The story this week is climate change. Not that we can forget the catholic church is responsible for crimes against humanity; or our collective responsibility for destroying lives on Manus Island and Nauru; or the dangers of our government and its new best friends One Nation building up racism and other forms of bigotry, off a very high base.
Conservative (adj): averse to change or innovation
But the real story this week, and every week of every summer from now on, is climate change. Our political leadership is not up to the job. Conservative governments are not, by definition, equipped to deal with new challenges, being composed of people who chose to join a conservative political party. They do not like to concede this obvious point, because they are also people who seek the power to control others (to govern); and who yearn to appear masterly and successful.
Hedged in by these inherent incompetencies and ambitions of their own making, the options for dealing with the ‘new’ challenge of irrefutably irreversible man-made climate change are limited. Turnbull or Joyce, Pyne or Frydenberg, Ciobo or Morrison, they are all the same. They represent, and only represent, a monoculture of material comfort, of limited life experiences, and the narrowest of narrow perspectives.
Their choices are to lie and dissemble, to distract and deceive, to derail and delay and deny. Oh, and to bully. In a homophobic way. Simpering sycophant. Sucking up to Dick. Tucking his knees under the rich man’s table. Sucking hard in the living rooms of Melbourne.
‘Sucking hard’ on what?
These are the tools in which the current front bench is trained. Like the blinkered horse, they stare straight ahead, at the Labor Opposition, and to their own re-election chances. This is all they see. The horse is blinkered to minimise distraction, but we can not blinker our politicians in real life. So in addition to their narrow, limited outlook, we get distraction after distraction.
We get a piece of lacquered coal passed around the government benches in the Parliament. We get the Prime Minister shouting sympathy for those who can not turn on the aircon due to a blackout. It does not occur to him some of us do not have aircon at all, blackout or no. Does not cross his mind. Limited. Blinkered.
Turnbull says the problem is renewables, and Labor. To the latter end, we see Peta Credlin – former Chief of Staff to former Prime Minister Abbott and former COS to former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull – telling Sky News that the 2013 Coalition campaign against a price on carbon was never anything but a giant scare campaign built on a mountain of lies and yes of course they would and will do it again anytime anywhere. This is moral bankruptcy of the first order. The implications for Abbot’s Stop the Boats campaign are unspeakable.
Such is the integrity of the conservative parties in Australia. And because conservatives weaponise everything, this garbage rhetoric is all wrapped up in the language of security. Border security. Energy security. But there is no security for anyone – not for you, not for me, not for our grandchildren, not for the planet – while the only solution on offer is to use public resources to subsidise more coal – while the earth burns.
Turnbull makes Nero look statesmanlike.
Politics and Policy 1: Politics
Speaking of conservatism and distraction and lies, it is barely more than a week since the ABC ran saturation coverage of What Cory Did Next. There is no excuse for multiple replays of Bernardi’s querulous slow-mo mumble, whining that climate debate took a terrible toll, poor fellow, not just on him but on his family. Ah, yes, how Bernardi and family must have suffered as papa B went about the toll-taking toil of scuppering any and all efforts to implement global warming mitigation policy.
Fellow homophobe and religious extremist George Christensen is also attracting all sorts of attention. His opposition to a proposed sugar tax would be straightforward retail politics – lots of sugar cane plantations in the Christensen electorate – except that Christenesen sits in the Lower House. The Turnbull government lost 14 seats last July, leaving it a single seat majority. (This, incidentally, is why the party room will not scupper Turnbull – in case he throws a sulk and leaves).
In the USA, institutional checks and balances are proving woefully inadequate at putting any meaningful restraint on the excessive bigotry, dishonesty and bullying, the moral bankruptcy and dangerous incompetency that are the decades-long hallmarks of the man who is now President.
There are similarities here – the greed of crony capitalism, the erosion of assumed base line principles – which will excite some sections of the commentariat. But this doesn’t mean much. These are people who get excited by the national leader engaging in homophobic bullying on the floor of the Australian Parliament.
