Building resilient – and resurgent – democracies for the 21st century

05 Dec 2023


National Press Club Address
5 December 2023

Professor Brian P. Schmidt 
Vice-Chancellor, The Australian National University 
2011 Nobel Laureate in Physics



Thank you Laura. 

And thank you to the National Press Club for inviting me here to speak. This is one of my final engagements towards the end of an 8-year term as Vice-Chancellor of The Australian National University. 

I too wish to start today by acknowledging and celebrating the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people on whose land and airwaves we meet. I pay my respect to Elders past and present.  

And I want to extend that respect to all First Nations peoples joining us today here at the National Press Club and across Australia. 

I would also like to pay tribute to Peta Murphy who sadly passed away earlier this week. Peta was a wonderful politician, a powerful advocate for her community and Australians with cancer. She was also an ANU graduate and we are proud to call her one of our own. 

I immigrated to Australia nearly 29 years ago. Since then, Australia’s journey towards a Reconciled future has gathered pace – but unfinished business remains. All of us who are immigrants, or descended from immigrants, owe the debt of Reconciliation to a People and a culture that pre-dates us on this continent by 65,000 years. 


As Paul Keating said in his Redfern speech 31 years ago this Sunday: “We non-Aboriginal Australians should perhaps remind ourselves that Australia once reached out for us.”


“If we can build a prosperous and remarkably harmonious multicultural society in Australia, surely we can find just solutions to the problems which beset the First Australians: the people to whom the most injustice has been done.”


This year we had solutions in our grasp, but it was not to be. I hope that all Australians – ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ voters – are determined to move forward and ensure that the referendum was not a retreat from Reconciliation, but a test of it. 


It is a test we cannot fail. The referendum and how it played out illustrates some of the challenges in our and other democracies, and it is worthwhile analysing the results to learn about ourselves. It was clear that amid the media circus around the Voice there was the potential to find that harmony Keating talked of, but also the risk of division and distrust. My hope, as someone who has spoken out so strongly about Reconciliation, is that we can focus again on unity – a unity based on trust.


And as we step back to learn the lessons and analyse the outcome– which is one of my University’s areas of expertise – we must consider both what we have learned from Australia’s referendums, and what that should tell us about the future.


For the last four decades, The Australian National University has conducted a poll after each federal election to understand why Australians voted the way they did, and, to understand their overall confidence in Australia’s democracy. We undertook a similar poll directly after the referendum voting day with a sample of more than 4,000 voters from across Australia.


These are not just people who live in big cities, or within the ‘Canberra bubble’, but people who come from every state and territory and reflect values and opinions from across our nation. 


And this recent Poll, this research, released just last week shows the vast majority of Australians – 87 per cent to be specific– say Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should have a say, or a voice, over matters that directly affect them.  


And, interestingly, 76 per cent of ‘No’ voters also think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders deserve a voice when it comes to key policies and political decisions that effect them.


And yet, 60% of Australians voted against a Voice. 


Perhaps then, it is not surprising that Emerita Professor Anne Twomey said politicians in future may think: " there is just no point in putting a referendum to the people." 


It’s a logical conclusion when democratic debates generate more heat than light – and when a question on policy yields an answer in politics. 


The other observation, which creates more questions in my mind than answers, is that the ANUPoll results show that the referendum, the 44th in our democratic history, may have gotten up if there had been bipartisan support for the proposal. As our Chancellor, the Hon Julie Bishop, noted at the National Press Club in July – “only eight referendums have gotten up, and all had bipartisan support with the exception of one”. 


So, a successful referendum may require the suspension of politics. And in our highly partisan world, this seems more and more unlikely.  


It is easy to say ‘no’ in democracies: “If you don’t know, vote no”. But ‘Yes’ is what enables our democracy to evolve and meet new challenges and opportunities. 


But change is complex. Saying yes to change, requires trust.


And that, more than bipartisanship, may be the biggest stumbling block in our democracy. 

