Who needs science when you’ve got Wiki?

October 24, 2013

There are days when you read the political news and know that you’ll walk away angry.

There are days when you despair.

There are even days – rare, but they do happen – when a tiny, tiny shred of hope is kindled.

And then there are days like today, when you simply have to pick your jaw up off the floor and try not to let the sheer stupidity of it all overwhelm you.

It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the Coalition has a somewhat – shall we say – problematic relationship with the notion of climate change, and what might be done to mitigate its effects. Historically, the Liberal/National Parties have held more positions on the subject than might be found in the Kama Sutra. Malcolm Turnbull was toppled from the leadership just before he could commit to supporting the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, thanks to the machinations of former Senator Nick Minchin, the Coalition’s very own ‘faceless man’. As for the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, the term ‘weather vane’ is used without irony to describe his feelings on the subject. Famously describing climate change as ‘absolute crap’, the PM apparently had a change of heart and was prepared to embrace the science – but only up to a point.

Currently, New South Wales is embroiled in an ongoing bushfire emergency. Of the three major firefronts, one is burning over 40,000 hectares. Around 200 houses have been destroyed, with countless others damaged. One man lost his life, and a water-bombing aircraft has crashed, killing the pilot. Between unpredictable winds, high temperatures and heavy undergrowth, the hundreds of firefighters battling the blazes are constantly having to respond to new emergencies. And it’s only October – months earlier than the ‘usual’ fire season.

Now, these are by no means the worst bushfires ever seen in NSW, or even the earliest. The fact that they are taking place, however, combined with the unseasonal weather, inevitably brings up the question of whether climate change is a major contributor. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, was unequivocal on the subject. Although she stopped short of directly addressing the current fires, she pointed to studies showing that there was a known link between the effects of climate change, extreme weather events, and wildfires. She was joined by scientists and climate activists in calling for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gases, and criticising the Coalition government’s determination to repeal carbon pricing.

Unsurprisingly, the Coalition rejected that argument. The Prime Minister wasn’t simply content with that, however. When asked what he thought about Figueres’ statement, Abbott replied that she was ‘talking through her hat’. Australia has always had bushfires; they are ‘part of the Australian experience’.

You have to admit, that’s pretty impressive. In one short interview, the PM managed to not only insult a senior figure in the UN, but also to dismiss the pain, stress and loss of everyone caught up in these fires. It takes real skill to be that insensitive.

But it gets better.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt was quick to back up his leader. His contribution was to flatly deny that Figueres’ statement had even taken place. According to Hunt, Figueres had a conversation with the PM in which she ‘very clearly and strongly’ said there was no link. Continuing his role as unofficial, unwanted spokesperson, he said Figueres had been misrepresented. Never mind the plethora of footage contradicting him.

Not content with putting words in Figueres’ mouth, Hunt apparently felt it was necessary to support Abbott’s arguments. Now, you’d think the right approach – especially from someone with the academic ability to gain a Bachelor of Laws and win a Fulbright Scholarship – would be to gather your evidence and distil it down to a few pithy talking points.

You’d think.

Hunt had a different idea. For reasons passing understanding, he told the BBC World Service that bushfires occurred during the hotter months of the year, and had done so since before European settlement. And just how did he know that?

He’d … wait for it … ‘looked up what Wikipedia said, just to see what the rest of the world thought’.


I wish I were making this up.

Our Environment Minister proudly announced – to the world – that his go-to source for facts and figures was an online pseudo-encyclopedia famous for its lack of oversight, inaccuracies, biases and edit wars.

A website on which the words of a scientist are indistinguishable from the words of a zealot, where celebrities are declared dead, and where harassed moderators frequently have to ‘lock’ pages to prevent users with an axe to grind from posting information that damages reputations. To say it’s unreliable is like saying a flood makes you ‘a little wet’.

Children are cautioned at primary school not to rely on Wikipedia. At secondary school, they’re positively discouraged from using it at all – and by tertiary level, it’s completely unacceptable. (I remember delivering that particular admonition to my first year students every semester – right after the warnings about plagiarism.)

