PITY THE CLIMATE DENIALIST

RE-BLOGGED BY THE AUSTRALIAN INDEPENDENT MEDIA NETWORK: http://theaimn.com/pity-the-climate-change-denialist/

I pity Maurice Newman. For one thing, his conspiratorial rants are beginning to have the distinct hysterical tone of delusion, sounding much like an evangelical doomsayer yelling about mankind’s coming reckoning whilst pedestrians avert their eyes to the pavement. Moreover, his entire understanding of the economy, politics and life itself is unravelling before his eyes. Nature is disproving laissez-faire economics.

Newman is Tony Abbott’s chief business adviser who, on Friday, wrote a column in The Australian suggesting that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the United Nations in order to attain world domination. Yes, you read correctly. A man with near unrivalled access to our nation’s Prime Minister wrote in what is meant to be a respectable broadsheet newspaper views so bewilderingly incoherent, inarticulate and just plain wrong that they make Andrew Bolt look like the thinking man’s columnist, a living bastion of journalistic integrity.

“This is not about facts or logic,” said Newman, before imploding from irony. “It’s about a new world order under the control of the UN.” This is not the first ridiculous statement Newman has made about climate change, with another piece in The Australian last year claiming that, whilst we have all been focusing too heavily on the non-issue of global warming, we are inadequately preparing ourselves for the coming “global cooling” catastrophe.

All this begs the questions as to why someone who seems otherwise competent could believe things so farcical. How could a man rise to the positions of chairman of the Australian Stock Exchange, chairperson of the ABC and chancellor of Macquarie University if he so wildly misapprehends scientific consensus?

Firstly, he fears globalization. In what has been described as the “liberal paradox”, conservatives are willing to embrace globalization in the economic sphere but are worried about its bi-products such as multiculturalism and increasing political interconnectedness. Hence the attacks on the UN. The UN calls on all nations to stand together to fight climate change and seeks to develop agreements which facilitate this, which undermines traditional concepts of sovereignty in geopolitics.

Furthermore, Newman is seeing the ideology to which his is so heavily wedded, that of free-market neoliberalism, being shattered by the forces of nature. Neoliberal consensus holds that the market is capable of providing nearly everything (excluding the legal system and military) in the most efficient way, and that state intervention in the market will never do anything that private businesses couldn’t do better themselves. Yet global warming, potentially the most significant problem human society has encountered in its history, clearly cannot be fixed by the market alone. Private businesses have caused the problem and they are showing few signs of wanting to fix it. Left to the free market, the world would surely continue to warm and our earth would slowly erode. It is becoming glaringly obvious that measures like carbon pricing, environmental regulation, direct action policies and other state interventions in the market are necessary to combat the threat of global warming.

So what next for the free market? Is it inevitable that liberalism drowns as the sea level rises? Not by a long shot. In fact, Adam Smith’s invisible hand may be more relevant today than ever, as few are questioning whether markets themselves should continue to exist but whether they should be oriented towards a greener future. And most of this orientation must use market-based principles, such as the creation of a “carbon market” with an emissions trading scheme. The state cannot hope to fund enough projects itself to drop emissions, it must engage with the market and affect the forces of private equity to achieve change.

What must cease to exist, or at least cease to exert influence in the Prime Minister’s office, is free-market fundamentalism, the purist view that all state intervention in the economy is bad and all private activity is good. This view is simply incompatible with the problems faced by human civilization which require collective action organised through the organs of the state.

I imagine Newman reading the news, experiencing a horrible sinking feeling as he reads of how 97% of the world’s scientists resolutely agree that the earth is warming, that states will need to take strong affirmative action to counter the threat, that global cooling isn’t even a thing. Newman is part of a dying breed of uncompromising political animals, intent on winding back the state regardless of the consequences to the earth around him, or else he is truly delusional. I actually do feel sorry for the man. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be so incredibly wrong.

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THE HYPOCRACY OF THE LIBERAL LITIGATOR

RE-BLOGGED BY THE AUSTRALIAN INDEPENDENT MEDIA NETWORK: http://theaimn.com/the-hypocrisy-of-the-liberal-litigator/

Last month, Joe Hockey took to the witness stand defending his reputation from allegations made by Fairfax Media. In 2011, Aboriginal activist Pat Eatock also stood in court defending her reputation from allegations made by News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt. One had parliamentary privilege to defend themselves, the other didn’t. One had the parliamentary press gallery itching on their every word, the other didn’t. Both stand in the way of a purist conception of free speech. But only one attracted the derision of the conservative commentariat.

