A values deficit, toxic politics, and the climate change debacle

There is no better example of the debasement of Australian political discourse and process than that which has surrounded action on climate change. AAP/Alan Porritt

We live in an age of unprecedented prosperity, in which the major influences have been secularism, materialism, utilitarianism, urbanisation, remoteness from nature, institutional failure (especially in churches) and an emphasis on immediate economic self-interest.

The rise and rise of managerialism has displaced community engagement in ideas and values. The impact of mass media has been profound, with its emphasis on immediacy, the cult of personality, promoting sensation, entertainment and an often vicious and destructive political agenda, in which the truth of a proposition (interest rates are always lower under the Coalition, for instance) is irrelevant. Greed, drugs, problem gambling, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, covert and overt racism all distort our moral compass.

Churches, like political parties, are losing numbers. Commitment and moral authority have been shaken by the apparent institutionalisation of child abuse, where the reaction has been to protect the institution and disregard the victim.

Some political leaders act as if all values have a dollar equivalent; that forests are essentially woodchips on stumps; and that the value of a tree is as lumber, disregarding aesthetic factors or the contribution to clean air. The current obsession is that if a project will make money for somebody – for example, grazing in national parks, oil drilling near the Great Barrier Reef, or the export of live animals (often under unspeakable conditions) – it should go ahead.

The appeal of money and growth in the gross domestic product is irresistible, with a refusal to contemplate the downside. In the case of duck shooting, state power is entirely behind the shooters, and against the ducks. The need for more cars on more freeways outweighs the values associated with Melbourne’s Royal Park.

We seem to have a new Beatitude:

Blessed are the aspirationals, for they shall be rewarded, whatever the cost.

Much of the mainstream media (especially the Murdoch empire), emphasises advocacy, entertainment, shock factors and reinforcing prejudice, rather than providing information or carrying out investigative reporting.

Toxicity in Canberra

Political life in Canberra has become toxic. With a breakdown in personal relationships, recourse to personal attacks, wild exaggeration and the endless repeating of slogans, the practice of debating with ideas and sentences with verbs having been abandoned.

Politics and political life in Australia may be currently broken - but how can we fix it? shutterstock

Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson’s mantra “whatever it takes” has become standard operating practice for both the ALP and the Coalition. The truth of a proposition no longer matters – in the era of retail politics, the only question is: “will it sell?”

Electability is central for the major parties (not, of course, for the Greens, which is part of their appeal for many former Labor voters). The role of the media - and the impact of the 24-hour news cycle - means that policies which need to be carefully thought-out are prepared as “announceables”, presented at a news conference by party leaders, often wearing hard hats and fluorescent vests, invariably with nodders standing behind.

Politically, elections are now won or lost by appealing to the bourgeoisie, not by marshaling the proletariat. There is more emphasis on higher levels of consumption – and, in education or health care, invoking the mantra of “choice”, rather than a bottom-up approach.

This phenomenon was even more marked in Australia than the United Kingdom. Labor was very uneasy (the Gonski schools funding reforms notwithstanding) about restricting access to private schools or private health programs, and certainly unwilling to raise income tax levels to, say, Scandinavian – or even British – levels.

In the 2013 federal election, despite widespread unhappiness with both Labor and the Coalition, around 79% cast their votes for the two major parties, sometimes with pegs on their noses. But while people retain loyalty to the major parties (for whatever reason), they have no enthusiasm about joining them.

More people are in the waiting list for the Melbourne Cricket Club than are members of all Australia’s political parties. A recent survey indicated that members of AFL clubs currently total 800,000. The Geelong Football Club has 43,000 members, exactly the same as the number claimed for the ALP.

The ALP’s primary vote in the 2013 election was 4.3 million, so its notional membership, by a neat coincidence, is exactly 1%. Because party memberships are so small – often remote from the community-at-large – power almost inevitably is seized by factional warlords. The ALP has become a transactional party, primarily concerned with dividing up the spoils of office. Even in opposition, these are significant.

Factionalisation essentially represents the privatisation of the party. Factions, no longer primarily ideological, are essentially executive placement agencies. Loyalty to the faction is primary, and it is rewarded, in the end, by delivery. Faction members will maintain allegiance so long as rewards are delivered.

What issues draw people to join political parties now?

In the Whitlam and post-Whitlam era, people were drawn to political activism because of specific policies that they were desperate to change. These included abolishing the death penalty, getting out of Vietnam, ending conscription, establishing Australia’s national identity (including constitutional reform and the republic), ending the white Australia policy, entrenching rights for Aborigines and promoting affirmative action, preserving the environment, universal secondary education – and more universities.

It was in the Whitlam era that many in Australia were first drawn to politics. Wikimedia Commons

So, do people get involved in politics because of refugees and asylum seekers? I don’t think so. Both major parties are locked into a cycle of dehumanisation and repression.

Climate change? The Coalition is beyond belief and Labor’s actions, while crazy brave in a way, have never been fully understood and were woefully explained.

Same-sex marriage? Both parties are divided.

The republic? The 1999 referendum was defeated by an odd combination of monarchists, people who were indifferent and direct-election republicans. After that, the issue died of anaemia. Our new prime minister is a passionate monarchist. Patriarchy is back in force.

Climate change and collateral damage

Climate change is a powerful demonstration of how Australia’s political process has gone wrong.