The stories range from the serious to the utterly absurd. Take the long-running edit war over Caesar Salad. For over two years, editors have argued over whether this dish was invented in Ancient Rome or (relatively) modern Mexico, and tussled over the vexed question of whether adding tomatoes means you have to change the name. Then there’s the Great Scientology Edit War, which led ultimately to Wikipedia’s moderators banning the Church from editing its own pages. That final decision came after four years of back-and-forth that spilled over into mainstream media and threats of legal action, as ex-members sought to represent their negative experiences, only to have their work removed by current members bent on ‘correction’ (or sanitisation, depending on your point of view).

Oh, and let’s not forget the premature obituaries – like that of Apple’s Steve Jobs. News of his ‘death’ – originally an on-file obituary misprinted by Bloomberg – hit Wikipedia within seconds, back in 2008. Jobs, of course, was alive and well, but for the short time he was ‘dead’ on the internet, pandemonium reigned.
Perhaps this was a contributing factor in the way Apple’s stock plummeted later that year, when a fake article reported Jobs had suffered a heart attack.

Hunt himself fell victim to this sort of tampering after his statement hit the media. His page was edited to say that he ‘uses Wikipedia for important policy research’. Another gem noted that, since becoming Environment Minister, ‘He has already proven to be terrible at his job, to no surprise’. Soon after, the page was locked – but his comments about using Wikipedia are still there.

I could go on, but really, the point hardly needs to be made. Wikipedia may be handy for a quick look-up when nothing’s riding on the accuracy of your information. It may even be useful to lead you to other sources with a good deal more credibility. But when you’re the Federal Environment Minister, dealing with a serious situation in which lives, homes and businesses are under threat, you owe it to Australians to do at least some credible research.

This is the man who co-authored a thesis which concluded that a ‘pollution tax’ linked to the market was the best way to deal with greenhouse gas emissions and runaway climate change. Presumably, he was required to provide good supporting references, so he hardly has any excuse for such a fatuous statement. But this is the example he’s prepared to set for the rest of the world.

Hunt is apparently happy for the world to know that our government is prepared to take the word of a group of unknown contributors – many of whom have little or no credentials – rather than listen to the experts on its own (now disbanded) Climate Change Commission. To represent us as so unwilling to even consider the possibility of a link between wildfires and climate change that we’d rather elevate a poorly-supervised website to the status of science.

It’s embarrassing. And it’s dangerous. Hunt’s ridiculous behaviour today is, unfortunately, just a symptom of the dumbing-down taking place in all areas of government right now, treating us like children and expecting us to believe whatever they tell us just because it comes from a place of power.

We need to be careful that we don’t let the sheer stupidity of it blind us to that fact – and that we don’t let it go unchallenged.

Fair game: the Opposition’s sustained attack on the public service

August 4, 2011

Last night, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey appeared on Lateline. Among other things, that interview touched on the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ plan to tackle climate change. This is a policy that’s been held up as a viable alternative to the government’s carbon pricing scheme announced a few weeks ago – both cheaper to implement, and less damaging to household budgets. Tony Jones zeroed in on a problem with the figures, though – for all the Opposition’s claims, the Department of Climate Change identified that the policy would cost the average Australian household around $720 per year, with no compensation such as is planned under the carbon price.

Hockey’s response? You can’t trust that Department’s figures. They get things wrong.

But then there’s this:

TONY JONES: But are you saying they’re putting out false figures about your direct action plan?

JOE HOCKEY: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

That’s a serious accusation right there. Hockey didn’t equivocate, or use any weasel words – he flat out accused the Department of Climate Change of deliberately falsifying their figures for the sole purpose of discrediting the Opposition.

Sound familiar? It should.