Eatock and eight other fair-skinned Aboriginals smeared by Bolt’s column “It’s hip to be black” took the provocative commentator to court and won under provision 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. And, if one read only News Corp publications, it would appear the sky consequently imploded. The expansive state and its judiciary accomplice were conspiring to infringe the citizen’s “right to be a bigot,” as Attorney-General George Brandis put it. Boiled down to less hyperbolic terms, the court found that Bolt had racially discriminated against Eatock and the other litigants, not because what he said was offensive (which it was, but could be defended on the basis of fair comment) but because he had played fast and loose with his facts. The state, therefore, was limiting the ability of the press to publish false information if it could give rise to racial discrimination.

Conversely, Hockey’s case seeks to limit the ability of the press to draw inference from undisputed facts, and to legally punish poor choices of words. The fact that Hockey had a relationship with the North Sydney Forum, as the Fairfax articles claimed, is not in dispute. Fairfax did make a factual error about Hockey repaying money to Australian Water Holdings (which he didn’t do), however Fairfax published an apology for this and it would hardly sustain a law suit on its own.

What is being disputed is how Fairfax portrayed the facts of his relationship with NSF, particularly whether the headline “Treasurer for sale” implied corruption. Surely those three words, no matter if they were poorly chosen, do not require a court action to discredit. Surely if journalists have the “right to be bigots” then they also have the right to print bad headlines, the right to generalize, the right to be somewhat sensationalist… But Liberal politicians, News Corp columnists and the IPA have been unwilling to defend these rights. If the libertarians don’t defend one’s ability to make mistakes which cause little to no serious damage then are they really libertarians? Or are they just racist Andrew Bolt fans looking for intellectual justification?

Abbott has derided 18C as a “hurt feelings test.” But, of course, now that his colleague has taken his hurt feelings to court, he is markedly silent. Perhaps some people’s feelings are worth more than others. More likely, Abbott is constrained politically from voicing his true opinion, as a former journalist, that a rich bloke with parliamentary privilege should not be whinging and seeking a pay-out over a few poorly chosen words, when he should be preparing the 2015 budget.

As for 18C, some outside of the conservative wolf-pack have voiced their concerns, such as former Media Watch host Jonathon Holmes. Some believe that the legislation, as it reads, too severely limits the ability of journalists to fairly comment on issues regarding race. This may be true. However, one can avoid the provision by proving they acted “in good faith,” which the Bolt case suggests means getting your facts straight. Presuming the court doesn’t expand its interpretation, is it such a bad thing to force pundits like Bolt to at least be truthful if they want to comment on racial issues?

If Hockey’s case were to succeed, the precedent set would be have a far more chilling effect on what the press can and can’t say. As Richard Ackland put it in The Guardian, “If a painstakingly researched article on a matter of clear public interest and importance can attract damages of the quantum sought by Hockey, then journalists may as well pack-up and go home.”

Defamation suits should be used by those without the power to counter a false allegation in the public arena. Hockey has this power in spades. Where Eatock’s case will go down in history as a victory for Indigenous Australians, Hockey will be lucky to regain an inch of his credibility from his current law suit – he lost most of that after his dismal 2014 budget. He may have the right to be a bigot, but Hockey has the responsibility to stop wasting our time.

IN DEFENCE OF Q&A

Last year, I found myself invited into the audience of the ABC’s Q&A program with a few high school friends. Despite being interested in politics, we knew we’d be somewhat out of place amongst the hard-core politicos in the audience. There was an unspoken recognition that we were only there to satisfy the program’s age diversity requirement. So what was the only logical way of getting the most out of the experience? We all went out to a bar before-hand and got smashed.

Trying to comprehend Paul Kelly and Gareth Evans debating regional foreign policy whilst being significantly inebriated was an intense struggle, but it will always be a fond memory. Furthermore, it fostered a profound respect for Tony Jones & Co in their efforts to facilitate public debate.

It has become increasingly cool for commentators to criticize Q&A. The Guardian’s Gabrielle Jackson has written it off. The Saturday Paper’s Helen Razer believes it to be mass manipulation by cultural elites. Much of its criticism centres on its creation of a “false democracy,” perpetuating the idea that the public can exert genuine influence on politics when they really can’t. Q&A, they say, satisfies the people’s desire for a “voice,” feeling as if we are holding the elites to account whilst they continue to ignore us and continue doing as they like.

