fraser. Eden-Monaro would make for a better battle!
    Anyway, as an ANU Eco product, it’s with some pride that A-Leigh got selected. That said, not sure if A-leigh is right for politics. He seems to revel in economic issues of the periphery. Like an Aussie, soft left version of Stephen Levitt. I hope me proves me wrong. Anyway, has to be an improvement on Bobby ‘seat warmer’ McMullin though.


  29. Beg to differ on Bob McMullan – he has been doing a great job in Ausaid on overseas aid issues. He has been content to get the job done without going for headlines. the Government in this policy area has been delivering on its election commitments in a steady way.


  30. Andrew:

    Instead of over dramatizing St. Andrew great virtues about his next job as some have done (I’m not referring to you), why don’t you do the right thing and go into politics yourself.

    I’d be betting more on you making a difference than anyone else.

    let’s not over-dramatize where don’t need to.


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