Repeal of the carbon tax

Today is a sad day for Australia. After years of political wrangling it has come to this: the repeal of the carbon tax.

It is a giant step back from facing up to the encroaching cliff, a turning away from the erosion of solid ground, a denial of a slow-burn but deadly serious threat.

Ian MacDonald and Barnaby Joyce, in the midst of winter, talk about cold weather as though it means something. Their statements are unbelievably crude, and their experience of the cold means nothing in this debate. Are they silly enough to believe that a cold winter’s day is reason to scrap the carbon tax, or are they heartless enough to spin an anti-climate change line for political benefit? I’m not sure which is worse.

I’m angry and there is no outlet for it. Where do you turn, nearly 4000 kilometres from Canberra, to express your disgust? We can only turn to one another – and we have been doing that for years, to no avail.

All around me people have become tired of caring – I’m guilty of it too. Today’s repeal re-energises my anger, but what good is talking about it to the people around me? I know I should be optimistic that talking about the issue does matter, but I, like most of us, exist in an echo chamber and our opinions don’t change the mind of anyone who matters. All around me people are saying how awful the repeal is – yet nonetheless it goes ahead. Whatever voice we may have had in September last year when we voted is utterly lost.

When I began writing this piece around midday today, I felt gutted and betrayed. Outside my window there was a blue sky and the green branches were waving slightly in a gentle winter’s breeze. Now, the sun has set and with the orange on the horizon there comes a stillness in the air. It is a beautiful sight and feels like the calm before a storm.

Perhaps these years are the calm before the storm.

We will look back one day on the nineties and on the first three decades – maybe four if we’re lucky – of the third millenium and see an idyllic life that we could not bear to disturb for the sake of a liveable future. We will see a time when we had knowledge but did not use it. When whole generations were born and grew up while time passed and not enough was done for their future. A time when we prioritised money and business over the life and environment of the planet.

You might say I am being dramatic. But it is hard not to feel that drama is warranted; that fear is warranted. If so little has been achieved in the last thirty years, what’s to say that anything useful will be achieved in the next thirty? If governments and societies cannot make the change that’s needed now, in the calm before the storm, how will we fare during the storm itself, when things become much tougher than they are now?

In a press conference today, Tony Abbott talked about being part of a ‘conservationist government’; being aware that we only have ‘one planet’. The words don’t roll easily off his tongue – perhaps he’s aware just how offensive they are – a contradiction to the action his government has just taken.

Later, he is back in his native discourse with these words, which roll smoothly: ‘We are certainly not going to do anything that damages our economy or that puts our people and our businesses at an unfair competitive disadvantage.’

If there’s anything unfair here it is that a man instrumental in this repeal – Clive Palmer – owns companies which stand to save several million dollars each year due to the removal of the carbon tax. It is a sign of just how mixed up Australian politics have become.

As Lenore Taylor wrote today in The Guardian, the repeal of the carbon tax today is a ‘complete and catastrophic failure of the political system’. Let us hope that this failure is not replicated around the world and on into the future.

Letter to The Age

Getting with the times

The Catholic Church really needs to get with the times – not to be trendy and ‘relevant’ to younger people, but to play a meaningful part in a better future for both humans and for the environment that sustains us. While it seems like a positive move to ask the opinion of Catholics around the world on various issues, some of the underlying assumptions to the questions are simply irresponsible.

The worst offender is the question, ‘How can an increase in births be promoted?’ (‘Catholics to tackle the hard questions’, 4/11). With the global population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 and the current population of more than 7 billion already wreaking havoc on the environment, the church’s attitude to contraception and birth rates is irresponsible.

Published in The Age on 5 November 2013, available online here. The full questionnaire [PDF 376KB] is available on the website of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.

On fear and climate change

Image credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service

Image credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service

You’re not supposed to want to cry about climate change at work, but that’s how I felt this morning.

We are good at staying divorced from painful but distant realities. We are good at ignoring the hurt that’s happening to someone else if they are nothing like us. We are good at enjoying sunny winter days and not asking why.

Even the phrase ‘climate change’ almost rings hollow these days – we hear it so often, in so many cold and unemotional contexts.

