Friday, September 8, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Simple is as simple does
Politicians might finally be realising that voters don’t mind nuance


One of the most remarked-upon developments in politics recently has been the shift away from neoliberalism. (Don’t worry. I know you’ve read that article before, this bit won’t take long.) The definition of neoliberalism is sometimes fuzzy; some of you will know it better by that old buzzphrase “economic rationalism”. In essence, we’re talking about the belief that the market will sort things out and the rest of us should get out of the way.

Voters don’t seem to accept that argument anymore and so, as is the way of these things, governments are coming to accept it too. Thus, we’ve seen the conservative Turnbull government intervene in the gas market, move to the left on health and schools policy, and talk, at various times, about building or buying coal-fired power stations. Turnbull continues to make the case for company tax cuts, but the ones to really big businesses have been downplayed right from the start, recognised as the electoral liability they are. Labor, meanwhile, has moved in a similar direction – i.e. to the left – but from a slightly different starting point: hence the cries of “Socialists! Socialists!” from Mathias Cormann et al.

OK, neoliberalism lecture over. My point is a simpler and broader one: we are seeing a repositioning of the centre. It is dramatically changing politics. And economics is just one part of this.

Not only are we seeing the centre shift, I would further argue that, across a range of areas, we are seeing a move away from absolutism. Sometimes this is happening to conservatives and sometimes to progressives.

Take the past week’s debate around Liddell power station, which is really about a bunch of other things: climate change, the future of coal and blackouts.

The way to understand the shift is actually to look at the past ten years. Over that period, the ALP and the Coalition have mostly been about as far from each other as you could imagine. Labor, for much of that time, was focused on energy policy largely as it related to climate change. There were concessions to business and to family budgets, and certainly there were many attempts to deploy economic arguments around making a smooth transition to a low-carbon economy, but the fundamental tone was set early by Kevin Rudd’s declaration of the “greatest moral challenge”. This focus on climate change, and the obligation to generations to come, never quite faded. On the other hand you had the Coalition, much of which remained unconvinced that climate change was even a real thing, with a dogmatic belief in the everlasting nature of fossil fuels.

The changes in the two parties have been underway for some time, but this week provided a clear showcase. As Laura Tingle pointed out on Thursday [$], the fuss around Liddell has allowed the prime minister to execute a neat political move. He sounds pro-coal, thereby satisfying many in his party because he’s talking about keeping Liddell open for a while, but he is in fact only promoting coal in the short term. In the long term, he wants to see the shift to renewables continue apace.

Labor, too, has been shifting its balance. Immediately after the announcement of the Finkel review of energy policy, climate spokesperson Mark Butler rubbished any possibility of a clean energy target that could incorporate new coal-fired power stations. But, in recent weeks, Butler’s language changed, to saying that new stations won’t be built anyway so there’s no harm in including them. Bill Shorten this week had a list of four things he wants done on energy, which began with renewables but ended with developing “a strategic reserve to get us through the shortages predicted this summer”, which sounded a lot like a way of saying “we get that coal has to be part of the mix for now”.

In other words, both parties have decided that voters want a mix of renewables and coal. Politicians feel they can’t afford to be seen as uncaring about the climate, but also that voters want a certain pragmatism – given the possibility of blackouts – which right now includes not giving up on coal altogether. Where the carbon debate was once about climate (for Labor) and family budgets (for the Coalition), both parties are now talking about it in terms of energy security and jobs as well as climate and cash.

If you want more evidence of this move towards consensus, look no further than the Greens spotting an opening in the political market, and moving to fill it.

(By the way, one of the interesting things in the energy policy debate is that despite widespread recognition that Tony Abbott’s repeal of carbon pricing is responsible for much of the current chaos, this is a point Labor rarely makes, presumably because it would be too much like defending a carbon tax.)

We’ve seen similar moves in the area of asylum seekers. Think of last year’s open letter from elders Frank Brennan, Tim Costello, John Menadue and Robert Manne, in which they advocated “a morally and legally imperfect alternative, which has at least some possibility of success”, namely a continuation of boat turnbacks while closing down the offshore camps. Remember that Labor adopted a policy of turnbacks at its 2015 conference. And remember, too, that – admittedly accompanied by gratuitous acts of cruelty – the government has been working on its US deal to empty the camps. At some point, the major parties decided that the turnbacks were here to stay and that the ongoing warehousing of refugees in island hellholes was either morally or politically untenable. The two sides have moved towards each other.

There are shifts elsewhere, in the influences we see on politics. In keeping with the reaction against neoliberalism, the power of business over public policy has been waning. Consider how remarkable this transformation is, given industry’s ferocious attack on the mining tax was just seven years ago. Or reflect upon both parties refusing to blindly accede to the dictates of the Catholic Church: the Coalition in schools policy, Labor on same-sex marriage.

It’s important to say that centrism is not always a good thing. Absolutism can sometimes be the right approach – for example, on questions of equal rights. Whether the trends outlined above, away from fixed positions on one end of the ideological spectrum, are good things is questionable.

But there is at least one green shoot buried in there.

The past decade or so has seen many politicians – Abbott only the most obvious example – resort to simpler and simpler descriptions of the world, in an attempt to cut through the noise of the media cycle and the complexities of the problems being dealt with.

But what if voters know the world isn’t simple, and are increasingly sick of being told it is? What if they are open to politicians willing to talk to them, broadly, plainly and honestly, about the many dimensions of both the present and the future? What if they want politicians not just to talk like that, but to govern like that, abandoning the zero-sum approach in which every policy is seen only in terms of its potential as a political win or loss?

That would be an excellent thing.

In other news

• Energy: Laura Tingle on a changing energy debate [$]. Michelle Grattan on the politics of power. Ben Eltham on the Coalition’s terrible legacy. A debate breaks out [$] over Shorten’s attacks on privatisation, and continues [$]. David Crowe on the problem with reviews [$]. Fall in electricity emissions cancelled out by other rises.

• Marriage equality: A good wrap of the start of the same-sex marriage campaign [$]. David Marr on the Australian culture of delay, and what must happen now. The gradual growth in support for same-sex marriage. Labor and the Greens push for protections ahead of the poll. Katharine Murphy on what it all means for Turnbull. Doctors are at war with each other [$] over the vote. A physical clash [$] between Yes and No campaigners. A short and beautiful piece of writing about the plebiscite.

• If you’d like to read more on neoliberalism, Bernard Keane [$] has been very good on this for a long time.

• Jeff Kennett says Barnaby Joyce fails the pub test [$].

• Tony Birch on Aboriginal heroes


Pet politics in ‘Rat Film’ and ‘The Challenge’

From rats in Baltimore to competitive falconry in Qatar, two documentaries at the Melbourne International Film Festival explored the idea of animal as status symbol

Keva York

“Ancarani favours lengthy fixed shots and bold compositions, capturing the expanse and radiance of the Qatari desert. Anthony’s Baltimore, by contrast, is all cluttered interiors and dingy interstitial spaces: the formal spareness of The Challenge counters Rat Film’s maximalist collage. However, despite their differences, a sense of ceremony prevails in both films. The subjects in each sequence perform for – if not to – the camera, enacting a kind of pet politics.” READ ON


Last man standing

‘PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ is one of the most popular shooter games – and one of the most unusual

John Bailey

“It is both summation and refutation of one of the most popular and problematic game genres. Where most shooters are geared towards aggression, blood lust and a knowledge of firearm models, Battlegrounds rewards cowardice, avoidance, immobility and blind panic. This is a game in which not playing is the safest choice.” READ ON

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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