Cunningham Lectures

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The Academy’s flagship annual public lecture is named after Dr Kenneth Stewart Cunningham, the first chairman of the Social Science Research Committee (the Academy’s predecessor organisation). The Cunningham Lecture is presented by an eminent social scientist, and occurs as part of the Annual events, immediately following the Symposium. It is open to the public.

2019 Cunningham Lecture: Losing It! The Art of Effective Policy Making

Losing It! Are Australian Governments Still Capable of Exercising the Art of Effective Policy Making? Presented by the Hon. Marcia Neave AO   This lecture will identify the elements of the ‘art’ of effective policy making. It argues that the art of making policy to address complex social issues requires, among other things, subject expertise, […]

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2018 Cunningham Lecture: The Pursuit of Knowledge

– Video uploaded below – The Pursuit of Knowledge: Veritas Redux Presented by Professor Glenn Withers AO FASSA (Professor ANU and UNSW Canberra) Humans are ascendant because of rational knowledge. In this Lecture the nature and standing of contemporary knowledge creation, testing and transmission will be examined. Achievement will be celebrated, but failure and challenges […]

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Cunningham Lecture 2017: A Social Science of Failure

A Social Science of Failure: why I made mistakes and what I learned from them The diverse disciplines of social science apply their methodologies and pedagogies to understanding human society: at best, the behavioural insights afforded help us to comprehend the manner in which people act, make decisions, wield power and seek to influence their […]

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Cunningham Lecture 2015: The Luck of Politics

When US president Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest in 1912, he was saved by the luck of having a folded fifty-page speech in his breast pocket. Two years later, World War I was sparked after Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade took a wrong turn onto a narrow street, putting his car into the path of an assassin. John Howard and Gough Whitlam  narrowly missed out being elected to state seats – a ‘misfortune’ that left them able to run for safer federal seats.

In this talk, Andrew Leigh will argue that recognising the importance of luck can profoundly alter the way in which all of us think about politics, and about life. Just as a good health system guards against the bad luck of sickness, and a good unemployment system protects against the bad luck of job loss, so too we need a politics that recognises the role of chance. Luck should make us less inclined to revere the successful and revile the unsuccessful. Putting luck into politics may even let the unlucky have a second chance.

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Cunningham Lecture 2014: The case of the income contingent loan

The Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) was introduced in Australia over 25 years ago, and was the first nationally-based income contingent loan (ICL) scheme collected through the income tax system. It has since been successfully adopted in eight other countries and a bill is currently before the US Congress which, if passed, will introduce ICL to the US.

The benefits of such instruments have been recognised in research involving several disparate potential applications in financing areas well beyond student loans, including for: extensions of paid parental leave, legal aid, business innovation, health care, drought relief, the payment of low level criminal fines  and providing for aged care.

The lecture will examine these applications and explain why the use of ICL is a critical new way of understanding the role of government in an insurance context.

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Cunningham Lecture 2013: Plain packaging of tobacco products

Tobacco control is widely considered the contemporary poster child of successful public health policy and practice in reducing major chronic diseases. In December 2012, the Australian government became the first nation to prescribe the entire packaging for any consumer product when it introduced plain packaging law for tobacco products. The bill attracted sustained opposition from the tobacco industry and its acolytes, a High Court challenge, a World Trade Organisation action and another claimed bilateral trade treaty violation between Australia and Hong Kong. Many millions of dollars were spent unsuccessfully by the tobacco industry in trying to defeat the bill. This lecture will consider both proximal and distal factors in the success of the bill.  It will also consider the role of public health advocacy, and specifically the extent to which the case highlights the importance of active engagement by researchers in the policy advocacy process. 

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Cunningham Lecture 2012: Who would want to be held responsible for Australia’s future?

Australia’s policy makers are dealing with a mining boom unprecedented in our history. It is a boom that has been much celebrated. But we know that it will not last forever. At present rates of extraction, Australia’s known reserves of iron ore will be exhausted within a human lifetime, and known reserves of black coal will be exhausted within a century. Today, these two products make up more than a third of Australia’s total exports. As a whole, mining contributes about 60 per cent of Australia’s total exports, and at present rates of extraction those exports will last, on average, about 75 years. Of course, there will be further discoveries of mineral deposits in Australia. And rates of extraction could fall as other producers expand capacity and importing countries transform their economies in ways that reduce reliance on raw materials.