Remember back around the time of the election, when the Coalition dodged the question of getting their election promises costed by Treasury? Their stated reason for doing so was that Treasury couldn’t be trusted to do it right, or do it fairly. Back then, the accusations flew thick and fast. Treasury was ‘incompetent’. Treasury was ‘corrupt’. In essence, the Coalition did their level best to convince the public that the Treasury was little more than a political agent for Labor, willing to stoop to any level to keep them in power.

Remember Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb? At the time, he blustered that ‘It could mean that they [Labor] steal an election through the actions of a criminal act. We are not going to be patsies and be played off a break by people who are engaged in criminal activities to create a political problem for us’.

Then there was Opposition Leader Abbott’s sledge at the Solicitor-General. Upon hearing that the proposed minority government arrangement was all in order, Abbott did more than just hint that the Solicitor-General might well be both incompetent and corrupt. Again, the message was clear: that department is part of the public service, and – just like Treasury – should be viewed with at least a measure of suspicion.

Now, it seems, it’s the turn of Climate Change.

Understand, the Opposition are not talking about government ministers here. They’re not out there attacking Greg Combet or Robert McLelland. They’re saying that the Departments are engaging in corrupt and criminal acts – essentially, that major areas of the Public Service are so compromised by some kind of partisan loyalty to the Australian Labor Party that they simply can’t be trusted.

These are not party political organisations. They’re staffed by people who, in some cases, have held their jobs under successive governments from both major parties. To listen to the Coalition, though, you’d be forgiven for thinking these Departments do little more than give jobs to Labor’s mates.

As I said before, these are serious accusations – the kind that need to be backed up by strong evidence. If proven, there would have to be criminal proceedings, and that could potentially see the government – and the country – undermined at its very foundations. So what is the evidence?

The Coalition says so.

That’s right. They’ve offered no proof of falsified figures. They’ve secured no sworn confessions of wrongdoing. There are no memos discussing how best to help the government attack the Opposition. Just unsubstantiated bluster delivered in ringing tones of condemnation.

This is nothing more than the continuation of a smear campaign that started around the time of the election. It’s designed to deflect attention from shaky policy that doesn’t stand up under rigorous scrutiny. By casting doubt on the organisations whose job it is to catch these sorts of errors and omissions, the Coalition hopes to effectively get waved through the gate without a ticket.

It’s also designed to take advantage of a particular gap in most people’s education. We learn at school about how our government works, or at least we can grasp the basics. You vote, a party gets elected, and the one that doesn’t get in make up the Opposition. Then the government makes laws. What we don’t often learn about is the massive bureaucracy that ensures government can work at all. We see the Minister at the head of those Departments on the news, and we identify the organisation with the person. We don’t get told that Treasury, or Climate Change, or the Solicitor-General’s Department is made up of people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the business of winning elections – people who are experts in their fields, administration assistants with long years of experiences, accountants, legal advisors, etc. When the Coalition accuses Treasury of participating in criminal acts, or Climate Change of deliberately falsifying numbers purely to discredit rival policies, they’re hoping that we won’t realise that.

The Coalition is apparently so committed to tearing down everything even remotely associated with this minority government that they consider these people’s good names to be expandable. Moreover, they apparently have a complete disregard for the personal consequences to the people they’re so merrily disparaging.

That’s not clever strategy – it’s a calculated, callous decision to do whatever it takes, and never mind the collateral damage.

The important thing is that we do realise it. The next time Abbott, or Hockey, or Robb stands up in front of a camera and accuses a Department of corrupt or criminal acts, keep it in mind. It’s not the standard political tactic of discrediting a policy by discrediting the Minister in charge. It’s an attack on hundreds of largely unknown people whose only crime is to be working in government administration under the current government.

Those people keep the country working. They deserve better.

So, Mr Abbott, Mr Robb, Mr Hockey – here’s your chance. If you have proof to back up your accusations, deliver it to the Australian Federal Police. Right now. Put up or shut up.