Neither a rat in the Liberal ranks of the Senate nor a shift from a one-seat majority to minority government will make much difference here. The conservatives will keep blocking anything remotely resembling sensible climate policy. Legislation will keep failing in the Senate until Turnbull throws enough public moneys at the cross-bench – in that irresponsible, chaotic, megalomaniac way of his – to get what he wants.
In other words, it is business as usual. Turnbull never articulated a policy agenda anyway: he rationalised toppling Abbott by citing opinion polls. He never had command of his party room – few of them even like him. He has no record of sound leadership or judgement (see Australian Republican Movement, emissions trading circa 2009, non-existent marriage equality) or successful negotiation. The ABCC bill he used to trigger a double dissolution was negotiated out of all recognition AFTER Turnbull squandered tens of millions of public dollars recalling the parliament and running an eight-week election campaign. He could have just as easily done that BEFORE wasting so much public money (and quite a bit of his own).
If George moves to the cross benches, yes the government will be nominally a minority government. Perhaps George will not guarantee Supply, but that seems unlikely. The government is still trying to pass measures from the 2014 Hockey budget, and government has not shut down. If George goes, the constitutional lawyers will be rolled out for comment, interviewers will nod earnestly, but so what? The nation got a crash course in the mechanics of minority government – from a master of the art, the most effective Prime Minister in the history of federation – four years ago.
And Turnbull will keep bullying Labor to back his agenda, which is largely payback for Rudd convincing Turnbull to back his ETS (and subsequently losing the opposition leadership to Abbott). In Turnbull world, his 2009 compromise was not his error to own, but something to be blamed on others, specifically Labor. Whatever. It will not work. Like Rudd was, Turnbull is a factional outsider, which Shorten is not.
So the Senate cross-bench rabble is slightly more rabblish with Bernardi, but ultimately he remains a crashing irrelevancy. In contrast, climate policy and the failure of the political press to ignore the distractions and to instead analyse the pressing issues of our time, are relevant to everyone, including those yet to be born.
Politics and Policy 2: Policy
While it is not all about the politics, or should not be, Coalition climate policy is about nothing but politics and an ideology founded on the false claim that self-interest is rational. Understanding policy direction requires an understanding of ideology, because policy is the codification of ideology.
This is in fact how democratic government works. A party founded on a set of ideas (an ideology) runs an election campaign based on its policy platform. If it wins, those policies are drafted into bills and passed into law (my more detailed explainer here).
To think the law is impartial, or that laws are free of partisanship or ideology, is to ignore this most basic of civics lessons. If the citizenry are without critical skills and civics knowledge, that is the responsibility of education governance. But there is no excuse for self-identified expert commentators to overlook these fundamentals of liberal democracy.
The Coalition policy, Direct Action, is a dog’s breakfast of a thing. It transfers public resources – tax collected from the public and redirected via fiscal policy – to high pollution-causing profit-seeking private sector enterprises. How could such a policy be perceived as rational by anyone?
The answer is ideology: because ‘rational self-interest’ is the central tenet of free market liberalism. For everyone who profits from the mining industry, and for everyone who benefits from mining industry donations, giving public resources to the mining industry is in their self-interest. Ergo it is rational.
This sounds daft, because it is daft. Nevertheless, it is a dominant organising principle of free market capitalism, and operates in tandem with the hyper-individualist ideology of liberalism. This is political economy as it was once understood, before conservative promotion of wilful ignorance disaggregated the two.
Even now, commentators speculate in faux wonderment as to how Hansonism is on the rise again. Is anyone analysing why Hansonism does not rise when Labor is in power? No. Self-interest directs the conservative mindset to treat her unoriginal brand of bigoted opportunism as random happenstance, even as the Coalition parties enthusiastically fan the flames of – and normalise – religious and racial bigotry at every turn.
This is partly a function of the make-up of the Coalition parties. The constituent parts include old-school authoritarian conservatives, nominal liberals who can not apply the most basic tenets of their ideology to policy or governance, and former agrarian socialists turned client spruikers for the mining industry. Each member of each group operates in a moral vacuum filled by greed, aggression, and bigotry.