Which ever of these scenarios emerges, future generations of Australians will identify the present generation as that which extracted unparalleled monetary reward from the continent’s non-renewable natural resources; a ‘monetisation’ of non-renewable resources unmatched by any previous generation of Australians, and unlikely to be matched by any that follows. Those future generations – our children’s children – will have reason to examine whether we made the most of a mining boom that we knew could not last forever.

Who would want to sit that test?

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Cunningham Lecture 2011: Living with an unsustainable food system

The lecture will explore whether policy-makers are responding sufficiently to the evidence of the food system’s tensions and fragilities. Tim Lang will propose that a set of ‘New Fundamentals’ are now clear yet policy-makers have so far failed to get sufficient intellectual, political and economic grip on the seriousness of the situation. For a moment, in 2006-08, this looked possible. Rising oil and food commodity prices shocked even Western policy-makers. They were used to food prices troubling developing, but not developed, countries. When prices dropped, sighs of relief were heard, but troubles have re-emerged in the 2010s. Are the tectonic plates merely moving only to resettle in a new place, or is food economic volatility now the status quo, adding to the world’s financial instability?

In this lecture, Tim Lang will take a long view. He will suggest that the 20th century’s apparent progress in resolving the Malthusian question (about land, food and population) has been done at considerable cost. Oil underpinned the 20th century drive for productivity. As it went through technical and managerial revolutions, the food system’s impact on the environment was increasingly well documented. The impact on soil, water, climate, land use, and biodiversity are now all serious. The social implications, too, are sobering. Food culture is distorted. Social inequalities in consumption are both global and intra-national. Health indices show both hunger and obesity; and diet-related disease delivers huge healthcare costs. Surely the prevention of such problems ought to be driving policy yet it does not. Surely, we ought to be debating resource allocation, price-setting, and what is meant by efficiency, yet business-as-usual reigns. Or does it?

The lecture will present some signs that the enormity of the challenge is troubling policy-makers’ normality. The lecture will suggest that governments, food companies, and civil society (ie all of us) need to engage with this debate. It should not be left to vested interests alone. Thus, the 21st century looks set to resuscitate an old strand in food policy: the pursuit of food democracy, how to ensure that all people are fed equitably, healthily and with dignity in a manner that enables others to do so too. This is a socio-political not a purely technical or managerial or scientific problem.

Currently, much attention is on technical innovation – not just GM but an array of novel solutions to food on and off the land. Less attention is being given to social issues where the possibilities include: restructuring food markets, rapid consumer behaviour change, re-shaping cultural tastes, altering price signals. These require the state and citizens to act differently: less ‘leave it to markets’ and more ‘re-frame markets’. Less ‘let consumers choose’, more open support for ‘consumers are choice-edited anyway’. The dominant policy language is, at best, replete with ‘nudge’ thinking, the fashion for behavioural economics. The lecture will propose the need for open and democratic debate about food futures. It will propose that the food security debates are no more and no less than a key test for whether our food system is shaped by food control or food democracy. It will warn against technical triumphalism and urge a more balanced integration of societal and supply chain change.

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Cunningham Lecture 2010: What if mainstream science is right?

The integrated wisdom of mainstream science and mainstream economics identify large risks to established patterns of human civilisation from unmitigated or weakly mitigated climate change. These risks are important in all countries, and greater in Australia than in any other developed country. They have been more elaborately analysed in Australia than in most other countries, and our community has had access to large amounts of reliable information on the risks. And yet Australia has been and is an important brake on international progress on mitigation policy. There is political failure of fateful dimension. This lecture defines the failure and seeks to illuminate the causes of this unhappy reality. It suggests possible ways out of the impasse, and discusses factors which will determine whether these ways will be taken.