According to the longest-running health check on our political system – the Australian Election Study, led by Professor Ian McAllister at ANU – Australians’ trust in democracy has continually declined since 2007. 

Levels of dissatisfaction and distrust hit record lows in 2019, when just 59 per cent of Australians said they were satisfied with how our democracy was working.

This is just above the lowest level ever recorded – 56 per cent during the constitutional crisis and the dismissal of Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister in 1975.

Levels of satisfaction only marginally improved after the 2023 election. This is concerning, as typically, with a change in government comes renewed hope.  And often, it ain’t long until the honeymoon is over.. 

So, the question is: what is happening to affect Australians’ perceptions of their democratic governance? 

Is it the perception that our politicians constantly underperform? 

Is it a general detachment from the political process? 

Is it a lack of trust in political representation? 

The Australian Election Study has some clues. More than half – 54 per cent – of Australians, think the government is run for ‘a few big interests’. And watching the political and business scandals of the last few years, you can see why everyday Australians have lost trust. 

In contrast, just 12 per cent of Australians believe the government is run for ‘all of the people’. 

According to the Australian Election Study more than 7 in 10 Australians think that people in government only look after themselves. 

And perhaps the thing that worries me most: only a quarter think that people in government can be trusted. 

This suggests Australian democracy itself is in peril. Democracies do not function without trust. And democracies cannot evolve without trust. 

Clearly, something is not right. 

Voters are concerned about what governments are doing. AND they don’t think political leaders have their interests at heart. It is possible then, that they are beginning to believe that the government is not a representation of them.

This should be a wake-up call for Australia.

We live in an age where there has never been greater access to information, nor greater doubt about its accuracy. An information explosion risks blowing apart the foundational workings of our democracy. Where we source our information from, who we listen to, who we trust, has changed. 

You just have to look at your social media coverage of COVID-19 to understand the problem: warnings issued to followers that “drinking bleach” was not a medically sound treatment. 

Institutions like government, universities and the media were society’s bulwark against crazy theories and flat-out lies. 

In the past, before the term “google it” was invented, elected officials informed themselves to understand issues and represent voters in making decisions. 

The information they relied on was highly curated. Expertise was largely supplied through university academics, accessed by the public through libraries as primary source material, or through the education of graduates who worked across society. 

News was reported from a relatively small number of recognised media outlets that synthesised information from politicians and experts into a relatively homogenous understanding of the world that people received maybe once per day. It wasn’t perfect – but it was, by and large, trustworthy. 

Today we have a 24-hour news cycle that covers every moment and every decision across a dazzling array of providers with paralysing efficiency.  It is fed by a quasi-infinite sea of information on the internet, catering to almost any pre-conceived notion on any subject – where everyone is an expert.  And the genuine experts compete for airtime with the keyboard warriors, the armchair generals, and the graduates of Trump University.

Amid this chaos are stores of analyses and repositories of information that are the best that humanity has ever seen. But each citizen now gets to choose their own information sources, where content providers preferentially feed people things that they like and believe, leading to a deeply fragmented view of the world. 

Citizens, with an array of information and misinformation on anything and everything can use their democratic power without accessing the guiding expertise. 

You could argue that is their right – this is a free country. But I would argue that democracy cannot function effectively without evidence and knowledge. An environment where invention and hard fact can sit indistinguishably side by side, one as credible as the other, is paralysing our democracy. It means people in power can survive by avoiding the wicked problems and instead make decisions on 8-second soundbites rather than proven fact.

Universities and news organisations have had privileged roles in democracies – through the principles of “university autonomy”, “academic freedom” and “freedom of the press” – because our information curation roles have to be trusted by the citizenry. 

We are the institutions responsible for holding our elected politicians to account, and keeping citizens informed. 

Amongst university leaders, I am not alone in worrying about our social license to operate given the rise of alternative facts, and political leaders (thankfully not in Australia) saying things like, “the people of this country have had enough of experts”. I am therefore extremely grateful to see the new Australian Research Council reforms being put in place by Minister Clare to ensure we don’t have political interference in at least our research system. 

