Don’t silence experts: professional bodies add oomph to any debate

Don’t silence experts: professional bodies add oomph to any debate

Let’s have a debate … about the issues

Public debate about policy issues is something we need a lot more of. There should be a contest of ideas because there’s no question that a diversity of views on the merits of policies leads us to a well-informed position in the end.

Professional bodies, industry groups, the media and the wider community all have a role to play in the public debate and these roles should be encouraged, not dismissed. This was not the position put by Judith Sloan in The Australian on Tuesday (‘Leaning Left by association’, 17/9/2013).

Professional bodies have a critical role in the public policy debate. Not only do we provide valuable resources to our members throughout their careers, we also seek to engage the wider community on significant policy issues in our areas of expertise.

It’s this variety of credible sources that government needs to listen to, to inform its decision-making around policies. Commentators are also an important part of this debate and they should not take lightly the role that they are entrusted with to guide and inform public opinion. But when a debate degenerates into personal attacks on the credibility of particular organisations then we know we’ve lost sight of the main objective – to develop good policies that will advance our society.

Tuesday’s opinion piece underscored the need for us to do more to explain the role professional organisations play in our society. A common misconception is that professional bodies are, in essence, the same as industry groups or special interest groups. We are not. Yes, we aim to represent our members’ interests and concerns to government, but we also aim to make a proactive and positive contribution to the development of public policy – and the two roles are quite different.

Bound by Charters and Codes of Ethics and governed by boards and committees, we have a mandate to develop policies that are in the public interest as part of our contract with society.

To develop a position on a particular policy issue, we firstly gather feedback from our members. Of course, it will rarely be the case that an absolute consensus can be reached on any one particular issue. Collectively we have around 200,000 members which includes hundreds of advisory committees that inform the thinking that goes into the positions adopted by professional bodies.

We also seek input from outside the membership base, including from similar professional organisations and the business community. We listen, we evaluate, we test and we assess the viewpoints put forward by our members against other sources of industry research and analysis we have access to.

After that process is complete, the views formed become the organisation’s position. At this point, the professional body doesn’t hide behind an argument that it’s the view of its members, or that they are ‘just the messenger’. It owns the position and is prepared to explain the position that is adopted.

This is precisely why the government should listen to professional bodies, whether it’s generating options to cope with urban growth and congestion in our cities, improving the design of our tax system, outlining the need for policy on asylum seekers that complies with international law or planning and delivering critical infrastructure for essential services such as transport, energy and housing.

Governments know our positions have been well researched, widely reviewed and scrutinised by a level of industry expertise that they don’t have access to. And they recognise the valuable contribution we make. We are non-partisan, practical and we each have a contribution to make towards the long-term vision for our nation that has been derived from decades of experience. That’s why we are a credible voice.


Lee White, Chief Executive Officer, Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia
Reynah Tang, President, Law Institute of Victoria
Paul Berkemeier, President, Australian Institute of Architects
Stephen Durkin, CEO, Engineers Australia