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Cunningham Lecture 2009: Green democracy, global governance

The contemporary prominence of climate change confirms the democratic and ecological deficits of global governance. When authority migrates from states into the international system, democracy does not usually follow, causing problems in a world where legitimate political authority ought to be democratic. There is no World Environment Organisation to match (say) the World Trade Organisation. The two deficits may be linked, for in national contexts democratic innovation and environmental concern have often proved mutually reinforcing. The democratisation of global environmental governance can be approached by contemplating how the engagement of discourses in the global public sphere can be subject to more inclusive and competent control. Then we might think about how this engagement could join in a more deliberative system in which effective authority is exercised. The results are likely to look very different from familiar state-based electoral democracy.

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Cunningham Lecture 2007: World order under stress

It has been a commonplace since the end of the Cold War to refer to the United States as the world’s only super-power. What nonsense this is – and what illusions it fosters! In the currency of effective military power for today’s wars, particularly well trained infantry, marines and their supporting arms on the ground, the United States is simply a major power, contending with many other powers major and minor – some even at subnational level – who can outmanoeuvre and outlast the American will. The United States does not have the necessary military superiority in a major regional war to ensure victory. It is at full stretch militarily, economically, socially and politically with the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not even George W Bush is willing to re-introduce the draft. The United States is the strongest power in the world overall, but it has shortcomings in the particular field in which it has chosen to engage militarily.

Experience of the past four years calls into question the widely proclaimed official view that the United States will eventually emerge victorious from Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather, I suggest, we should give some consideration to what will happen to American leadership and prestige if the US is defeated in either place. There will be some major consequences. Let me briefly offer four case studies in the problems of remaining Number One in a turbulent world.

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Cunningham Lecture 2006: Building democracy and justice after conflict

It is a great honour to be asked to deliver this lecture, named for the educationist, Dr Kenneth Cunningham, the first President of the Social Science Research Council, which became this Academy. After retiring, he worked with UNESCO on teacher education, so I hope he would have some interest in my topic.

It has been said that democracy or state-building has ‘become one of the critical all-consuming strategic and moral imperatives of our terrorised time’. But open any newspaper, listen to the radio or watch the TV news: all around us is evidence of the problems flowing from attempts to build democracy and justice after conflict.

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Cunningham Lecture 2005: Re-thinking Australian governance – the Howard legacy

It is a great privilege to deliver this year’s Cunningham Lecture to the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, on a subject more challenging than ever: the dynamics within our system of governance. As I wrote this Lecture I reflected that it is 30 years ago this week that we witnessed the Dismissal – the product of personality conflict and defects within our system. Yet at that same time in the early 1970s we saw the birth of another phenomenon that has run unbroken for more than three decades, ubiquitous and elusive, the rise of Prime Ministerial Government. Its face has changed from Gough Whitlam to John Howard – but Prime Ministerial Government is the central organising principle of our current system.

Is this a good or bad trend for Australia’s democracy and governance? Opinions will differ – last year Justice Michael Kirby said: "Governance and good governance have attracted many definitions. But the notion remains a ‘contested concept’". The Howard era has provoked an escalation in the debate about what constitutes good governance, a debate riddled with differences over perspective and public interest. They are unlikely to be reconciled.

In this Cunningham Lecture my goal is to describe how Australian Governance is being re-shaped and re-thought by John Howard. The reason I chose this approach is that while there is a multitude of commentary about Howard’s governance, there is little analysis of how he governs or of the ideas and approach that shape his governance or of what might become his legacy.

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Cunningham Lecture 2004: The esteem engine

It is an honour to have been asked to deliver the 2004 Cunningham Lecture. I know people always say that sort of thing; but on this occasion I say it not just in deference to the conventions of politeness (which I may later violate anyway) but also with a certain ‘special intellectual intent’. Because honour, glory, fame, regard, approval – and their corresponding opposites – dishonour, contempt, shame, disregard, disapproval – constitute the theme of this lecture. My interest in this family of phenomena is not just as objects of social analysis in their own right, but more especially in the normative possibilities they offer – their possible role as a resource in institutional design.

I shall generally use the term ‘esteem’ to stand for the whole family. I don’t deny that there are distinctions to be drawn between, say, esteem and approval, or between esteem and fame. But I also don’t want here to engage in fine-grained logic-chopping – so I hope that I will be forgiven if I suspend a lot of relevant distinctions in the interests of painting on a slightly larger canvas.

