Peter Phelps is no friend of mine. He’s Government Whip in the NSW Legislative Council, and he’s previously had some interesting things to say about science. He’s also a fun and feisty Twitter user, who’s well worth a follow if you’re interested in a politician who speaks his mind.
The reason I’m raising Phelps is that, throughout these last few days, his avatar has been running through my mind. It’s a simple black and white text-based picture, which just reads, “Never say sorry for being honest”.
Last Thursday, as Australia’s latest devastating bushfires tore through great swathes of New South Wales, Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens Adam Bandt tweeted a link to an opinion piece he’d written in The Guardian with the header, “Why Tony Abbott’s plan means more bushfires for Australia…” .
It hit a raw nerve. Intemperate voices on Twitter called him “disgusting”, “hysterical” and a “traitor to Australia”.
“Australians”, one tweeter argued, “have had just about a gutful of you extremists co-opting every local disaster for a sermon on global warming”.
More temperate voices - such as those of Environment Minister Greg Hunt - also weighed in. “There has been a terrible tragedy in NSW and no-one anywhere should seek to politicise any human tragedy, let alone a bushfire of this scale,” he said.
When asked about the link between climate change and these latest fires, Hunt was clear on one thing: pointing to such a link in the heat of the moment was “opportunism”, “misusing the event”, and just not “appropriate”.
It’s worth having a brief glance at what we know about climate science and climate change mitigation: Bandt’s tweet was pretty much on the money. Climate change in Australia means bushfires are likely to be more frequent and more intense. Carbon markets (such as the existing carbon price) are likely to be much cheaper than direct subsidies (such as the Coalition’s Direct Action plan) in bringing about a switch to a low carbon economy.
So Bandt was right, but was he right to say it?
It was an interesting strategic move for Bandt and the Greens. He’s clearly forced a discussion of climate change and its consequences back into Australian political discourse, and that’s very much a Greens goal.
He might have scared some of those who were previously ambivalent about climate change action to agree with his point of view. He might have galvanised a few to fight the replacement of the carbon price by a more limited plan to reduce our carbon emissions.
Yet at the same time he will have offended others, perhaps pushing those leaning towards voting Green back to the major parties. Many will agree with Hunt, asserting that it’s not right to talk about the consequences of climate change when you can see the consequences of climate change before your eyes.
But there is also something a little more complex going on here than simple wins and losses in the media cycle.
While many have been incensed at Bandt’s comments, others have been equally incensed at Hunt’s nanny-like declaration of what is and isn’t appropriate for Australian political discourse, what is “polite” to bring to the political table. Hunt provided neither logic nor evidence to refute Bandt’s argument. He simply asserted that it wasn’t appropriate. Politeness here was used to police the bounds of politics.
This fits within a well-established conservative pattern to reject intense emotional demands following a traumatic events. “Now is not the time,” conservatives said after the Sandy Hook massacre, “to talk about gun control. Our thoughts should be with the victims”.
“Now is not the time,” conservatives probably said after Russian losses mounted in the First World War, “to talk about revolutionary changes to our governance”.
“Now is not the time,” conservatives in the magazine industry might have said after Princess Diana was literally hounded to her death by paparazzi, “to discuss our deep and unethical entanglement with capitalistic voyeurism”.
In some ways they’re right - extreme emotions may bring about change quickly, yet that change can be chaotic and unpredictable. Imagine if George W Bush had said “Now is not the time to be emotionally goaded into launching ground wars in terrains where we are unlikely to win” following the September 11 attacks.
In this sense we are right to be wary of the role of intense emotions in politics
Yet at the heart of the matter, to say that “no-one should politicise these bushfires” is a political argument itself. It is an argument for the status quo in a time when the status quo is a very dangerous proposition.
All this is why Peter Phelps’ avatar has been running through my head. Never say sorry for being honest. There is no wrong time to talk about things in a democracy.
Climate change is doing significant damage to Australian lives and livelihoods, and the Coalition is working to scrap a policy that is - however slowly and weakly - doing something about it.
We might be right to be wary of the role of intense emotions in politics, but Hunt doesn’t have the right to tell you what is and isn’t polite to discuss. Only your parents can do that.