At ANU, we work to ensure our research provides the Public Service with the evidence and expertise needed to inform the sensible development of public policy. A reasonable definition of populism is a political approach that by-passes input from institutions like the public service and universities, and appeals directly to the private instincts of individual members of the public. 

Whether it be the harms of Tobacco, DDT, or hydrocarbons, or human induced climate change – merchants of doubt have become expert at circumventing evidence, and getting the public to “just say no to change” by deliberately setting out to confuse them.

 The confusion is understandable. It stems from a large fraction of society having a fundamental misconception that the world is ruled by facts that are absolutely true and accepted by all experts.

It isn’t. As a scientist – I live in a world full of observations that I try to understand through a series of theories. Facts are short hand for things that we believe to be true or are normally true. But the world is not nearly as black or white as people want it to be. On almost any subject, we will find an expert who disagrees with the consensus or observations that don’t fit the prevailing theory. Most of the time the outlier is wrong, whether it be the expert or the observation. But occasionally they are right, more observations come to light, and science self-corrects. That is the way science and expertise works. 

It is the enshrinement of academic freedom that enables experts to persist in their disagreement with the status quo, and is integral to the self-correcting nature of academia. So, when asked what I would do if I could change one thing about the way people are educated, my response is we need to teach people from a very early age about uncertainty. You cannot understand the world unless you understand the shades of grey that come along with every piece of information. 

This is why it is so corrosive to undermine trust in our academic institutions. We are not flawless. But we pursue the truth without a political agenda or a paymaster. We follow the evidence and are transparent in our methods and outcomes. There has to be space in a functioning democracy for experts to debate – those places are called universities. 

To achieve this, we must maintain our autonomy and the privilege of academic freedom. Universities are required to self-accredit against a set of standards with the help of TEQSA: a painful exercise, but a worthwhile one. Despite continual financial pressure, and massive change in our sector, universities are proud to uphold these standards. 

And it shows. In a series of ANUPoll surveys done over the past several years, universities remain some of the most trusted institutions in Australia at approximately a 70 per cent level of trust. This is just behind the police, but ahead of: the public service, primary and secondary schools, the health system, and all levels of government. 

But for the media – the story is not so positive. The ANUPoll on the Voice referendum found trust in the mainstream media was below 50 per cent, and well below both that of government and parliament. Trust in our democracy also requires trusted media institutions. 

Mainstream media’s business model has been severely disrupted by our new digital world. Not surprisingly, this has caused challenges.  But I am surprised that, as a country, we are not talking more about an urgent need for media reform. This reform could ensure, that once again, the media be held as a highly trusted institution within our democracy that informs the public and helps hold society’s institutions to account. 

In the same way that universities are required to self-accredit against a set of standards to be a university, would something similar make sense for the media? For universities, this does not mean the government regulates our specific actions. Rather, it ensures that all universities are required to behave like a university. 

How about if, in order to be an official media organisation, and be given specific rights and protections, you have to accredit against a series of standards?  I realise that I am being courageous suggesting this at the National Press Club, but I believe we need the media sector to think deeply about its role in society, and be open to reform. 

Nothing less than the health of our democracy rests on restoring public trust in their news providers, and in maintaining it in our universities. 

For universities, one of our challenges is the perception that we tend towards one side of politics. This is a dangerous, and often untrue perception. 

40 per cent of young Australians now attend university – so while not the majority, they are the people that will end up leading our society. Since many of our students transition to adulthood on our campuses, it is important that we do not just instill knowledge and skills in our graduates, but also a set of societal values. 

Contrary to how we are often portrayed, universities are still a very broad church of political values, largely reflecting the views of similarly educated Australians outside our sector. At ANU, our students come from all over Australia, and similarly reflect the views of this diverse set of backgrounds. We have no interest in imparting party-political values – but part of any rounded education must be inculcating values our society supports, such as tolerance, respect, and rationality. 

Complaints about the politics of university staff and students are as old as universities themselves. 