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Cunningham Lecture 2003: Leadership observed

The subject of leadership can be approached in many different ways. How we approach leadership – who and what we choose to study, the activities and events we attempt to analyse, and the conceptual frameworks we use to understand leadership – determines what we see and therefore what is concluded. Who is a leader? How important are leaders? What difference do they make? What drives and motivates them? What makes a capable leader? What is the essence of effective leadership? How do we nurture leadership?

In a 1998 review of leadership theory and research it was observed that ‘most of the research on leadership during the past half century has been conducted in the United States, Canada and Western Europe.’ In addition, it has been noted that ‘almost all of the prevailing theories of leadership and about 98 per cent of the empirical evidence at hand, are distinctly American in character: individualistic rather than collectivistic, stressing follower responsibilities rather than rights…’. But in many Asian countries there is a long tradition of writing about political, military, and spiritual leadership as well as a strong research interest in the moral dimension of leadership. Rost, who conducted a historical review of the literature on leadership, concluded ‘leadership… has come to mean many things to all people’ and that ‘scholars and practitioners of leadership are no more sure of what leadership is in 1990 than they were in 1930’. While the diversity of views about leadership may indicate a field without direction, a more positive reading is that there are many valid ways to define, approach, and understand leadership and this testifies both to the complexity and the richness of the field.

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Cunningham Lecture 2002: Before the bough breaks

Much of the data in this article comes from a paper commissioned by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for the Millenium Year Book, entitled Child Health since Federation. This enabled me to compare the statistics on childhood deaths and diseases and investigate their trends over the last 100 years, and I believe that from this a clear message emerges for us now in the 21st century. The epidemics of infections which killed so many infants around 1900 were contained by a series of community based, social and physical environmental strategies. In spite of inadequate knowledge about the responsible organisms and without access to either antibiotics or vaccines, they were remarkably successful.

As we start a new century, in spite of the increases in wealth, and educational and technological advances compared with 100 years ago, we are challenged by alarming increases in childhood and adolescent problems in physical and mental health. Many arise in social adversity and have coincided with recent profound social changes in society.

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Cunningham Lecture 2001: Australia Fair

One use of a lecture in such intelligent company would be to sketch a social democratic future in which Australians become even richer, freer, more equal, more cooperative, fonder of one another and happier than most of us already are.

I could do that, but I know what the realists among you

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Cunningham Lecture 2000: Thinking peace, making peace

The year 2000 not only marked the millennium in Western calendars but, as a sign of millennial optimism perhaps, was declared by the United Nations to be the International Year for a Culture of Peace, inaugurating an International Decade for Peace. UNESCO was selected as the focal UN agency for all related activities. In response to an approach from UNESCO Australia, both the Academy of Social Sciences and the Academy of Humanities focused their annual symposia on the question of peace. The ASSA Symposium on 5 November 2000 was organised under the rubric of ‘thinking peace, making peace’. Our aim was to combine the insights of scholars and practitioners – to connect the intellectual challenges of ‘thinking peace’ with the moral and political challenges of ‘making peace’ – in a world pervaded by violence and war.                             

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Cunningham Lecture 1999: Pushing back the frontiers of death

The most persistent imagery in literature, particularly in poetry, is human frailty, especially the inevitability of death. ‘Mortals’ is a term used to designate the human race. Demography, which focuses on the major events of our existence – birth, marriage, parenthood and death – has long been interested in measuring the force of mortality and in explaining its change.

This preoccupation is not as morbid as it sounds. In modern times the news has been almost entirely good. Western countries have doubled their life expectancies from around 40 years in the mid-nineteenth century to almost 80 years at the end of the twentieth century. The Third World’s life expectancy, taken as a whole, has climbed from 40 years in the mid-twentieth century to 65 years at its end3. If we were to enter one of those competitions to nominate the greatest advance of the latter part of the millennium, it would be difficult to overlook the pushing back of the frontiers of death and the guarantee that most people will live to old age. In Sweden, for which we have good statistics for the last two centuries, the 1800 mortality level would have meant only one-third of those born surviving until 60 years of age. In contrast, the present mortality level implies that such erosion does not take place until after 85 years.

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