But climate change has many faces, and once in a while there’s a face that pulls at the heartstrings. The article last week on The Guardian gave climate change a face that most of us can’t fail to be moved by. A polar bear found dead, ‘skin and bones’; a 16-year old starved to death, when most members of the species live into their early 20s.

It’s awful and moving. Yes, it’s the cute animal effect, but that doesn’t make the emotion meaningless. It’s a good thing if it draws attention to an issue that will change the environment for a whole range of animals – and plants and entire ecosystems.

The Guardian article and this response by Freya Mathews on The Conversation are powerful reminders of the harm we have done and the hurt we have caused as a species.

I am overwhelmed by this hurt. It is almost ungraspable. It is so big as to avoid definition, so very nearly unstoppable, so hard to see, yet if you look even a little bit closely, it’s so tangible and so close.

This hurt hits me more and more regularly these days, and it’s intensified by the lack of concern shown by the Labor party and the Coalition in the lead-up to an election. That the issue is not attracting some focus during a campaign suggests that enough of us don’t care, or aren’t speaking out about it if we do.

It’s all too easy to feel the emotion, for a while, and then let it pass and slip back into one’s day to day life, worrying instead about work or study pressures or  money or family or what to have for dinner. It’s also hard to see how an individual can make a difference – political machinery seems to roll on without paying any attention to our views, and sometimes not even to our vote.

But we have to keep caring and keep trying to do something about this if we want anything to change. It’s individuals who make up the collective, and it’s the collective that can change the direction of the nation.

So if you vote on one issue this federal election, vote according to who takes climate change seriously and is committed to doing something about it.

I’m scared. We all should be sacred. Everything else pales into insignificance.


Read these:

On The Guardian, ‘Starved polar bear perished due to sea ice melt, says expert’

On The Conversation, ‘Wild animals are starving, and it’s our fault, so should we feed them?’ by Freya Mathews

On The Drum, ‘The election that forgot the environment’ by ABC Environment’s Sara Phillips

Letter to The Age

Arrogance on both sides

Kevin Rudd’s promise, like Tony Abbott’s, that there will be no deals in the case of a hung Parliament makes a mockery of our democracy. Our democracy, largely thanks to the upper house, allows for the presence of alternative views in a political situation where the two major parties differ on very little; it is not for Mr Abbott or Mr Rudd to so arrogantly dismiss views that do not correlate precisely with their own.

Mr Rudd’s motivation appears to be to exorcise the ghost of Julia Gillard. He should grow up, and offer her the respect she deserves. She’s the one that got legislation in place to address the ‘greatest moral challenge of our age’, while he skulked in the background biding his time.

Published in The Age on 16 August 2013. It’s the second letter on this page. And the Leunig cartoon here is very good!

The power of words: Love and Fury

Love and FuryI have just finished watching Love and Fury: Judith Wright and ‘Nugget’ Coombs on ABC. It documents the clandestine relationship between these two intellectual Australians, mainly through their letters, which were released from embargo in 2009.

As The Australian’s article in the Review over the weekend warned, this is a powerful documentary, and I am moved to immediately record my thoughts. The relationship between Wright and Coombs is inspiring – the exchange of ideas led to each of them feeding one another’s passions and work.

Their relationship began the year Gough Whitlam came to power, and through the film clips of his three years in power I was first and foremost touched by the intellectual arguments of the day. There is often a sepia hue to the social movements and the radicals of the past, but Whitlam’s legacy has always been about the power of ideas to make change. Coombs was directly part of this, as a consultant to Whitlam.

There is a clip of Gough Whitlam in 1975 with a handful of red dirt, his hand poised over Vincent Lingiari’s as the soil slips from one hand to the other. There is Whitlam speaking of how all Australians are diminished while Aboriginal people remain dispossed of their land. These moments are part of history, yet Whitlam’s actions and words are powerful, and from across the decades I am moved. Continue reading

The good that was buried by the story of Labor’s non-spill

Last Thursday’s events in Canberra demonstrated three things very clearly. One, the hypocrisy of Opposition rhetoric. Two, the successes of feminism, and three, how far feminism still has to travel.

The hypocrisy is evident in the immediate accusations of ‘bad government’ that predictably flowed from Tony Abbott after the leadership near-spill.

