Nicholas Stuart July 03, 2012
Illustration by Pat Campbell.
The ignorant sloganeering being indulged in by politicians of all persuasions is bad for our democracy
As happens so often during times of turmoil, reasoned debate has stuttered to a halt. Wild-eyed fanatics now walk the land, bearing placards prophesying pestilence and war. Petty demagogues are invested with the status of seers.
Those at the fringe are listened to with respect. Even sensible people begin to wonder if perhaps, just perhaps, these wild mystics full of prophecy might have answers to our current problems.
They don't. There is nothing more likely to foster ignorance and cataclysm than the current spate of ignorant sloganeering our politicians - ones of all persuasions - are indulging in at the moment.
The demonstrations and protests are part of a deliberate attempt to insert mass emotions into Australian politics. In fact they represent a debasement of the debate. It's becoming more, not less, difficult to determine our way forward. Tony Abbott's determination to keep resistance to Julia Gillard's government simmering is quite understandable. That's his job. The problem is that he has other responsibilities as well, and the way he's seen to be egging on the campaign to destabilise the government is now working to debase the very qualities he'll need to display when he gets the top job.
If you desired an example of what happens when the fringe is at work, you simply needed to attend the Sydney protest against the carbon tax over the weekend. For very good reasons, journalists are not allowed to make judgments about the ''type'' of people who attend mass events. Instead, reporters convey facts; the number at a demonstration and what happened. So let me instead insert my own conclusions about that bunch of tattered, scruffy, but noisy group of deluded protesters.
Barely 2000 (out of a city containing more than four million) turned out to yell obscenities at their Prime Minister. They were encouraged to vent their fury by Bronwyn Bishop, who egged on the desperate burghers. The appearance of Bronwyn (as opposed to Liberal Deputy Leader Julie Bishop) in an argument is akin to ''Godwin's Law''. Originally this was formulated by a lawyer who observed that, as online disputes become longer and more heated, it's only a matter of time before someone invokes Adolf Hitler. Similarly, the more absurd a political debate becomes, the more likely it is that this strong-minded Liberal will appear, leading protesters on a forlorn crusade down a cul-de-sac of her own making.
I'd first met Bishop in the 1980s. People talked of her then as Brunhilda, a blond Valkyrie who might charge to Canberra at the head of a host of avenging longboats carrying good solid Liberals, firm and true, who would dispatch the indolent Labor government of Bob Hawke. She was regularly compared favourably with her near-contemporary, Margaret Thatcher, and it was confidently predicted she'd become our first female PM. It never happened. And when, eventually and many years later, the government did finally change, John Howard found Bishop was not indispensable. In fact, his attitude was rather the reverse. Her re-emergence is a clear indication of the turgid pool into which political debate has sunk. This is not, you understand, a reflection on Bishop. I have no doubt she fervently believes in her cause, just as I accept those protesters had every right to yell their dissent, as loudly as they could, as they marched through the streets of Sydney.
But the point is that this tiny group of self-selected people were no more representative of our society than the picked team of Olympic athletes who are about to march, on our behalf, into the stadium in London. Allowing their anger to form our response to climate change is as ridiculous as asserting that, because a couple of ''our'' athletes manage to beat the world's best, somehow the extra cake I've just eaten won't show up on my waistline.
Why is Bishop particularly responsible for the dead end into which she blindly leads her followers? Because fervency of belief is no replacement for navigation using a map. And yet this is what the Liberals are obstinately refusing to countenance at the moment. Let me count the ways.
Take the picture of Abbott standing in front of billboards proclaiming he'll move to repeal the carbon tax as soon as he's voted in. This treats voters like fools. Unless he also receives a majority in the Senate - an almost impossible task - any legislation will be blocked until a double dissolution can be held. The various permutations of this are complex because of the two houses aren't aligned, nevertheless it means Abbott's promise is meaningless. But instead of attempting to explain sensibly how he would go about changing the government's settings he's encouraging anger to overwhelm intelligent debate.
This is also evident - outrageously so - in his pretence that he'd ''turn the boats back''. Abbott has suggested he'd attempt to order RAN officers to tow asylum seekers out to open water. If the little boats were sinking, even if they were owned by people-smugglers and full of illegal immigrants, his orders would also be illegal. Navy ships are not bathtub toys to be sailed around at the beck and call of a PM controlling interceptions from a bunker dug in the grounds of the Lodge.
Likewise Abbott's assertion that his initial trip will be to Jakarta to tell the Indonesian President he wants the armada of boats to stop. While there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Gillard has already critically mismanaged the relationship with this emerging power, there can be no real confidence that Abbott would manage this vital relationship any better than she is.
His announcement of a ''reverse Colombo Plan'', sending Australian students to Asia to learn about our neighbourhood, is excellent. This promise sends a clear signal of engagement and understanding in a neglected area. It is likely to have a more positive bearing on our national security than, for example, the purchase of a fourth Air Warfare Destroyer.
Unfortunately. Abbott's positive initiatives such as this are almost immediately caught up in his relentlessly negative, hyperbolic and vitriolic response to other issues such as asylum seekers and climate change.
Measurements released over the weekend confirmed the Arctic ice sheet is shrinking. We need an answer. Febrile debate, regressing to absurdity, does nothing for the future of our democracy.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.