We are in peril of Pauline

Stone the crows! People are taking political pot shots at Tony Windsor over his role in the carbon reduction policy debate; some even talk of upping the ante with ammunition.[i]

Violent threats against MPs are unacceptable affronts to democracy – who gets to decide that their opinion is so important that it should be imposed on anybody else? But there seem to be a lot of them about.

The assumption that extreme language and threats have turned politics into a sewer of abuse is now the norm in the United States. And even though there was no apparently political motive in the attempted murder of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in January, her state’s university has responded to the shooting by establishing a new national body jointly chaired by Bill Clinton and George W Bush, “to promote civility in political discourse.” [ii]

George Bush says the controversy surrounding his election in 2000 meant he was always going to be abused and anger directed at John Howard drowned out policy debate here. [iii] The risk we face is the same is about to occur over controlling carbon.

Tony Windsor, as explained by Peter Hartcher, warns attacks on politicians over policy are the work of radio shock jocks,“the volunteer sergeant-majors in the ‘people’s revolt’ summonsed by the commanding general, Tony Abbott.” [iv]

Barrie Cassidy claims this is a case of incitement by the ignorant, “the role of the ‘shock jocks’ can be insidious in the US. In Australia so many of them are just hopelessly uninformed”. [v]

But the Crows blame individual’s grasp of specific issues less than human nature – that and the internet which give ranters the chance to spread venom which once reached no further than kitchen table or public bar. People express themselves on-line in ways which they would not dare do in person, out of simple respect for others, or for fear of being thumped.

To date online abuse has not escalated into physical violence in the US – if there was the Tea Party and the public sector unions would be slugging it out in the streets (they appear to have come close in Madison, Wisconsin last month) and Fox and CNN commentators would be fighting duels live on cable TV.

The Crows are also confident that we will not see intemperate arguments on the radio and online leading to riots against the Gillard Government’s climate change policy.

Because, all the anger has less to do with a carbon tax and an ETS to follow, than people feeling they are being ignored. Does anybody angry with Tony Windsor over a carbon tax really care all that much about the policy detail? The Crows guess not and think that what is really upsetting them is that they sense they are being sneered at by the policy smarties. Basically because they are.

We have been here before. Judith Brett described the difference between Australians who embraced the progressive policy agenda and conservatives at the height of Howard hating as the difference between cosmopolitans and locals. Cosmopolitans “have the social skills and attitudes that enable them to move among people of different cultures with confidence and purpose’’, while locals “learn their skills and knowledge in the university of life through hard knocks, practical experience and submission to authority.”[vi]

And she dismissed conservative opinion makers and the people who listen to them.

There are right wing commentators aplenty on the ‘op ed’ pages of the newspapers and in journals of opinion, but they are eccentric, trading on exaggerated personalities and maverick opinions, rather than representatives of more generally held views of an identifiable section of the people.[vii]

As a way of dismissing conservative this is hard to beat, it is the sort of sneering that brought recruits to Pauline Hanson’s standard, people whose concerns about land rights and boat people, however irrational, were not politely rebutted on the facts. And if this happens again over climate change we will have the same sort of intellectual class war.

People listen to shock jock when no one else will address their fears. To dismiss everybody who wonders whether we can afford a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme as fools not worthy of being answered is one sure way to make the debate angrier than it need be.

John Howard understood this when selling the GST, which Labor opportunistically assured everybody was going to be the ruin of us all.  He and Peter Costello plugged away at explaining it during an election they lost on the popular vote and enduring anger on talkback radio for months as the tax was bedded down.

It is the same with taxing and trading carbon. The way to win the argument is to answer questions, address fears and above all avoid sneering at people who are not as policy literate as members of the climate change clerisy consider themselves to be.

Mr. Cassidy demonstrated how not to bring people who feel ignored into the debate when he dismissed radio announcers and their audiences who are worked up over climate policy this week, “while they essentially preach to the converted, they do make angry people even angrier. So often, they encourage a sense of entitlement; that it has never been harder to scratch out a living; and that governments are to blame.” [viii]

If there is one sure way to create a new Hansonism this is it. The way to stop it happening is to follow the Howard-Costello GST strategy and keep explaining until everybody understands the emissions strategy and it succeeds or fails on its merits. Policies only work when a majority of voters accept them.



[i] Tim Leslie, “Windsor calls for calm after death threats,” ABC News, March 2 @ www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/03/02/3152798.htm

[ii][ii] Associated Press, “University of Arizona starts national civility institute,” NPR, February 21 @www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?.storyId=133942250

[iii] George W Bush, Decision Points (Virgin Books, 2010) 107

[iv] Peter Hartcher, “Dial up death threats do not deter as shock jocks maintain the Coalition’s rage” Sydney Morning Herald, March 3

[v] Barrie Cassidy, “The PM who kicked the coalition’s nest,” ABC, The Drum, March 3 @ www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/03/02/3153373.htm

[vi] Judith Brett, Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

[vii] Brett, op cit 207

[viii] Cassidy, ibid