Once again came the accusations of a government who is not doing anything, who is not succeeding, who makes bad decisions. Comments that got plenty of air on Thursday and Friday because of the news value placed on leadership.

But in those comments, Tony Abbott intentionally overshadowed the bipartisanship which saw the House of Representatives accept Senate amendments to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, meaning that it had passed into law earlier that day.

Continue reading

Social media: between friends and strangers

Lately I’ve been pondering the situation that all of us using social media or blogs have faced at some stage – or will inevitably face – that of having one’s ideas challenged. Sometimes the challengers are rude, sometimes not; sometimes they are friends or acquaintances, often not.

For me, the challengers on Twitter are almost always strangers. It’s rarely worrying – if the comments are thoughtful and reasonable, I think about it and respond accordingly. It is, after all, what must one expect if putting one’s ideas into a public forum.

If the comments are rude, I ignore it or make a joke of it. I wish that people would express their disagreements by arguing reasonably against the ideas instead of rudely attacking or dismissing, but otherwise it is no big deal, because these rude people are inevitably strangers.

But recently a post of mine on Facebook attracted a comment from a friend that still makes me angry, two weeks later, every time I think of it.

The post was about the suspension of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. I wrote:

Important Queensland programs going down the tube already – less than two weeks since the election. Unbelievable. Axing the QLD Premier’s Literary Awards will save all of $250,000 out of a budget of billions. Watch the cultural exodus begin again.

A friend, who is also a family connection, responded in a manner that wasn’t rude (and compared to most online commentary, is positively innocent). But it was thoughtless and they didn’t offer an argument to support their viewpoint. The comment read:

What’s so important about an award for literary? 250K, no wonder why they scrapped it. I mean come on.

I wrote a few short lines back pointing out that I’m a writer so maybe that would give some clue as to why I think it’s important. My response was completely measured, and in hindsight I think that’s part of the reason I keep thinking about it: because I really wanted to get angry about it. I wanted to say exactly what I thought about the comment’s lack of respect for me as a writer and for the craft of writing.

I’ve let it lie. After all, the comment was not rude and I probably have no right to feel offended. But the fact that it bothered me so much has got me thinking.

As I increase my social media presence, the lines are blurring between friends and strangers, and between the media directed primarily at strangers – this blog and my Twitter account – and that which is open only to “friends”, or at least to people I know – Facebook.

Where once my political opinions mainly stayed on Twitter, they’re now straying onto Facebook. And so it seems I must face the disagreement of people I actually know – far harder than the angry comments of strangers.

Many of my friends are cut from very different political cloth to myself. Some of my friends question why I associate with others who hold an utterly different viewpoint and whose interests, beliefs and even fashion choices are anathema to them.

So there are bound to be disagreements. Mostly, my friends will argue their point with purpose and logic. They’ll have a reason behind their beliefs and to some extent will recognise what lies behind my contrasting beliefs. But sometimes they don’t, and this is when it gets tough.

If I don’t like it, I guess I could stick to bland status updates and photos of cute animals on my Facebook page.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s likely, and in the end I am happy to argue, debate and discuss. I just hate comments that shut others down or that have no valid reasons behind them.

But it’s vital to be exposed to different views in order to be an engaged citizen of a democracy, and if one of the ways that happens is through my social media friends or by strangers on Twitter, then so be it. But along the way I had better hope for patience, and know when to let things go.

The media ‘sideshow’ and its influence on debate

Earlier this year, Lindsay Tanner, ex-Labor MP for the seat of Melbourne, released Sideshow: Dumbing down democracy. After seventeen years in parliament, Tanner had reached the conclusion that the relationship between politics and the media was becoming increasingly destructive, and that consequences were emerging for the health of Australian democracy.

In America in the 1920s as modern journalism began to take shape, there was a lively debate about the role of journalism in a democracy. What became widely recognised from this time on was that the media has an obligation to serve the public interest, and that profit motives should not be the sole force in determining media behaviour.

As an aspiring journalist, the relevance of this idea in today’s media world is of prime concern to me. Am I entering an industry that is purely market-driven and in which I must obey market forces in order to survive, or do I have responsibilities to the public that outweigh commercial motives?

