Former High Court Justice, the Honourable Kenneth Hayne, AC, QC, delivered the 2020 Sir Zelman Cowen Centre Oration (in virtual format) on Wednesday 5 August on the topic of Trust, Confidence and Public Institutions.
Mr Hayne urged politicians to defend their institutions rather than prioritise partisan self-interest. He suggested the COVID-19 pandemic could create opportunity for a reset in Australian politics.
The current crisis has shown that science does not have all the answers but “provides the best light we have to see our way through to safety”.
He noted the pandemic demonstrated that countries fared better when their leaders told citizens the truth, and showed that societies could still “engage in a common public space on the basis of shared values and facts”.
Hijacking politics with slogans
Mr Hayne said issues such as climate change and the Indigenous voice to parliament have been hijacked by sloganeering and the “peddling of false and misleading ideas”.
This reflected a decline of trust in institutions, characterised by hyper-partisan debate and a “dialogue of the deaf” in which slogans substituted for facts, and protagonists declined to acknowledge doubt, nuance or alternative points of view.
Hayne said political leaders must not only lead, they must also teach.
“Those who lead must educate, and if they will not, others must take on that task."
“More than anything, it is necessary to teach, and keep teaching, some basic truths, and it is necessary to trust the listener to discriminate between arguments – that is, trust and confidence must flow both ways – from the people to the institutions of government and from those who occupy office in government to the people.”
The annual event was hosted by Victoria University’s Sir Zelman Cowen Centre, which provides legal education, training and research, with a particular focus on law and cultural diversity.
The oration is named in honour of Sir Zelman Cowen, an internationally renowned legal scholar and university administrator who served as Australia’s 19th Governor General.