All this is underpinned by selfishness (‘self-interest’) being encoded into their ideological values as ‘rational’. Similarly, to not pursue one’s own individual self-interest is judged to be irrational. The link was conceived three hundred years ago by propertied white men who excluded everyone else from the franchise. The same group then universalised their values through dominance of public discourse; and continue to do so today, through the mechanisms of dominating legacy.
Human beings are a social species, but patriarchal societies reward aggressive individualism. This is called ‘competition’. In a sensible world, competition is for games, for tennis or chess, for entertainment and recreation. It is not the key to human survival. The keys to human survival are co-operation, reciprocity, mutuality, and love.
We may be all born equal in dignity and rights, but who gets to exercise those rights, or who gets to live a life free of governments deliberately violating those rights, is very selective indeed. And the selection criteria are bigoted nonsense: race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, religion and dis/ability, wealth and class and the access to education and health services that capitalism ensures is correlated with income.
In sum, rational self-interest is a terrible organising principle. It informs the decisions and actions that have brought about irreversible man-made climate change. And it can be found everywhere across the liberal democracies, in every institution: government, media, universities, corporations, religion, everywhere. These institutions are rigidly hierarchical. The executive is invariably monocultural and rationalises self-serving decisions which cause purposeful, demonstrable harm to those outside their elite and exclusive group. This toxic norm infects all decisions and actions, from the top down.
High-taxing, high-spending, big government
One of the most profound analyses Paul Keating offers of the Coalition is that its claim to a commitment to markets is in fact a commitment to business. This illuminates the Coalition rejection of a market mechanism-based price on carbon (which successfully reduced carbon emissions), for a policy which transfers public resources to high polluting industries (which does not).
Similarly, conservative political leaders routinely express a commitment to small government. If the rejection of a market price on carbon in favour of subsidising polluters is high- spending big government, the proposed sugar tax is high-taxing big government. It is a distraction, of course, but a harmful one, because the arguments ‘for’ attack the poor.
A distraction with collateral damage to low-income Australians is par for the neoliberal course.
The sugar tax was borrowed from David Cameron, the failed British Tory Prime Minister who stood down after losing an expensive xenophobic campaign which was designed to settle conservative scores but which instead now poses an existential threat to the United Kingdom. The sugar tax proposal has the same flaws as the Coalition climate policy; because it comes from the same ideological place.
Paternalistic do-gooders are trotting out the usual lies of liberalism in support of a sugar tax: that a market mechanism (making sugar more expensive to dampen demand) is the correct policy approach to rising rates of obesity and diabetes.
The fastest rising diagnoses in the western world are anxiety, depression, diabetes and obesity. What does this say about the toxicity of our societies? Or about the cognitive dissonance of being fed, year after dreary year, the message that we are free, and autonomous, and have liberties and rights, when government interference in what you put in your shopping trolley is based on your income.
A sugar tax, goes the paternalism, will be good for the poor. It is only fair. The poor are irresponsible with the below-poverty-line income we so generously provide. In fact, poor people are the least profligate with public moneys – they have to be, or they die. In contrast, politicians throw the stuff around with merry abandon, a hundred million on entitlements here, $2.2 unauthorised billion there, squillions to private sector contractors over decades to the failed Job Network, ABS outsourcing, off-shore camps run by the incestuous web of Wilson Security, G4S, Serco, Transfield.
What is the return on our investment in shipping Joyce and Bishop around, in paying those profiteers in human misery to employ rapists on Nauru, in spending tens of millions on automated extortion of welfare recipients? How is the national interest served?
The answer is that the national interest is not served. This is not investment. It is toxic dilettance. The claims of liberalism, so tediously reproduced – selfishness is rational, reward is commensurate with merit, public accountability is the norm, lack of accountability is an exception – are demonstrably false. Yet instead of a ‘small government’ that listens to the people in a nominal democracy, we get ever-increasing government surveillance and erosion of democratic rights: an inept and expensive data retention regime, criminalisation of democratic participation by protest, higher taxes, higher spending (evidenced by a deficit doubled since 2013), big brother big government.
And still, and still. What about the climate?