Tanner states early in Sideshow that ‘the media are an absolutely critical component of our democracy, because genuine democracy requires an informed electorate’ (page 6). Tanner goes on to argue that democracy is being threatened by the destructive relationships between politics and the media. He sees this as being largely due to the increasing orientation of the media towards entertainment and commercial pressures, which leads in turn to a dumbing-down of public debate.

Tanner’s book does not lay sole blame for this process on the media. He argues that most politicians end up buying into the game for the sake of their own political survival. Political survival depends on media coverage, and coverage depends, at least in part, on politicians playing the media game. Tanner himself seemed to keep largely clear of the media ‘sideshow’; by his own argument it is perhaps inevitable that he was not one of the most popularly well-known politicians.

While I feel that politicians do have a case to answer in terms of their own behaviour, many of the reviews of Tanner’s book, such as David Penberthy’s in The Australian, focus heavily on the responsibility of politicians and divert attention away from the role of the media. For an emerging journalist like myself, however, that approach is unhelpful. The relationship between the public and politicians is largely mediated through the media, and thus it is up to me to know and to understand the ways in which my own future behaviour as a journalist may or may not impact upon the nature of political debate.

Many of Tanner’s points are not new, but what Sideshow does so well is to extensively examine how many features of political media coverage actually have an affect on the behaviour and decisions of politicians.

One of these features is the short attention span of media, particularly broadcast media. This manifests in ‘gotcha’ journalism and in the focus on sound grabs. ‘Gotcha’ journalism refers to journalists picking up on a small slip of the tongue or careless inference made by a politician, and turning it into a news story, usually with negative implications. As a result, argues Tanner, politicians end up scripting everything they say in order not to get caught out.

This ties in with the notion of ‘sound grabs’ – it’s a good idea to have something quick and catchy to say to the cameras, to ensure that it gets coverage in the limited space available on TV news. The problem is that sound grabs lead to the rise in slogans – we’re all familiar with ‘moving forward’, ‘stop the boats’, ‘another big tax’. Slogans like this say little about anything – they’re phrases thrown around that leave no room for complex messages and that become meaningless, yet are reported because they are easy to capture in a few seconds of TV coverage.

As Overland editor Jeff Sparrow wrote on The Drum earlier this year:

… a soundbite culture inevitably favours the repetition of accepted wisdom. When politics becomes a matter of fleeting images, quick clips or brief audio grabs, there’s no room for complexity and nuance. Rather than challenging you or forcing you to think, soundbites tell you what you already know.

This doesn’t mean that complex issues aren’t being discussed and worked through behind closed doors. The thing is, it’s hard to know – the short attention span of the broadcast media means that issues often fall out of the spotlight very quickly, and so it’s hard for the public to tell if something is actually being done about the matter or not. According to Tanner, one of the key rules governing the ‘practise of Australian politics’ is to look like you’re doing something. And so we end up with short-term fixes and ‘announceables’ – tidbits announced by politicians to keep the media and public happy.

Far more destructive than these examples is the media’s tendency towards negativity and to playing on the fears of the audience, both of which Tanner identifies. According to the Centre for Policy Development, fear ‘has become a central feature of both media reporting and contemporary politics in Australia’. Nowhere is the impact of these tendencies so visible as in the debate over asylum seekers in Australia – specifically, asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

The issue of irregular maritime arrivals, commonly described as ‘boat people’, has been heavily politicised in Australia, particularly since the incident of the Tampa in 2001. It is a juicy issue for the media – full of potential as a politically divisive and partisan issue, and an emotive issue with the potential to instil fear in the audience.

The coverage of ‘boat people’ in the media and the response of politicians is out of proportion with reality. Tanner points to an April 2010 headline in the Herald Sun, ‘Someone has to stop this invasion’, as an example of media exaggeration. He states on page 52:

Media distortion of perceived threats can sometimes have far more sinister effects than simply wasting public money … Here, as elsewhere, the flavour of media reporting heavily influences perceptions of basic facts, such as the number or nature of boat people.

Mainstream news outlets rarely remind their audiences that Australia’s total refugee intake in 2010 was 13,750 people – just 0.06% of Australia’s population – a figure that should serve to put debate over ‘boat people’ into context.

But is it really the media’s fault if asylum seekers are a hot button issue? Or if news bulletins are awash with three word slogans and footage of politicians in hard hats?

