Shooting the Messenger

May 31, 2011

Remember the ‘No Carbon Tax’ rally back in March? The howling mob, the incredibly offensive signs, the crowd of Coalition MPs on the platform in front of Parliament House, and Angry Anderson out front exhorting the troops to rise up?

At the time, the Coalition were adamant that these ‘ordinary people’, who allegedly represented the majority of Australians, should be allowed to speak. Their voices, it argued, had a right to be heard. No one should try to shut them down. In fact, they spent quite some time that week – both in Parliament and in the media – accusing the government of attempting to silence rightful protest.

There’s no doubt that the government made much of the presence of the League of Rights and of Pauline Hanson. Their own accusations centred on the idea that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott should never have agreed to link himself with them – and, by implication, with some of their views, which could charitably be called racist – by addressing the rally. Being associated with them was a very bad look for Abbott politically, but the notion that Hanson’s voice could be effectively dismissed because of her beliefs about other issues was rightly condemned.

Hanson had a right to speak. She also had a’ right’ to be called out for her part in perpetuating a series of lies about the proposed carbon price, but countering someone’s view is not the same as silencing them – or suggesting that what they have to say can just be dismissed out of hand.

Jump forward to last Sunday. The Daily Telegraph published a story about a new advertising campaign in support of setting a carbon price. The ‘Say Yes’ campaign was put together by a group of non-government organisations like the Climate Institute, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and supported by a number of prominent Australians. The television ad, due to air the next day, would feature actors Cate Blanchett and Michael Caton as part of a group talking about the benefits of tackling climate change and pricing carbon.

The headline for this story? ‘Carbon Cate Blanchett Tells Aussies to Pay Up over Carbon Charge’. The first few words? ‘Cate Blanchett has sparked outrage in the community’.

Not bad, considering that the ads hadn’t even aired at the time the story went to print.

The article went on to detail how Family First, the Australian Family Association and Coalition Senator Barnaby Joyce all thought that Blanchett was completely out of line for going on record to support a carbon price. The Telegraph was happy to support that argument – and so was launched an extraordinary series of personal attacks on Blanchett with an ugly subtext.

The most common criticism centred on her personal wealth – the Telegraph helpfully provided the figure, also informing readers that Blanchett was an ambassador for ‘luxury car brand Audi’. Subtext: she’s not like us because she has money – and besides, she’s a hypocrite because she promotes a car ‘ordinary’ people can’t afford.

Terri Kelleher, from the AFA, offered up a few snide remarks about how it was ‘easy’ for a multi-millionaire to endorse a carbon price – she could afford it. Subtext: Blanchett doesn’t care about ‘ordinary’ people, she’s just doing it for the publicity.

Barnaby Joyce said, ‘$53 million gives you a whole heap of latitude to care about a lot of things’. In his opinion, she was being ‘self-indulgent’ and commented further, ‘I love your acting Cate, but stick to what you’re good at’. Subtext: Well, it’s hardly subtext, is it? Joyce – who gave interview after interview on this matter – was flat-out telling Blanchett to be a good girl and quiet down.

Gerard Henderson, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, took a swipe at what he called a ‘double standard’. Because Blanchett is an actor who travels, he argued, she has a huge carbon footprint. If she lived like Mother Theresa, maybe Australians could take her seriously. Never mind Blanchett’s personal attempts to minimise that footprint through various measures – that can all be dismissed because she’s part of what he calls the ‘jet-setting eco-brigade’ (which, according to Henderson, includes carbon price advocate Tim Flannery). Subtext: because she’s rich, she cannot be pure of heart – and besides, she’s a hypocrite because she travels.

Radio 2UE criticised Blanchett’s mere presence in the campaign. Evoking schoolyard popularity contests, Jason Morrison said it was just about setting up ‘a cool group’ to make it ‘trendy’, to set up an ‘intellectual elite’. Subtext: she thinks she’s better than us and wants to make us feel like we have to conform.

Grahame Morris, Liberal strategist, offered this catty comment: ‘Cate Blanchett can’t go from one side of a room to the other without a director to tell her “please walk”‘. Subtext: she is not doing this of her own accord – the government is manipulating her.

