Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Visionary Leadership, Part 2

The problem of lack of vision is expressed well in The Drum, which makes the point that there is the impression that ‘there is no difference between the major parties’. This, the author contends, is not true. I agree. There is plenty of difference between the major parties, but given that they both have no vision beyond ‘do whatever it takes to get elected’, it’s hard to tell the difference without examining individual policies; ones that inevitably fail to draw a consistent picture of the aims and intentions of the party, neither of which has a terribly good record of fulfilling its electoral promises. (I have no doubt that Abbott’s insistence that ‘WorkChoices is dead’ convinced exactly zero people.)

In addition to the points made in The Drum, I’d like to re-iterate a point from my last post: that a guiding vision shows people how issues that do not directly affect them are still in their interests.

Take, for example, gay marriage. This is a somewhat sticky issue, one which both sides of politics ended up on the wrong side of so as not to offend social conservatives. In trying not to be offensive to the right, however, Labor managed to be offensive to the left. It proved that they were simply pragmatists. Why? Because gay marriage isn’t just about the rights of gays to get married. It’s an issue of social justice and equality, about equal access to the mechanisms of society for all. If the right of homosexuals to marry the partners of their choosing is sacrificed on the altar of political expedience, what is next?

There’s a phrase from American political history: if the least popular speech is not free, then no speech is free. The idea is the same here. If one minority group can have their rights summarily removed, then anyone can. And thus a driving vision of social equality shows voters how issues that do not directly affect them are nonetheless fundamental to the shared goal of creating a society that is worth living in. By abandoning this goal (or at least, abandoning the pretence that such a goal was theirs), Labor probably ended up alienating more of its base than they gained in social conservatives. Through this issue, the left-most of the two major parties took an uncomfortable lurch to the right.

Similarly, climate change isn’t just about the earth getting warmer. The debate at the moment is about the role of science in policy-making. Specifically, in this case, politicians feel that they can debate the science and tell the scientists that they are wrong. It’s awfully convenient to be able to point to the handful of sceptical scientists and say: “I believe them.” This is, however, a fig leaf – a way of justifying one’s own biases by picking and choosing experts. At best, it’s evidence of ignorance of the fundamental way that science works. That is, by debate – there will always be debate in scientific circles. No law or theory will ever be immune to criticism or attempts to disprove it. If it were, then science would cease to function. Political critics of global warming take the greatest strength of science and try to turn it into a weakness.

So what is the answer? The very same thing that has served governments well for decades: to trust the science and decide policy based on that. Simply put, parliament house or, (sorry to disappoint you, Gillard) Citizens’ Assemblies are not where science will be decided. That battle has been fought and won in the harshest debate ground possible: peer-reviewed academic literature. It is over, the consensus is in. It’s now the job of politicians to decide what to do about it. They may choose to take the science and choose to do nothing. I believe that would be a wrong choice, but it is within the rights of a government. Scientists, after all, do not run the government, they inform it. However, to take the best scientific advice available and tell them: “No, this is wrong,” is to deny the importance of science itself. It opens up doors: if we can challenge global warming science on the political or community level, what about evolution? This is no idle question: the tendrils of the Creationism/Intelligent Design movement from the United States are worming their way into the Australian political consciousness. Without a consistent stand on the value of science in policy, expect to see politicians saying that schools should ‘teach the controversy’.

Show me a Citizens’ Assembly that is dedicated not to debating global warming science but instead to generating informed discussion about it – to increase knowledge about the science and find ways of communicating the science accurately – and I’ll support it. That’s how you get the community behind acting on the science: communication and education. The science is convincing, you just need to make sure that people actually hear it instead of merely propaganda.

A third example area is immigration. This is quite depressing as well; both parties are treating this as an issue about no more than border security and population. We see debates about the ‘pacific solution’ without any broader discussion of the issue from a global or human perspective. We have a human rights issue discussed as an administrative exercise.

