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Issue #1649      July 30, 2014

Redefining politics

In an age of toxicity and moral vacuum

The formative influences in my childhood and adolescence were the Great Depression, which I can just remember, World War II, and the brief period of post-war optimism when organisations such as the UN, UNESCO, WHO and FAO were set up, just before the onset of the Cold War in 1948.

I was a convinced anti-Nazi by the age of six, and my first political hero was Franklin D Roosevelt. Charles Darwin was an early inspiration and he has never let me down. I was deeply devoted to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi.

The year 1950 was a big one for me: I became an undergraduate at Melbourne University, the only one in Victoria at the time, joined the Australian Labor Party (despite it being under growing National Civic Council influence) and read James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Ulysses aside, the intellectual high point was hearing the philosopher Bertrand Russell give three lectures at the Assembly Hall for the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) in July.

I observed him at close quarters, as an enthusiastic groupie.

He said: “Three passions, simple, but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.”

I have never forgotten his words and they inspired my own priorities in public life. All three goals are now under challenge.

In public life now, love is essentially self-love (including the immediate family), short-term economic advancement, at whatever the social or environmental cost.

As to the search for knowledge – on paper the current Australian population is by far the most highly educated cohort in our history, with 4,000,000 graduates and the unprecedented capacity of the ICT revolution to give us immediate access to the world’s greatest libraries, universities, laboratories, observatories, concert halls, giving us unparalleled access to profound understanding of the visible world, and ourselves. I jest of course. Every day on the tram I see young people mesmerised by the smart phone, yearning for communication, with such profound messages as “I’ll see you in five minutes.”

The suffering of mankind? Medicine and disaster relief aside, campaigning for human rights, that is, the rights of others, is now regarded as a certain vote loser in the age of retail politics, most clearly demonstrated in the case of our treatment of asylum seekers/refugees – nameless, faceless, outside the law, unreachable, without a history, without an identity.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, then the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the USSR and China’s adoption of a state-controlled version of capitalism, the Western liberal democratic model seemed to be the only paradigm left standing but; 25 years later political institutions generally seem to have lost authenticity/legitimacy.

A values deficit

We live in an age of unprecedented prosperity, in which the major influences have been secularism, materialism, utilitarianism, urbanisation, remoteness from nature, institutional failure, emphasis on immediate economic self-interest, the rise and rise of managerialism which has displaced community engagement in ideas and values, the impact of mass media, 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 (“The carbon tax forced closure of Ford’s manufacturing in Australia”; “Standard & Poors is reassessing Australia’s AAA credit rating”) 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, and have been shaken by the apparent institutionalisation of sexual abuse of children, where for decades 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 projects will make money for somebody, for example, grazing in national parks, or oil drilling, or the dumping of mine tailings near the Great Barrier Reef, logging in World Heritage sites, or the export of live animals, often under unspeakable conditions, they should go ahead. The appeal of money and growth in the gross domestic product are irresistible, with a refusal to contemplate the downside. The need for more cars on more freeways outweighs the values associated with Melbourne’s Royal Park. Recreational shooters and four-wheel drives are now welcome in New South Wales national parks.

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.

Moral issues underlie the protection and preservation of the planet, and its biodiversity, for the long term, which we ignore in our pursuit of greed. The relief of poverty is one thing, but consumption is not an end in itself. The decay of formal religion and the long-term decline in church going intensifies the need to stimulate debate and understanding about values, the transcendental and the numinous.

Toxicity in politics

In the past decade, political life in Canberra has become toxic, with a breakdown in personal relationships, recourse to incessant personal attack, wild exaggeration and the endless repeating of slogans, having abandoned the practice of debating with ideas, and sentences with verbs. People with long political experience, many on the Coalition side, volunteer that the Abbott government is the most vindictive they can recall. Supporters are rewarded and opponents punished in unprecedented ways.

Kevin Rudd appointed Brendon Nelson and Tim Fischer as Ambassadors, and chose Robert French, once a Liberal Party member, as Chief Justice of the High Court, in preference to Jim Spigelman, who had once worked for Whitlam. It is almost inconceivable that the Abbott government would appoint anybody from the ALP to high office.

Politicians are no longer constrained by a moral obligation to tell the truth.

John Stuart Mill coined the term “fractional truths”. As a practice, it has caught on alarmingly. Something that was true yesterday, and might well be true tomorrow, is not necessarily true today.

There is a retreat from evidence, rational argument, analysis, and the use of statistics, and in controversial areas such as climate change and asylum seekers, “opinion” carries more clout than “evidence.”

Deliberate ignorance; invented narrative

The Abbott government endlessly promotes the myth that in 2013 Australia’s economy was a burning ruin; that taxation levels are cripplingly high; and that levels of public debt could simply not be sustained.