This criticism ignores the material facts. Q&A cannot be a simulation of democracy. Democracy cannot be simulated in a TV studio. I very much doubt that its producers try. As user Bruce Smith commented on Helen Razer’s article:

“…the very fact that Q&A is on a medium such as TV for a start means that it’s content is by necessity diluted and compromised. In such a medium that can’t be helped. What more of a one hour show can you expect?”

Q&A simply tries to facilitate a conversation about public life between as many people as possible within the rigid confines of an hourly TV program. It is inevitably imperfect in achieving this – some people will always be left out of the conversation. But Q&A, more than anything else in the Australian media landscape, attempts to include as many people as possible through as many methods as it can implement (the audience, the panellists, online questions, the Twitter feed…)

Let us consider what a truly democratic television show would actually look like. It would probably be a diverse group of people talking amongst themselves for an hour about politics and public life. No panel of experts, just people talking. They would preferably do so in a civilized manner but this could not be guaranteed, and existing inequalities between audience members would privilege some in the debate over others. It would probably result in either a shouting match, or a supremely boring conversation. This could not actually be put to air.

Conversely, if Q&A were actually representative of our democracy, it would likely be as follows: there would be only a few politicians on the panel, mainly Liberal and Labor and no celebrities or commentators. It would involve no questioning or cross-examining of the politicians featured, other than the occasional and rather pedestrian contribution of a News Corp or Fairfax journalist, and one who interjects much less than Tony Jones. There would be media advisers constantly whispering in the ears of the panellists. The tweets would solely come from vested interests, with Rupert Murdoch being a regular feature. Again, this could not justifiably be put to air by a public broadcaster, because it serves no public good which is not already served.

Q&A does neither of these. It is not overly aspirational nor overly realistic. It seeks not to emulate the Athenian polis, nor the arduous grind of modern day Canberra. Q&A is more like a community rally – a Labor MP fielding questions from union members or a National MP conversing with assembled farmers in an outback town. People get to throw some thorny questions at their representatives and force an, often awkward, response. Not everyone can speak within the given time frame, so it is necessarily moderated. The responses of the MP could be sub-standard, patronizing or deceitful, and the audience might laugh their ego down to size or applaud emphatically. Either way, the public will have got something out of it – they are either enlightened, or their suspicions are confirmed.

Critics like Razer, who quotes extensively from the Frankfurt School, need to give up on the idea of a neutral and equal “public sphere” where all citizens can exchange ideas rationally. Such a space has never existed, with even the eulogized French salons, liberal universities and Greek symposiums possessing inherent barriers, which Razer recognizes when saying that “slaves and women were not permitted access to democracy (in Athens.)” However, accepting that a utopian public sphere can never exist does not prohibit us from trying to engage in discussion about public life as best we can – in fact, the functioning of our democracy depends on it.

This is not to say Q&A is perfect. Often their panel selection is uninspired, the tweets add little value and questions become self-advertising comments which Tony quickly dismisses. But, as a singular component of a complex public sphere, Q&A endeavours to enrich our national debate with as many perspectives as possible for an underfunded national broadcaster operating within a limited time frame and navigating countless logistical issues. So I don’t care what Helen Razer does at 9:30pm on a Monday night but I’ll know what I’ll be doing.

ABBOTT FALLS ON HIS OWN SWORD

Unanimity on political issues is rare in Australia’s media landscape. But as Australians nursed sore heads after a well celebrated national holiday, they could not open a newspaper, turn on the television or flick through their Facebook feed without being reminded that their revered and righteous leader Tony Abbott had an Australia Day that no amount of barbequed meat could fix – in fact, it had been a “Knightmare,” as all major mastheads so eagerly dubbed.

Bad mistakes are certainly not remarkable in the Abbott government, but what is beyond belief is that this decision could not be mitigated by the usual excuses. It wasn’t a spontaneous brain-fart like Joe Hockey’s “poor people don’t drive cars,” for which a reluctant apology could be issued. It wasn’t a miscalculated right-wing policy like the GP co-payment, for which they could at least claim to be addressing the budget deficit. It was a pre-planned decision which Abbott and his close advisers must have known had little to no electoral appeal. So why do it? As Australian columnist Chris Kenny bluntly put it, “Is there no one in the office capable of uttering the simple phrase: ‘This is a dumb idea that is all pain and no gain?’”