The challenge for all universities worthy of the name – here, and around the world – is to row against the tide of reluctance to have the hardest conversations. Many issues are deemed too sensitive or too liable to offend. And some students are very proficient through social media and other digital exchanges, at expressing their displeasure when they are offended. 

Some topics right now, such as the Israel-Palestinian conflict, are so polarised it is almost impossible to say anything that will not lead to some form of retribution involving harassment by the anonymously aggrieved. 

This behaviour is certainly not emblematic of tolerance and respect – and it is very difficult to manage, given students become adept at finding the space between our codes of conduct and the freedoms of expression we encourage on our campuses. 

My experience is most of the intolerant behaviour is concentrated in a relatively small number of individuals – and people like this have always been at universities. The challenge is that the power of digital connectivity enables the anger of a small number of people to be aggressively amplified, with a chilling effect on free debate. 

Like other issues of culture, and in the interests of the society we are shaping, ANU promotes a common understanding as part of our education. And we demand our students and staff remain respectful. 

And that is just as well… as we are currently witnessing a generational transformation in our politics. 

By the next election, Millennial and younger voters will make up 44 per cent of the voting base. And the evidence is, unlike their counterparts overseas, they are highly engaged with politics. 

We know that in the last two federal elections, young Australians were more likely to vote along questions of policy, rather than along party lines, and on the big questions facing our nation like climate change and other environmental issues, gender equality and a just Australia. 

As ANU political scientist Dr Intifar Chowdhury reminds us; it is now incumbent upon our politicians to speak with young people; not at them. 

Within our democracy, universities are the institutions with the longest-term view of our society. This is in contrast to the three-year political cycle. The idea of tenure, where an academic gets a job for life, does not just give substance to academic freedom, it also means universities can work on issues for decades. And many issues require this timescale.

For example, ANU has been working on Artificial Intelligence for nearly 50 years. AI became a focus of worldwide attention about a year ago with the arrival of ChatGPT – a massive leap forward in technology that seemingly made computers able to discuss fluently almost anything imaginable. ChatGPT, and other generative AI advances, are able to write poetry, create art, write essays, and solve complex problems. 

Over the past year we have also seen the limitations of this technology. It uses other people’s work indiscriminately without attribution, it makes things up, and it gets a lot of things wrong, with the same confidence I had when I was a first-year undergraduate. 

Is ChatGPT the end of the University? No. Universities – at least good ones – will teach our students how to be empowered by these technologies, not replaced by them. Exams and assignments that can be done by AI will be replaced with ones that students are expected to do with AI as a tool. One can imagine a new group of graduates - super-charged by this newfound technology – able to get an astonishing number of things done quickly. 

But we need some guardrails. AI technology has many flaws and inherent biases that we need to understand before we just go out and use it blindly. This will be part of our students’ education as well. 

And there will be societal implications: a significant amount of work done by people will be replaced by that done by AI. And much of that work is currently done by our graduates, especially in their early years in the workforce, where they often do jobs as part of their training which can be largely replaced by AI. 

There is the danger of learned helplessness. We as humans learn by doing – making mistakes, correcting, improving – and as we do this over and over again, we become skilled in our work. Along the way, we may realise how we can improve the processes, or occasionally have revolutionary ideas that change the way people think and act. 

AI – at least for now – does not think. It interpolates on the grid of all the information it has been fed. It has no ability to extrapolate beyond the boundary of knowledge – but it can be very good at making inferences on what we already know. 

There is a real risk, in my view, that we become so reliant on AI to do our thinking that an individual human’s learning becomes curtailed during their lifetime, and humanity is no longer able to advance. We get stuck where we are.  But this a multi-decadal concern. 

We also have AI challenges much nearer afoot. This bring us back to the issue of trust.

We are entering the age of massive scale generative AI – where individuals, organisations and nations will be able to create manipulated or completely synthetic digital documents, images, videos and sound that will be almost impossible to discern from reality. Already we see individual clips that surprise us in their apparent authenticity. 