The IMF and Nobel Economics Laureate Joseph Stiglitz praised the Rudd government as having handled the global financial crisis better than any other OECD nation. Australia had lower unemployment than most OECD countries, with low interest rates, a AAA credit rating from all three major international agencies, enjoyed by very few national economies, a low level of international debt, high levels of foreign investment, ranking next to Norway on the Human Development Index (HDI). In the 2013 election, The Economist endorsed Kevin Rudd and the ALP government.

What is repeatedly described as a Budget crisis, or disaster, compared by the Prime Minister to a bushfire, with a mounting deficit, can be handled in four ways: (i) recognising the changing nature of the population, living far longer but with increasing demands for education, health, employment, disability services, infrastructure development and coping with a series of social and/or environmental problems, (ii) increasing taxation to meet the needs of a changing society, (iii) cutting taxation to satisfy political promises and (iv) cutting services.

Australia has the fifth lowest rate of income tax in the OECD: only Mexico, Chile, the US and South Korea are lower. If the cost of compulsory superannuation and the Medicare levy is added, it takes Australia up to the OECD average. Our GST is currently on the low side at 10 percent, compared to GSTI VAT in most OECD countries. However, it has to be recognised that our taxation rates are higher than our Asian neighbours.

I agree with the maxim, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society.”

According to Credit Suisse (admittedly under a cloud at the moment, but they certainly know how to pursue wealth), Australia has the highest per capita income in the world, although this may only mean that including Gina Rinehart and dividing by 23,000,000 will produce a high figure. The IMF says that our debt/income ratio is the second lowest in the OECD: only Luxembourg’s is lower. But you will never hear these international comparisons raised by the government, nor – oddly – from the Opposition.

There has been a complete failure to explain the significance of population change in increased levels of expenditure and falling revenue. Life expectancy is increasing by 2.5 years in every decade, and the gap between retirement from paid work and death, once calculated as being in the 15-20 year range, is now increasing to 30-35 years. How is the gap to be met? Not, I suggest, by cutting taxation levels. The current Tea Party inspired fantasy is that if tax levels are cut to the bone, the market will work its magic and provide jobs for everyone who needs one. Well, we shall see ...

The NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme) will inevitably demand more expenditure: Gonski [education reform] too, even in its crippled form. But these issues are not being addressed by either side. It is striking that the four most important economic advisors from outside government, David Murray, Maurice Newman, Dick Warburton and Tony Shepherd have, in addition to gender and skin colour, one thing in common. All are climate change sceptics or deniers. This suggests that denialism may be a precondition for appointment. The question of having prudential policies, of evaluating risk, never comes up over the climate change issue.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who led the “dark energy” faction in the administration of George W Bush, proposed the “one percent doctrine”: that if there is only a one percent chance that nations are developing nuclear weapons then “we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”

With climate change, supporters of the current carbon economy argue that even a 90 percent probability is not enough to warrant taking action.

There have been repeated attempts to secure an appointment with the Prime Minister so that our leading climate scientists can put their case and present evidence about climate change. All attempts have been rebuffed. It is better, it seems, for a prime minister, if he is caught out and has to backtrack in the future to be able to say: “Nobody ever put these arguments to me.”

We seem to have a new Beatitude: “Blessed are the aspirationals, for they shall be rewarded, whatever the social cost.”

Fear and greed

Several significant factors have contributed to the Coalition’s success, in winning power in the Commonwealth, five states and one territory.

The first has been the appeal to fear and greed in election campaigns – for example, by stigmatising asylum seekers as lawbreakers, and as economic migrants who casually break the rules by jumping the queue in search of economic advantage – and, by implication, threatening the immediate economic advantage of people born here, or already settled.

Second has been the success in appealing to people in the middle income bracket, people in small business, for example, to identify themselves with the people above them in the economic pyramid, as if they had a community of interest, and to spurn those below them, to accept compassion fatigue as normal, and that lower income taxes will be a major factor in transforming the economy and that they should feel no concern for cuts in access to education, health service and welfare generally because, after all, “we all have to share the pain.”

Third is the government’s being in permanent campaign mode, constantly campaigning against the Opposition, who are blamed incessantly so that a grossly exaggerated narrative is presented about Australia’s economic position, and this is entirely due to the folly of the previous government.

Fourth is the covert appeal to prejudice in the use of “dog whistle” language over refugees and Muslims – indeed, multiculturalism generally.

The Scanlon Foundation’s annual surveys of social cohesion indicate a core of 10 percent who are strongly opposed to cultural diversity in Australia and perhaps 20 percent more who are ambivalent. Capturing the votes of citizens who are driven by ethnicity and culture is critical to winning elections.

Redefining politics

We must redefine politics – and grasp its importance, not just at election times. Here is my attempt: it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue but I think it captures the essence.

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

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. Bird watchers 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) that cannot be reduced to parroting a few simple slogans (“stop 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. We need evidence-based policies but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to prejudice or fear of disadvantage (“They are robbing you ...”).

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

The Beacon: An address given at the Melbourne Unitarian Church on May 25, 2014.

Next article – Movie Review – Charlie’s Country

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