The former head of news for the Associated Press’s World Services, George Krimsky, has this to say about the role of the press in a free-market economy:

There is nothing in the American constitution that says the press must be responsible and accountable… in a free-market democracy, the people ultimately decide as to how their press should act.

Krimsky blows the idea of media responsibility out of the water with this quote, suggesting that the burden of responsibility is on the people – through the free market – to consume media that IS accurate and accountable. In other words, if we, the consumers of Australian media, want depth of coverage, then we need to choose the media that offers this.

It turns into a chicken-and-egg scenario: is the media sensationalist and driven by entertainment value because that’s what people want, or are people forced to consume it because there is nothing else available to them?

In spite of Krimsky’s harsh words about the role of the press in a free-market democracy, he concludes the same article by saying that if truth doesn’t remain a motivating force for the mass media, then ‘neither free journalism nor true democracy has much hope’.

From my point of view, there’s a responsibility at each level to ensure that politics isn’t dumbed-down and to ensure that the media is responsible and accurate. Politicians have a role to play in this, as they have a responsibility to communicate with their constituents in a manner that allows for rigorous debate on the issues. The public similarly have a responsibility to ask for, and take part in, this debate. And the media has a role to play in helping to create an environment in which this debate can take place.

Journalists are both consumers and producers of media, and therein lies a doubly weighty responsibility in upholding the quality of public debate.

Letter to The Australian

I would like to point out a problem with Brendan O’Neill’s argument (“Silence of the Illiberal Lambs”, 5/10). He refers to students who burned copies of a newspaper containing a sexist cartoon as “highly intolerant individuals”. But what about the cartoon that these students protest against? If it was indeed a sexist cartoon, then it is guilty of intolerance towards women.

Similarly, Andrew Bolt’s unwillingness to consider views that differ from his own indicates that he, too, is an “intolerant individual”.

Given that patriarchial Western society denied women and displaced Indigenous people any voice on the public stage for hundreds of years, it seems ironic that O’Neill should denounce these groups for merely seeking fair, correct representation in today’s media.

Published in The Australian on 7 October 2011. It’s the second letter on this page.

Navigating the disconnect between Manne and The Australian

Between academic Robert Manne and our esteemed national broadsheet The Australian, a battle is – or was – underway. It began three weeks ago when an extract from Manne’s Quarterly Essay appeared in The Age, followed by the publication’s release shortly afterwards. Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation argues that The Australian is no longer a paper that reports accurately and comments on current events, but that has ‘turned itself into a player in national politics’.

The Australian brought out the big guns in response, with 8000 words of criticism on Manne’s essay – and on the man himself – in just one issue of the paper. The Australian has since decided that there endeth the debate, as upstart’s Matt Smith noted following the absence of the paper’s representative at the Wheeler Centre debate last week. Perhaps The Australian has realised their folly in giving so much attention to Manne’s ‘silly essay’, as editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell described it.

With the word length of a novella at his disposal in Bad News, Manne takes a different approach to the issue than many commentators who are restricted to shorter forms of commentary. He methodically investigates several of The Australian’s coverage areas in order to support an argument of media bias that to some seems quite obvious, but that to The Australian is an accusation quite without merit. It is refreshing to see the various coverage issues dissected carefully and supported with relevant examples, instead of being skimmed over as shorter pieces often necessitate.

While the slanging match died down sooner than I expected, each side has scored their major punches and given an air of ‘my word against yours’ to the battle. Few readers have the time to trawl back through years of broadsheets, as Manne has done, to see whose argument is supported by evidence in the form of The Australian’s coverage of particular issues. But what one can do is read both sides of the argument with a healthy critical eye.

Of course, as readers and critics we bring our own perspective to the debate, one that can cloud the manner of criticism we offer. Let me outline the angle from which I approach this particular issue.

I grew up in Perth, where the local daily is the The West Australian, a tabloid format paper owned by Seven West Media and usually considered to have conservative leanings. Unlike many of my peers who were raised in Melbourne, The Australian was essential to my media diet throughout my late teens and adult life. While many Melbournites dismiss it and turn immediately to The Age, years of habit and a desire for a national focus mean that as a reader, my broadsheet loyalties still lie with The Australian.

