It’s just two sleeps until Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, addresses the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies in Perth. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will open the conference today.
The Australian media invariably latches on to controversial individuals visiting from overseas – left and right, foreign-born and expatriate. This reflects the fact that Australia has a large and competitive media along with a relatively small population. Visitors enhance the opinion pool, for a while at least, and controversial ones tend to get covered in the print and electronic media.
Monckton, who is perhaps best labelled as sceptical or agnostic to the idea that global warming is generated by humans, received wide-scale coverage when he visited Australia in February last year. Commercial radio and television, along with the tabloid press, tended to report him seriously. However, he was ridiculed on some ABC programs and in parts of the broadsheet press.
For example, The Age ran a story that Abbott would talk to the visiting hereditary peer under the heading “‘Mad Monk’ Meets Monckton”. This was accompanied by a large colour photo of Monckton’s face from forehead to nose only, replete with protruding eyes. He suffers from Graves’ disease. It is impossible to imagine journalists mocking a sufferer of breast or prostate cancer in such a way.
Monckton, a mathematician, understands that one sure way to get coverage in the media is to ham it up and, on occasions, throw the switch to hyperbole. Last week news reached Australia that, in a recent speech in the US, Monckton had accused the Australian economist Ross Garnaut of exhibiting “a fascist point of view” with respect to climate change policy and commented: “Heil Hitler – on we go.”
Monckton’s trivial and ahistorical exaggeration was met by predictable – and justified – criticism. It makes no sense to compare Western democracies with the excesses of fascist totalitarian regimes – or indeed communist dictatorships of the Lenin/Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot varieties. Monckton has seen the error of his ways. On Channel Ten’s Bolt Report on Sunday, he apologised for having made the point he was trying to make in “such a catastrophically stupid and offensive way”.
Monckton’s original comment was reported in depth on Lateline. Last Wednesday Tony Jones interviewed Professor Ian Chubb, who in April was appointed as Australia’s chief scientist. Asked about the Monckton outburst, Chubb spoke out against the use of “emotive language” and declared that “calling people names . . . ought not to be acceptable in a flourishing democracy like Australia”.
Fair enough, provided the reprimand is universal. In the lead-up to the 2007 election, Chubb was vice-chancellor of the Australian National University. On November 19, 2007, The Canberra Times ran an article by Dr Bruce Kent – then an ANU visiting fellow – in which he alleged that there were similarities between some of John Howard’s policies and those of the Third Reich. In particular, he linked Howard with such mass murderers as Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels.
Kent’s analysis was so exaggerated that he even saw aspects of the Nazi regime in the Coalition’s policy on – wait for it – the Murray-Darling Basin. There is no evidence that Chubb – or any of his colleagues at the ANU – distanced themselves from Kent’s rave in their local newspaper.
Similar double standards prevail today. Monckton is rightly bagged for linking Garnaut with Hitler. Yet there was virtually no outcry when Mark Dreyfus, one of the better performers in the Gillard government, wrote an article in March where he accused Abbott of “Goebbellian cynicism”. In a calm moment, Dreyfus well understands that Goebbels’s evil was not located in cynicism but rather in his advocacy for genocide.
In his Lateline appearance, Chubb targeted the likes of Monckton. However, when interviewed by Chris Uhlmann on 7.30 in April, he commented that “we lost a bit of civility in the debate from time to time” and appeared to blame all participants for such an occurrence. If this is what Chubb was trying to say, he has a point. Take Garnaut, for example. He is a paid part-time consultant to the Labor government. No problem here. However, traditionally, it was accepted that individuals on the government payroll – whether in a full-time or part-time capacity – would moderate their language in the public debate.
This is not a stance adopted by Garnaut. He addressed the National Press Club in May in his capacity as head of the Garnaut Climate Change Review. In this talk he accused “parts of big business” of having taken the “role of spoiler” in the climate change debate and implied that those who declined to embrace his views were neither informed nor thoughtful. Garnaut also suggested that his critics believe that Australia is a “pissant country” and then accused his opponents of “shouting ignorant slogans”.
Such an outburst is emphatically not consistent with a call for moderation in language. It was more of the same when Garnaut was interviewed by Deborah Cameron on ABC Radio 702 last week. The presenter introduced her guest as “Australia’s leading economist” and suggested that unnamed economists who disagreed with Garnaut had “sold their souls” and become “handmaidens to climate science deniers”. This was followed by the leading question: “Do more economists need to get out and actually be honest?”
In response, Garnaut said that there was a tendency for economists “to tailor the analysis to what their client wants”. In other words, Garnaut was suggesting that economists employed by business cannot be taken at face value. But, apparently, economists who are engaged as consultants by governments are completely credible. I asked both Cameron and ABC management why Garnaut’s role as a paid consultant to the Gillard government was not mentioned during the interview. There was no reply.
Of course Garnaut says what he believes. However, so do most of his critics. Of course Monckton was irresponsible to link Garnaut with Hitler. But so were those who linked Howard with the Third Reich. Any cooling of the political debate will require contributions from all parties.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.