But imagine a time when there is more fabricated digital content than real content – where no one can trust what is real, and what is not. That time is nearer than you might think – probably just a few years away.

Some sort of digital watermarking for all digital material will likely emerge – but there is going to be a scary transition, and that transition is starting now. 

As with so much of the trust we need to rebuild for the sake of our democracy, this is a place where I hope universities and media might work together. The 24-hr news cycle with its rapid-action reporting will be highly vulnerable to manipulation – and expertise is going to be required to accurately report and analyse what is happening in the world.  This might be a chance to break the 24-hour news cycle, and replace it with a slower more reflective type of reporting that embodies trust and truth. 

Although I have focused today on Australia, there is a global urgency to my argument. 

In 2024, 40 countries representing 3.2 billion people will have their elections. We should expect the beginnings of massive AI generated misinformation campaigns to emerge in these elections, which include nearby Indonesia, as well as the United States. 

To say I am worried about the United States election is an understatement. While I do not know if Donald Trump will be able re-take the Presidency, it is certainly a distinct possibility. Add into the mix disinformation on a scale never seen before, and we have the makings of an even more deeply divided US than we have today. 

Based on Trump’s behaviour in his previous term, and the current workings of Congress the prospect of a highly dysfunctional US cannot be ignored. Current betting markets – which are as good as anything at this point at understanding the probability of a Trump presidency -- put it at more than 30%. Now I’m not a betting man, but those odds are scarily close to this becoming a reality. 

His last presidency ended with the most significant threat to the transfer of power in US history. It would be naïve to think that Donald Trump, and most importantly, those who support him, have not learned from what happened four years ago. 

The next US election is precisely 11 months away – and that gives us only a small window to make change – or we may well face our media screens being filled with riots and the US Capitol being overrun.

As a dual US/Australian citizen I have come to appreciate three key differences between our two democratic systems that work in Australia’s favour.  

The first is mandatory voting. The social ramifications in the US and other jurisdictions of targeting specific groups of citizens through restrictions built into the voting process is corrosive and is breaking down social cohesion. We all celebrate together with a sausage.

The second is preferential voting. As we see candidates emerge beyond simply two parties – this process ensures that whoever wins, has to gain the support of 50% of the voters – and is therefore more representative of the electors. My home state of Alaska is one of the first to adopt preferential voting in the US. For two elections in a row, Sarah Palin – one of the earliest modern Republican populists – has been unable to win a seat in Congress, because she was unable to secure 50% of the votes, even though she received the most votes in both instances. 

Finally, the Australian Electoral Commission, and the independence they bring to our elections, especially when it comes to the drawing of electoral boundaries. They bring trust and fairness to a system that is now without any trust in the US, because of widespread political gerrymandering. 

These three key pillars that underpin Australia’s democratic resilience were not in place at our country’s inception, but have been added over time. These were major changes, where Australia and its politicians had to say yes to change. 

In other words, Australian democracy is precious and worth preserving. 

This does not mean we are perfect – far from it. Australia is a place where inequality is on the rise. Our children are attending schools that are the most segmented by culture and socio-economic background of any advanced economy. And we are seeing the academic achievement of our students dropping against world standards. This is all against a backdrop of geopolitical uncertainty in the face of climate change. 

Our system is under stress in all the ways I have described, and it has delivered each of us disappointments and dilemmas – but it may have far greater tests of its resilience ahead in the turbulent 21st century. We need to act quickly to shore it up.

Education is the single easiest tool we have to help. It is the most powerful weapon to change and reshape the world. 

We know that trust in government increases markedly with education, as does essentially every other measure from health to happiness. 

So, while the government considers where it will take our sector through the Universities Accord process, let me close by saying this. 

Government faces hard choices, and I do not envy it. 

But the greatest investment you can make in our society, our happiness, our wellbeing, our Reconciliation journey, and our democracy, is education.

Amid the noise and chaos of democratic debate, I hope that that is the message you hear today.

And I hope you have the courage to make your answer ‘yes’.