If you don’t, why don’t you take your own advice to Prime Minister Gillard? Go down to those Departments and personally visit every single employee there. Explain to them why you decided that destroying their reputations and their peace of mind was an acceptable part of your campaign to bring down the Gillard government with baseless accusations. Why you decided that they were fair game.

Then apologise to them. Individually. Sincerely. Unequivocally.

It’s the least you can do.

It’s Rhyme Time, kids!

July 18, 2011

So, here we are in the second week of the election campaign – I mean, the second week of the Carbon Price Death-match, brought to you by Thunderdome. Prime Minister Julia Gillard is making good on her promise to ‘wear out her shoe leather’ by travelling around the country spruiking the carbon price package to all and sundry. Other Labor MPs are out haunting all the shopping centres in their electorates, and the first of the pro-carbon price television ads hit the screen over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the Opposition is no less fervent in pushing out their message that any second now the sky will fall in, and the only alternative is the immediate sacrifice of every Labor and Greens representative to whatever gods may deign to take pity on us for our hubris. Witchfinder, sorry, Senator Barnaby Joyce, in particular, cuts a fine figure up on those platforms – one can almost see him in Puritan garb and a tall black hat, holding a flaming torch. Not to be outdone, his leader, Tony Abbott, is busily handing out the pitchforks.

It’s the election campaign we get when we aren’t having an election campaign – and you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s dragged on for over a year. Because it has. Since his defeat in 2010, Abbott has never let up on the accusation that in some way, the Coalition are the rightful government, and the machinations of those dastardly Independents thwarted ‘the will of the people’. It’s not quite ‘We was robbed!’, but it’s close. To help them along, the Coalition have Labor’s proposed carbon price package – which they gleefully snapped up, twisted, bastardised and whored out to service the fears of every Australian who doesn’t quite grasp the science or the economics.

We can all chant along with the litany: prices will go up! Emissions will go up! The coal industry is dooooooooomed! You will huddle around your guttering candles in the winter because you won’t be able to afford heating, or lighting, or food, etc, etc.

And it’s not about to let up, either. Better strap in, sit back and take a travel sickness pill – it could be two years before the federal election. This is just the beginning.

But, lest we all resort to heavy drinking because of the sheer, mind-numbing tedium of hearing the same rhetoric, Abbott has a new message – one that might sound familiar to US expatriates.

In his last few appearances, Abbott waxed lyrical about the bravery of ‘a certain other country’ that stood up for itself and shouted, ‘No taxation without representation!’ That, he says, is directly related to what’s going on here the carbon price.

Yes. You read that right.

And just in case we don’t understand, Abbott’s happy to provide the ‘Aussie’ version of that slogan: ‘No tax collection without an election’.

I suppose a six word slogan is an improvement on a three word one … but not much. Still, it sounds good – until you actually take a good look at what he’s saying here.

‘No taxation without representation’ was a catch-cry used by British colonists in the 13 American colonies, taken from Irish protesters who’d been using it for around 20 years. The colonists protested that they were asked to pay taxes without gaining any form of direct representation in the English Parliament. They were ruled from afar, expected to support the Crown, but there was no one to represent their interests. In other words, they were exploited.

It’s a stirring call to arms. No one wants to feel disenfranchised or dictated to by their rulers. Certainly, it worked in the American case, leading to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolutionary War.

But wait … is this in any way related to what’s going on in Australia right now? Let’s see. Every adult is not only able to, but required to vote. Looks like representation to me. Oh, but Abbott changed the slogan, didn’t he?

Yes, he did – to something utterly meaningless. ‘No tax collection without an election’? What does that even mean? We should have an election every year before we put in our income tax returns? Or every quarter when we lodge our BAS statements for the GST? Well, surely not; the country would rapidly grind to a halt if we had to do that.