Of those people coming over, how many of them genuinely needed to flee, and flee faster than the official refugee-vetting process allowed? How many faced persecution that would not permit them to wait in the ‘queue’? How desperate was their situation that they were willing to spend months in cramped conditions aboard leaky boats? I must say, I don’t know the answer to these questions. The media hasn’t been talking about it, because the politicians haven’t been talking about it. Instead, we see them referred to not as refugees or asylum-seekers but as ‘boat people’, put down as ‘queue-jumpers’ and with sideways references to the terrible criminal or even (gasp) terrorist threat they bring. Is it any wonder that people are concerned about border security, given the coverage of the issue?

The sole concession to the human face of asylum-seekers is the moaning over the children in detention. Children, after all, are not responsible for their actions. This merely reinforces the idea that the adults are responsible for theirs; that they have done something wrong that means they deserve to be kept in detention. The hand-wringing over children is needed, but it should not be restricted to the children.

Gillard tried to defend those concerned about border security, saying that it need not be based in racism or xenophobia; that it may simply indicate a genuine concern about security. Banal statements are often true; but in this case, the banality conceals the necessarily banal corollary: that people concerned about refugees as a border security issue necessarily see refugees as threats to that security. Why is this, given how small the number of asylum-seekers really is? Gillard’s statement answers nothing, it merely begs the question.

On this issue there is no discussion. There is no debate; informed societal debate is absent from the political sphere, exiled to the realms of student politics. (And who really pays attention to them, anyway?) Labor has given in to the Liberal party, treating this as a serious issue of security – and thus each new boat arrival is a blow to their credibility – instead of talking about the accurate statistics and putting a human face on all the refugees, not just the children.

On all these issues, Labor surrendered the moral and political high ground to the Coalition. In doing so, it followed the demands of political pragmatism. However, did it actually work out? While policy details differed markedly between the parties in many key areas, Labor failed to motivate its base. The number of informal votes saw a sharp increase in this election, a clear indication that people weren’t happy with any of the choices. What’s very telling is that the swing away from Labor to the Greens was larger than the swing away from Labor to the Coalition. Labor moved to the right and its base adjusted accordingly. Meanwhile, the Greens are attacked as a party that is ‘all principles, no pragmatism’.

My contention is that in the area of political vision, principle is pragmatism. Without that principle, the ‘light on the hill’, voters are left without a clear distinction between the parties. People are always more motivated to vote for a party that stands for something more than its own election; merely being ‘better than the other guy’ fails to inspire. Abandoning principles for pragmatism is a false economy. It is a siren-song, drawing parties off-course and dashing their electoral hopes. The voters ask: “Why should I want you in power?” the reply comes, from both major parties: “Because I will put more money in your pocket.” What if, instead, the answer came: “Because I will create a more fair and just society. Because I will fight inequality and base my policies in facts, not scares. Because with you, I will create an Australia that you will be proud to call home.” Who would you vote for?

I hope that Labor can learn from its mistakes. Its history in this area is not cause for too much hope. If it can see where it went wrong and return to its base instead of wooing after the social conservatives; if it can lead through example and enlightenment instead of chasing after the gutter politics... then perhaps it can win back its clear majority. Perhaps then it will deserve to.


  1. To draw a somewhat sloppy analogy to the deniers of climate change or evolution: Holocaust deniers.

    There's a tiny but noisy minority (aren't they all) who continue to claim the Holocaust never happened. They're idiots, but as a free speech supporter I wouldn't take away their right to make even this stupid claim.

    But that doesn't mean we have to give them a platform. Should we "teach the controversy" in schools? Huh? Should we?

  2. There is one point the 'teach the controversy' people make that is right, and that's that kids can deal with complex ideas. If we taught kids that yes, scientists usually end up disagreeing on things, and that there is always debate on EVERY topic, then it wouldn't surprise them quite so easily when they find out that debate exists.

    In other words, yes, we should 'teach the controversy' -- we should teach that controversy exists, why it exists, and why thigns like climate denial, holocaust denial and evolution denial are false. =)