My upbringing in what some easterners might see as the backwater of Perth has not stopped me from being able to engage critically with what I read. The Australian’s manner of depicting certain issues has rankled with me for some time.

This feeling came to a head during the 17-day period following the 2010 federal election, when The Australian consistently depicted the figures of the hung parliament in a way that favoured the Coalition. The most obviously misleading example of this was the inclusion in Coalition figures of Western Australian National Party MP Tony Crook, in spite of his explicit statement that the Coalition could not necessarily count on his support. Meanwhile, the seat held by Greens MP Adam Bandt was listed separately, in spite of Bandt having already indicated his support for a Labor government. With control of the parliament hinging on a few independents who were expected to make up their minds in a high pressure environment, this none-too-subtle shaping of the facts and prodding of public opinion was dishonest.

While Manne’s Quarterly Essay pursues issues that have been troubling me for some time, this does not mean that I embrace his arguments uncritically. In the section of the Quarterly Essay that considers the paper’s coverage of climate change, I was able to consider Manne’s argument in the light of my own experience as a reader. It is a topic that I have followed closely over the last few years.

On the other hand, I felt that Manne’s argument about Larissa Behrendt over an injudicious tweet was not developed convincingly, and that a great deal of his writing could have been clearer. I was also aware that I was not in a position to judge those criticisms of The Australian that relate to earlier this century, due to the fact that I was younger and less politically engaged at the time. For example, I take Manne’s argument over the Iraq war with a grain of salt, as I am aware that my own knowledge of the issue is insufficient to allow me to be appropriately critical. This exercise in critical thinking is essential to navigating the conflicting arguments of Manne and The Australian.

This brings me to the discourse of left-wing versus right-wing that is so dominant in political commentary. The constant labelling of public figures as one or the other implies a lack of critical thinking and unquestioning loyalty to a particular, limiting, ideological perspective. A large part of The Australian’s criticism of Manne is that he has swung from the right to the left, as though his loyalties miraculously shifted from one ‘side’ to the other. Manne’s apparent swing can be construed quite differently if this absurdly limiting spectrum is taken out of the picture: rather, his views can be seen to have evolved with time and experience, accompanied by a rare willingness to own and acknowledge this shift.

The Australian openly adopts a particular ideological point of view when it comes to political, social and economic issues. The problem is that the paper’s columnists often seem to neglect critical thinking – that essential tool which allows one to change one’s opinion as an issue evolves – preferring instead to delightedly adopt any piece of evidence that dovetails nicely with their predetermined ideas about how the world should work.

The reaction from The Australian’s commentators to Bad News is polarising, implying that one is either with Manne and against The Australian, or vice versa. The paper’s editor, Chris Mitchell, attributes ‘Green values’ to Manne, and since The Australian has in the past openly argued in support of the destruction of the Greens at the ballot box, one assumes that Manne’s ideas must be similarly destroyed.

This attitude is utterly unhelpful. The world does not split neatly into, on the one hand, Greens, leftists, latte-sipping inner city elites and humanities academics, and on the other, rational, hard-working, ‘real-world’ Australians. There is a complex range of views in our society, a range which the paper says it gives voice to in its op-ed pages even as its own rhetoric of left versus right continually denies this complexity.

On some issues, The Australian is capable of representing a variety of views. On others, such as on its own role in Australian political debate, the paper seems quite unwilling to engage critically or productively. Both Paul Kelly and Chris Mitchell have labelled Manne’s criticism as attack. This is another rhetorical bad habit, found on both ‘sides’ of the issue. There is a vast difference between critique and attack, and to blur the boundaries between the two does a disservice to public debate.

But of course, businesses and politicians are both adverse to considering their faults publicly. It seems ironic that we ask primary school students to self-evaluate, yet The Australian is unable to publicly do the same.

As I have said, I am a loyal reader of the paper. But in spite of this I do not trust much of what I read in its pages, both news and opinion, aware that there are often holes in the paper’s coverage or commentary. This makes me uncomfortable. Yes, debate is and should be uncomfortable, but not because our only national, general-interest broadsheet appears to be pushing its own point of view, with a frequent disregard for journalistic principles.

A shorter version of this piece also appears on upstart, and is available here.