So what’s this about? It’s simple, and sad – someone in Abbott’s camp decided that a nifty rhyming slogan would be a good idea. Rhyming slogans tend to stick in the mind; they are an apparently clever way of summing up an issue in a way that fits on bumper stickers and dodges analysis. You can almost see the thought processes at work. ‘Hey, didn’t the Americans do that once? You know, that Tea Party thing? We could do that. I mean, look at how successful the Tea Party has been in getting into Congress, yeah, we should go with that idea. Okay, so … rhymes, rhymes. Hmm, we want to push the idea of an early election, so what rhymes with election … protection … confection … erection … how about collection? Yeah, that’s it. Wow, that looks good.’

It’s memorable, all right. You can chant it. In terms of meaning, though, it’s right up there with ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’ or ‘It’s Lean and it’s Cuisine’. And like any advertising slogan, its sole purpose is to get people to repeat it over and over, until – like Pavlov’s puppies – it’s the first thing they think of when they hear the words ‘carbon tax’.*

This is about getting people to stop thinking at all. Once you win that battle, you don’t have to worry about pesky little things like facts and figures. You can say what you like and dismiss everything that you don’t.

Climate scientists say we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and favour a market mechanism? They don’t matter, because there are a few out there who say otherwise – let’s talk about them, because that’s ‘fair’. Economists support the carbon price package and look with disfavour on ‘Direct Action’? Pshaw, what do economists know about the economy, anyway? Detailed plans for compensation and encouraging development of renewable energies exist, complete with strong modelling showing a positive outcome? Lie through your teeth and say that it’s nothing of the kind. Oh, and don’t forget to keep saying that whole towns will vanish and the mining industry will collapse – any evidence to the contrary can be safely ignored.

Just keep chanting that slogan, because it’s all about the catchy rhyme, and nothing at all to do with the American Revolution analogy, right?

Because, surely, Abbott’s not really trying to draw a parallel between the American Revolution and the carbon price package, is he? He wouldn’t really want to promote the idea that Australians are exploited by a government that wants to act like a dictator, take their money and do what it wants with it, would he? And he definitely wouldn’t be pushing a coded message that the country’s in such dire straits that only an armed uprising could free them from their oppressors – right?

Perish the thought.

* For further edification regarding political advertising, I highly recommend The Gruen Nation.

The dizzying heights of absurdity

July 5, 2011

Back for the last week of sitting before Parliament’s winter recess, and the rhetoric flies thick and fast. The insults are as predictable as ever, the twisting of facts as despicable as ever … but really, we have reached the dizzying heights of absurdity.

Last night the government confirmed that it will finally release the full details of their carbon price plan on Sunday. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has air time booked on the ABC for the announcement, that will be followed up (under the ABC Charter) with response time from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott immediately following.

Coming on the heels of the announcement that fuel will be exempt from the carbon price for private individuals and small businesses, it looked like the long-promised detail would finally materialise.

But then the Opposition weighed in – and apart from the usual lines, we had this from Tony Abbott.

The fuel exemption will not last – if it happens at all. Why? Because he says so.

And how can he prove that? Well, look at what he said in the election campaign. He said – repeatedly – that ‘as night follows day’ there’d be a carbon tax, and lo and behold, he was right. Therefore, he’s right about this.

Yes, Tony Abbott has the power to predict the future. Now that’s a quality we need in a leader, right?

Honestly, it’s ridiculous. And it’s not the silliest we’ve had this week.

We had Barnaby Joyce on Sky News flatly refusing to countenance any evidence of global sea temperature rises, and rubbishing the credibility of the CSIRO while he was at it. We saw him state that ‘things go in cycles’, that there was ‘hardly any change’, and trot out the old chestnut of ‘it got cooler in the last ten years’.

We had Abbott and Hockey both implying (in several different addresses to media) that economists simply couldn’t be trusted, because they didn’t support the Coalition’s ‘Direct Action’ plan.

And then …

We had Coalition Senators this morning deliberately misrepresenting the role of carbon dioxide in pollution and climate change. At least, we should hope it’s deliberate – because otherwise it reveals a truly terrifying stupidity.

The argument went something like his. How could carbon dioxide be a pollutant? It’s not listed as a pollutant in these books we have here. Don’t plants breathe it?