Then there was Parliament. During Question Time yesterday, Abbott moved to suspend standing orders. This is one of the Opposition’s favourite tactics. It gives them the opportunity to push their message for an extended period of time, without fear of being called to account for deliberate misrepresentations and outright lies. (It’s called ‘Parliamentary privilege’, and it’s dreadfully abused.) Although the motion was nominally about Prime Minister Julia Gillard, much of Abbott’s attack centred on Blanchett. Here’s a sample:

‘You do not give special weight to celebrities who live in Hollywood half the year where there is no carbon tax’. Subtext: Blanchett is a hypocrite. Apparently the fact that California does price carbon slipped his mind. As did the fact that Blanchett lives in Sydney – not Hollywood.

‘People who live in eco-mansions have a right to be heard … but not ahead of the ordinary working people of this country’. Subtext: Blanchett is not ‘one of us’.

‘This is a Prime Minister who’s happy to listen to actors, but she won’t listen to voters’. Subtext: Blanchett is unfairly privileged by a pandering government.

And so it went … on and on and on, into last night and again today. Every Coalition MP who could get a few moments in front of a camera or in print hammered the same line of attack. The most cunning was the notion that maybe Blanchett did have the right to speak, but really, how much weight could you give what she says? It’s not like she understands how ‘real’ people live.

At the height of it, some called for a boycott on Blanchett’s films.

Yeah. That’ll show her.

Absurdly, Senator George Brandis, appeared on ABC1’s QandA last night, asserted that the Coalition were not attacking Blanchett personally. As did Joe Hildebrand on behalf of News Ltd – the very organisation that led the media barrage against her wealth.

(Strange that Angry Anderson didn’t come in for the same level of scrutiny. No one published his annual income or suggested he didn’t have a right to front a rally against a carbon price.)

There’s a name for this. It’s called an ad hominem argument. It’s used to discredit a speaker, and so avoid engaging with them on any substantial issue. There are several ways in which such an argument can be employed – and all of them were used against Blanchett.

Never mind that Blanchett is only one of six speakers in the television ad – the others are actor Michael Caton; a self-funded retiree who volunteers for Greenpeace; a man who assists businesses to reduce their carbon footprint; a tradesman; and a single mother who works as an accountant. All the scrutiny is on the easy target.

It’s a nasty, and sadly, effective strategy. Make enough noise, and no one will listen to what’s being said in the ad. Everyone gets very neatly sidetracked – and suddenly it’s not about pricing carbon, it’s about whether you think Cate Blanchett has a right to speak.

And it’s totally ludicrous. It was bad enough that the government suggested Pauline Hanson’s views on a carbon price could be effectively ignored on the basis of her beliefs regarding immigration. Hanson is rightly condemned for her racist statements – but that has nothing to do with tackling climate change.

To launch an all-out attack that smears someone for being rich, that suggests she has forfeited her voice because she travels, and which calls her everything from a hypocrite to an intellectual elitist to being so brainless that she should just sit down right now – well, that’s going far beyond the pale.

Businessman and millionaire Dick Smith admitted that he had been asked to join the ‘Say Yes’ campaign. Unlike Blanchett, Smith refused – but not because he didn’t support the idea of establishing a price on carbon. He said he was too ‘gutless’ – because he feared that the Murdoch press would attack and smear him.

I wonder why he thought that might happen.

It’s a shameful display – and it shows that there is a real reluctance to engage with a positive message. It’s easy to attack Gillard in Question Time and keep yelling that she ‘lied’ about a ‘carbon tax’. It’s easy to scream lies at a rally and shout down others in panel interviews. It’s very easy to shoot the messenger and dismiss, rather than discuss, the science.

It’s a lot harder to front up to a rational debate – to willingly explore the issue, learn about the science, and fully investigate the options.

And so, while we’re distracted by the spectacle of media and politicians tearing down the same woman they clasped to their collective bosom when she won an Academy Award, the opportunity to mitigate human-induced climate change founders again.

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