For some, it was a brazen statement of Abbott’s commitment to a constitutional monarchy. For others like Tim Dunlop, regular contributor to the ABC’s The Drum, it is more than that. His recent article argued that Abbott’s “captain’s calls” are symptoms of a wider disempowerment of politicians by the globalized free market. Since significant power normally reserved for the Prime Minister has been usurped by the global economy since Hawke’s trade liberalisation, modern leaders have little control over domestic issues and are forced to implement unpopular policies such as privatisation, deregulation and cuts to services. This makes voters lose faith in the political class which in turn leads to endless leadership speculation. Nervous leaders, firmly in the pressure cooker, make endless gaffes. This further reinforces the public’s hatred of our politicians and entrenches a vicious cycle, making everything seem an inescapable “Knightmare,” lurching from inadequacy to idiocy. Richard Cooke of The Monthly similarly contended that politicians are “weak in the face of a modern, globalised economy, but suffer intense media scrutiny at just this moment of impotence.”

Dunlop and Cooke’s simplified narrative is unconvincing for many reasons. In the case of Abbott’s knighthood folly, the global economy clearly had nothing to do with the error, so politicians are clearly capable of doing stupid stuff without transnational corporations pressuring them. However blaming globalisation for all faults in domestic politics is also foolish. Global market forces did not force the creation of the GP co-payment, spending cuts to health, education or the ABC. The Liberal party room chose these policies because they want to pursue an ultra-conservative American model, not because globalisation is somehow forcing it upon them.

It is true that the global financial crisis (a product of globalisation) and Labor’s fiscal response have compounded the budget deficit, which the Coalition uses to justify its current policies. However Australia’s success in maintaining economic growth throughout the GFC illustrates that governments do still have significant economic power in the global economy. It becomes a matter of whether or not they choose to use it, and to what end. In this light, Abbott is not a weak leader cowering before the hulking behemoth of global trade as Dunlop suggests, but a leader whose policies are influenced, but not dictated, by global trade forces. And the bad news for Abbott is that the people don’t like them.

Dunlop’s narrative is perhaps more applicable to progressive governments, who face a steeper uphill battle to pass reform which puts global players’ noses out of joint. The watering down of Gillard’s carbon and mining taxes due to lobbying by BHP and Rio Tinto exemplifies a loss of power over domestic issues to global forces. The increased economic power of TNCs in the globalised economy can give them greater power than governments, which perverts democracy. However Labor still had the legislative power to impose taxes on these companies despite their economic power, they just needed to convince the electorate. Sure advertising campaigns by the mining industry may have contributed to some electoral doubt, but ultimately what struck down these policies was poor selling by Gillard and brutally effective opposition by Abbott. The carbon and mining taxes stood a chance against vested interest if communicated effectively, but they weren’t.

Dunlop also cites the rise of social media as having a “direct relationship” with the weakening of modern leaders, again throwing all eggs in the globalisation basket. Leaders “like Abbott” (i.e. conservatives perceived as backward) do have much to fear from social media as it gives voice to the young, a group often left voiceless in the traditional media sphere and who are often hostile to conservatives. Social media has vast capacity to drive progressive change. However, as it currently stands, to shift public opinion across the whole of society one must still shift the familiar pillars of the media landscape. Gillard was not voted out because of internet trolls, in fact she had some success online with her “misogyny speech” going viral on YouTube. It was the constant attacks from News Corp and talkback radio which set the tone for her prime-ministership, characterized by perceived weakness and other gendered condemnations, and her inability to counter these attacks with a coherent narrative or public image put the nail in her political coffin.

Which brings us back to Abbott waking up on 27th January to a complete “Knightmare” across all media platforms. “Why are they all against me?” he must wonder. Even his traditional cheerleader News Corp is highlighting his stupidity on their covers. Perhaps, despite the pressures of the global market and a changing political and media landscape, Richard Cooke’s assertion that the Australian political class can “comprehensively discard” public opinion is incorrect. Perhaps the extraordinary weight of public disquiet with the Abbott government’s performance is simply too much for tabloid newspapers (whose primary readership is lower-middle class citizens) to ignore. And it is surely only a matter of time before the Liberals can no longer ignore Abbott’s stench with voters. The sands are shifting for Abbott and the Liberals, and if he can’t find a more suitable candidate for our highest national honour than a British monarch or, more importantly, find policies which resonate with the people, then the “electronic graffiti” of social media and the detriments of the global market are the least of his worries. The greatest power in democracies still resides with the people. Abbott ought to be afraid.