And wait – 60-70% of our food is made up of carbon. Does that mean we sit down every night to a big plate of pollution?

I wish I were making this up – or even exaggerating.

And what does it all indicate? Apart from a truly astonishing lack of understanding, there are two possibilities as to what’s going on here.

Possibility 1. The Coalition are beginning to openly embrace something that they have vehemently pooh-poohed for some time now. This constant mockery and rubbishing of science points to absolute denialism. Not simply rejecting the idea that human activity has, and is affecting the global climate, mind you – this is outright refusal to acknowledge any global climate change. That’s been the stated position of people like Joyce and former Senator (and kingmaker) Nick Minchin for a long time.

Possibility 2. The Coalition may or may not accept the science, but they have decided that it simply doesn’t matter. They made the political decision to oppose the government, the Greens, and anyone else who urges action to combat climate change. They set out a strategy designed to spread misinformation and confusion, and to cause fear and outright panic in as many sectors of Australia as possible – for one reason only.

To undermine the government, demonise the Greens and ensure a Coalition election victory in 2013, if not much sooner.

I’m not sure which is worse, here – the idea that the Coalition are just cynical opportunists, or that they really believe what they’re saying. Either way … when the country’s representatives come out with absurdities like ‘carbon is good for us, it’s in our food’ as a counter-argument to reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Something’s very wrong.

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.

The People’s Forum no one saw

May 24, 2011

I’ve been watching the Climate Change Forum currently underway in Canberra, part of the government’s Climate Change Commission. This coincides with the expected release of the Commission’s first report, The Critical Decade, on Monday.

There’s a panel of experts in everything from ecology to economics to geology and emergency management. In the audience are representatives from all areas of Australian life including agriculture, and small business.

Each question-and-answer session tackles a different aspect of the climate – the science itself, consequences of climate change if left untackled, ways to reduce emissions, and economic incentives to promote renewable energy – to name a few. The experts speak in clear language largely devoid of jargon and explain some of the more complex issues in clear and simple ways.

In this morning’s session the panel fielded questions from a farmer, an activist from an environmental campaigner, and – surprisingly – Shadow Communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull, who had apparently been sitting quietly in the back for quite some time. (His presence, in particular, lends an air of bipartisanship to the Commission – and creates a potential headache for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, who has repeatedly refused to have anything to do with it.) Not everyone was happy with the answers they get, but significantly, no one was complaining that they didn’t understand or were being fobbed off, either.

It’s probably the single best strategy the government could employ. One of the strongest criticisms levelled at former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd over his proposed carbon pricing scheme was that his cabinet were either unwilling or unable to explain any part of it in simple language. Now, Rudd has an enormous vocabulary, and he’s not afraid to wield it – but that’s exactly what didn’t work, and the Coalition capitalised on that.

It seems as though someone in the current government had that in mind when organising this forum. It’s less of an info-dump by experts, and more like an episode of the ABC’s QandA (minus the political spin that inevitably occurs when politicians appear on the latter show). Ordinary people and experts are trading questions, answers, suggestions, complaints. It’s extraordinarily informative.

So the question inevitably arises: why is this forum getting such limited transmission?

You can only see it if you’re able to access the high-definition ABC News Channel – or if you have cable television, you can watch Sky News. Mind you, it’s not on the main Sky channel. You need to go to their ‘multiview’ section, which provides a tiny picture and truly shocking sound quality via a camera microphone – not even a media split for the audio. And you can just bet that – at most – there’ll be a tiny sound grab on the news bulletins about it. Depressingly, the most likely piece of footage we’ll see is the farmer whose frustration at not gaining enough support for soil carbon initiatives boiled over until he was shouting into the microphone.

This forum is exactly what’s needed to ‘sell’ the government’s carbon pricing and climate change strategy. It answers the demand for information, not just from so-called ‘interested parties’ like steel manufacturers or agribusiness, but from Australian people in general. The science is explained clearly, suggestions are welcome, complaints are heard – nothing is obfuscated or blocked from discussion. Most importantly, perhaps, it is a rational, patient voice to answer fear-mongering and misinformation with facts.