The debate about the impact of human activity on climate change has been conducted at an abysmal level. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government comprehensively lost it by getting the politics wrong, failing to understand the fatal conjunction of inertia, self interest, corporate power and media saturation.

The relentless negativity (and simplicity) of the Coalition assertions – strongly supported by the Murdoch newspapers and shockjocks on talkback radio – attacking the pricing of carbon ignores or derides the science and appeals to immediate economic self-interest. In the News Corp’s Herald Sun tabloid, 97% of comment articles were hostile to – or sceptical of – climate science.

The climate change debate destroyed both Rudd and Gillard. New environment minister Greg Hunt has also become a tragic figure after only barely two months in office.

Dithering over action on climate change helped to end Kevin Rudd’s first stint as prime minister. AAP/Lukas Coch

With climate change, it proved to be easier to sell the message during a period of prolonged drought. Breaking the drought in 2008 proved to be a political disaster for Kevin Rudd in his first incarnation as prime minister.

Rudd promised too much. Then, depressed by failure at the Copenhagen climate change summit and strong opposition in the “Gang of Four” from Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan about doing anything, failed to call a double dissolution on the issue, which he would probably have won. Turnbull’s loss of the Liberal leadership then destroyed the (vain) hope of a bipartisan political solution on climate change.

The science of climate change was not in Gillard’s repertoire (or, as we say these days, “in her DNA”), and her explanations were awkward. This contributed to the impression that she had only reluctantly supported putting a price on carbon use because of pressure from the Greens and independent MPs Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott: that it was the price she had to pay to remain as prime minister.

To make it worse, it was asserted that pricing carbon meant adopting a policy which she had specifically rejected during the campaign. This was a policy position she would have maintained, I suspect, if she had won the election narrowly in her own right.

Gillard could have justified her policy change by saying:

Further close examination of the evidence has persuaded me that it would be against both the national and the global interest to maintain my earlier position and I am convinced that Australia should set an example.

Sadly, she failed to do this. Her policy shift was central to what was denounced as a policy “u-turn” and became a war of attrition, marked by a long sequence of appalling personal attacks.

During the 2013 election, climate change was essentially a background noise, never specifically addressed by name, let alone analysed. The discourse, such as it was, had been appalling - mendacious on the Coalition side; feeble on Labor’s side. Sustainability was also a word that dropped from the political lexicon.

Redefining politics

We must redefine politics and grasp its importance, not just at election times. Here is my attempt, rather long-winded but I think it captures the essence:

Politics is the fault line between tectonic plates in society. The electoral struggle is an expression of – or a metaphor for – unresolved, often unspoken, divisions within society, including race, class, gender, religion, region, language, education, sexuality, consumption patterns and time use, self-definition and the expression of individual differences or aspirations (both positive and negative), offering a choice between different moral universes.

This is the underside of politics. We see only the tip of the iceberg. Journalist Mungo MacCallum commented:

Politics is the most important invention of the human race, because it is the only way we can resolve our disputes without killing each other. How well we make it work is, in the end, down to us.

The victory of Cathy McGowan in the federal seat of Indi was an encouraging indication of how intense political involvement at a local level can beat a major party. It’s fair to point out that the retirement of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott led to overwhelming victories for Coalition nominees, and that in Indi the community forces targeted a dream opponent.

The victory of independent Cathy McGowan in the rural Victorian seat of Indi could offer hope for a ‘new politics’ to emerge. AAP/Alan Porritt

Given the level of professional expertise in Australia, it is a matter for concern - bewilderment even - that the range of issues in the 2013 election was so limited, and discussed at such a banal level. Australia has 39 universities and more than four million graduates. What impact did they have in shaping the campaign? None, that I could observe. The words “universities” and “research” were never uttered in the campaign.

Oddly, there was some discussion about apprenticeships, which total about 450,000. This may reflect the preoccupation by focus groups with the western suburbs of Sydney.

It is amazing that the climate change debate has been so badly informed because large numbers of Australians are skilled observers in relevant areas. There is still some confusion between “climate” and “weather”, but farmers are acute observers of changes in the seasons. Gardeners – millions of them – can report that flowers are blooming earlier in the season. Birdwatchers keep detailed records. So do bush walkers. There was no attempt to enlist them in an information campaign, nor did they volunteer.

Tackling complex problems demands complex solutions (notably refugees and climate change), which cannot be reduced to parroting a few simple slogans (“turn back the boats”, “stop this toxic tax”). “Retail politics”“, sometimes called "transactional politics” - where policies are adopted not because they are right but because they can be sold - is a dangerous development and should be rejected.

We must maintain confidence that major problems can be addressed – and act accordingly. This involves reviving the process of dialogue: “explain!, explain!, explain!”, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. Whitlam often drove his colleagues mad because he could not stop explaining. We need evidence-based policies but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to prejudice or fear of disadvantage.

Most of all, we need a higher level of citizen involvement in the whole process of public debate, not leaving it all to the professionals.


This piece is based on the speech “A values deficit, toxic politics, and the climate change debacle”, delivered by Barry Jones at the Geelong Interchurch Social Justice Network on October 30.

NOTE: This piece was amended on November 11 to read that “97% of comment articles were hostile to – or sceptical of – climate science” to more accurately reflect the author’s intentions.

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