02 March 2011

Lateralist Musings - Respect and Reason in Political Debate

There's an article on the ABC's website today which notes Tony Windsor's growing concern over the increasingly vitriolic tone being adopted in Australian political debates. The article quoted a particularly worrisome death threat Windsor had recently received.

I share his concerns. Increasingly in Australia, people seem unable to - to coin an old sporting adage - play the ball, rather than the man. I'm really not sure why we are doing this, but it's a very disturbing trend which does not bode well for any aspect of our society at all.

It's easy, especially for a Labor supporter, to lay the blame at the feet of Tony Abbott. Abbott does seem to revel in his version of a political scrap, and seems determined to oppose virtually every initiative raised by the current Government. If I believed for a single moment that an Abbott Government would be completely and utterly different to the Gillard one, this this approach might have at least some merit, in substance, if not style.

But I doubt anyone really believes this. We have, and have had for some time, two essentially centrist parties. So, from where does all the rhetoric spring? The bile thrown around in observation or comment on matters political has descended to the kind one might expect at a football game, where misdirected passion deliberately eschews all reason and objectivity in favour of virtually tribal bias. It's not really that healthy at the footy, but as the increasingly preferred tone for national or political debate, it's worse than useless. In fact it's much, much worse than useless; it's corrosively harmful.

I think Abbot is as much symptom as he is cause, really. There is an increasingly hostile tone creeping into Australia's general discourse. One only has to read any media website that enables comments to see just how much reason has given way to reaction. Given that many people who post comments probably wouldn't actually voice these comments to those about whom they complain, I can only deduce that the internet has offered a sufficiently anonymous location from which people feel safe to vent their spleens with relative safety. It's not debate; it's not even boxing; it's lobbing molotov cocktails through windows, and then running away.

Talkback radio has been offering a comparatively inefficient forum for such trash talk for decades. But even this basal media backwater has managed to lower its sub-terrestrial tone. I was simply appalled by how Allan Jones spoke to our Prime Minister last week. His "Ju-Liar" (I don't believe he meant Jew-Liar) insult ought not be considered acceptable. I wish to goodness Tony Abbott had taken him to task over it, as I believe our leaders - regardless of their views - are deserved of some respect. I also think that this treamment of Gillard has its roots in a deeply masked sexism; as I simply cannot believe Jones would have dared speak that way to Kevin Rudd, John Howard, or Paul Keating.

The mention of Keating might prompt a few readers to protest that my singling out of Abbott ignores Keating's reputation for political barbs. I certainly concede this point; Keating did much to lower the tone of political debate in Australia. But he also managed to raise it: it's one thing to call someone "all tip and no iceberg", but if that same person can also deliver a speech as timely, eloquent and powerful as his famed Redfern Speech of 1993, then you perhaps get a little more leeway than those who simply hector and harangue.

Politics has always been a rough and tumble game, but when the rough and tumble becomes the game, it is the electorate which loses. We are, as a nation, a dismal distance from having a rational debate about the implications for putting a price on carbon. (Or for that matter, a great many other issues.) I think the fight is going to get uglier and uglier, largely because Abbott has given Gillard little choice but to fight him toe to toe. If she doesn't take Abbott on, she'll simply be steamrolled. If she does take him on; it'll be a fight, rather than a debate. No one wins, no matter which political leader is left standing at the end of it.

For any who think that the left of politics is as bad as the right on this, think about this question. Where is the Left's equivalent of Alan Jones? Where's the left-wing lunatic who spends his (or her) days whipping up anti-fascist bile? They won't be found, because they don't exist. The right tries hard to pretend that the Greens are actually this mythical enemy, but even the most cursory glance at their policies suggests such accusations are all smoke and no fire.

For what it's worth, I believe that a carbon tax is necessary. It is also, at its core, a sound idea, both economically and environmentally. The market doesn't like changing direction, but a tax will certainly dis-incentivise pollution. If the money raised offsets pain for general consumers and also subsidises clean energy research and development, then it's doing what's needed in my book. Even climate sceptics must surely concede that reducing pollution is good, no matter what one's position on man-made global warming, and that our actions will likely make it easier for other countries to act.

But if we keep asking stupid questions, will only get irrelevant answers. Will prices go up? Yes, probably a little. But if current prices are contingent on environmental damage, you'd hardly call them right or fair, would you? A degree of long term thinking is surely required for long-term planning.

To be honest, I can't quite make my mind up about Tony Abbott. He's either prepared to use whatever tactics he can to win office, or he genuinely has extremely different views from the Government. I can't help but think that it's the former, and that this is the more dangerous of the two possibilities. I can live with someone in power whose views don't reflect mine, but I'd hope to God than in my efforts to remove them from office, I'd remember to respect myself, and my nation. I'm not sure Abbott is doing either.

Gillard is right when she notes that Abbott should really contribute constructively to the debate, or just stop blindly attacking everyone and everything that the Government is trying to do. The problem is, no one is listening. If Abbott really has managed to poison the minds of a large enough number of his supporters, then this really is going to be an ugly, ugly fight to the death, because logic just isn't going to cut it.

I hope Gillard wins, but if the cost is to our national identity, then I'm not sure it's worth it. With any luck, too much bile will turn our stomachs, and we'll crave something better. But in an age of push polls and internet comment warfare, I don't think that's going to happen. But until it does, we will continue to get the political climate we deserve.