It does what no amount of glossy advertising or tedious media conference speeches can do. And yet the majority of people won’t even know it’s happening, let alone be able to access it.

The government’s decision to keep this forum largely invisible makes no sense. It can only help the cause – and the presence a senior Coalition MP like Malcolm Turnbull participating constructively in the discussions lends even more legitimacy to the government’s whole strategy.

Perhaps the government decided no one would be interested – but then, isn’t the whole point to inform people so that they will support action on climate change?

Perhaps it thought that spending the money to buy more accessible television time was wasteful – but that’s hardly going to stand up after some of the government’s more lavish advertising campaigns.

Or perhaps – and I think this is most likely, and most dreadful – they simply didn’t think at all.

There’s a lot of talk in the media about how the Coalition’s near-constant criticism undermines the government and muddies the waters so that Gillard can’t get her message out – but really, the government don’t need any help from the Opposition.

They’re doing fine all by themselves.

They’ve squandered the opportunity to reach a significant percentage of the Australian population on a major policy area. In doing so, they’ve effectively ceded the advantage to Abbott. He’s out there nearly every day visiting businesses and telling them that the sky is falling and how their way of life will be destroyed by a carbon tax – and he’s not going to stop any time soon.

This would be bad enough, no matter what the proposed legislation. In the case of combating climate change, though, it’s potentially catastrophic. The government has a responsibility to inform Australians about all aspects of this issue. It’s not enough just to say, ‘The science is settled,’ and indulge in a bit of mud-slinging at the Opposition – people need to know the why and the how.

The Climate Forum, with its articulate experts capable of both formulating the plans and communicating the issues, was the perfect vehicle to answer those questions.

But instead of supporting the forum – of securing air time on a free-to-air analog channel, and playing it during the evening prime-time slot instead of after most people are either at work or otherwise occupied for the day – they relegated it to a limited, interested audience whose minds are likely already made up about climate change.

The government blew it. We can hope that somehow, the information presented at the forum will get out to where it’s needed – not mediated through the politicians, or the news, or pundits, or any one of a dozen lobby groups for and against action on climate change. That is something entirely out of their hands now.

It shouldn’t be. Some things are too important.

Honesty, thy name is Kevin

April 5, 2011

Integrity in major party politics may not be dead.

ABC1’s Q and A program last night featured the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd. There were a few others on the panel, but for the most part, the focus was all on the former Prime Minister. (In retrospect, the producers must have wondered if they slipped up by not making it a single guest show.)

Inevitably, the question was asked – did Rudd regret his decision to delay putting the ETS legislation to Parliament for a third time?

Now, we’re all comfortable with the way Q and A operates. We get a few questions that seem to be drafted by party strategists, the odd incoherent rant and a few intelligent enquiries that are inevitably sidestepped and spun into an opportunity to deliver a political message.

That’s not what we got last night. Rudd looked up at the questioner and said simply, ‘I think my judgment then was wrong.’

La Trobe University politics lecturer Robert Manne, sitting next to Rudd, commented idly, ‘It’s very rare in Australian politics for that to happen’.


Contrast Gillard on the carbon price announcement – the so-called ‘broken promise’, the alleged ‘lie’. Even after she admitted that yes, she had changed her mind, she made a point of stressing that it was because of ‘changed circumstances’ (the minority government). She wasn’t ‘wrong’ to have ruled out a carbon tax during the election campaign; it was all about what had happened to her.

Contrast Abbott on paid parental leave or carbon pricing. He eventually said he’d changed his mind – and vigorously defended his right to do so.

Rudd, last night, copped it on the chin. He told us he’d been assailed from all sides by his own party, each pushing their own point. Some wanted the ETS permanently shelved. Some wanted to push aside, despite the hostile Senate. Rudd looked for the middle ground, hoping that he could gamble on the Senate changing in the next election. By delaying the ETS, he thought he’d found it.

It sounded like it was shaping up as typical spin. They made me do it, I didn’t want to, but they made me! Indeed, Julie Bishop – who seemed completely unable to stop herself from repeatedly interrupting with remarks that clearly she thought were clever, but which only showed her to be doing a fine job playing the role of Party animal – said that several times. Rudd wasn’t having any of that, however.

‘It was the wrong call,’ he said. ‘You make mistakes in public life. That was a big one. I made it … and I’m responsible’.

No attempt to lay the blame off on the so-called ‘faceless men’. No attempt to say he was forced into it. Rudd was clear about it; he was the man at the top, he wanted to unify his party and preserve a piece of legislation in which he believed. He failed. He was wrong. His fault.

It’s what people have been waiting to hear from Rudd – or, in fact, from any politician. Honesty, accountability, integrity. And – if the audience reaction and the Twitter feed are anything to go by – it shocked everyone who heard it. Within minutes, messages of congratulation flooded in addressed to Rudd’s Twitter.

But, of course, overnight, the worm turned – the ‘worm’, in this case, being the media, the pundits, and the pollies.

Rudd had ‘breached cabinet confidentiality’, he’d ‘gone rogue’ – Sky News. Rudd ‘exposed the deep splits that are damaging this government’ – George Brandis on AM Agenda. NineMSN’s report on Rudd included a mention of the latest Newspoll as ‘more trouble for the government’ (apparently, Rudd’s powers include an ability to influence polls that have already concluded). The Herald-Sun focused on the fact that Rudd ‘did not specifically clear the Prime Minister’. Cabinet was ‘split’ – the Sydney Morning Herald (apparently trying to convince us that ‘normal’ Cabinet meetings feature lockstep thinking). And Crikey commented that Rudd ‘put the knife into Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan’.

The thesaurus was in demand this morning. It was ‘extraordinary’, ‘incredible’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘devastating’. Possibly the tamest word used to describe Rudd’s words was ‘entertaining’.

But what’s missing here?

The reporting is uniformly negative. Even when the articles start by commenting on the ‘frankness’ Rudd displayed, they quickly drop that and move on to the ‘juicier’ stuff.

We bitch and moan about how our politicians don’t answer questions. We lament that everything they say is spin and lies dressed up as concern for ‘working families’. Where oh where, we cry, can we find honesty?

We saw it last night. We saw a former Prime Minister make the choice to admit the mistake, take all the responsibility without making excuses, and refuse to allow anyone on that panel to spin his words into anything other than he meant. He didn’t accept Manne’s compliment, or attempt to show himself as somehow better than anyone else.

But he was better.

Does it make up for the catastrophic decision to shelve the ETS, an action that severely damaged the government in the eyes of the Australian people? No.

Does it make up for his many other mistakes, particularly the botched home insulation program? Absolutely not.

But then – and this is the crucial thing – Rudd didn’t ask us forget all that. He didn’t even ask us to excuse or forgive him.

Should he have said, ‘Sorry’? Maybe. But what he did do was show us a man who had learned a bitter lesson.

Oh, we all loved to call him ‘Kevin 747’ when he raced around the world apparently currying favour with other countries. We tsked that he was ‘Kevin 24/7’ when he worked his Department into the ground, forcing them to keep up with his own punishing schedule. And who could forget ‘Kevin O’Lemon’?

But what we saw last night was just Kevin Rudd, the sadder and wiser man.

The last Q and A questioner commented that sometimes positive results can flow from personal disasters, and asked Rudd if he’d learning anything from being ousted as Prime Minister. Rudd laughed it off, but I think his earlier answer was the real one.

Rudd acted with integrity and honesty last night. It’s what we said we wanted in our politicians.

We shouldn’t allow media spin and partisan punditry to distract us from that. And we should require all our politicians act the same way, all the time.

We have that ability. We should start exercising it.

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