The Politics    Friday, April 28, 2017

This. Was. Not. News.

By Sean Kelly

This. Was. Not. News.
The vapid idiocy of our public debate must end

I have this mild daydream that occasionally overtakes me. I’d go further than that – it’s a belief, though I acknowledge there’s a fair bit of wishing within it. It’s that one day, in the not too distant future, a politician will come along who will go out of their way to put things in perspective.

This is a recurring fantasy of anyone who pays any attention to politics, so old that it’s been appropriated by politicians themselves – almost 20 years ago now John McCain ran for the job of American president while taking a bus around the country so that he could travel in ordinary style, talking to ordinary people. That bus was called the Straight Talk Express.

Since then political debate has become rabid, social media has been birthed, rhetoric has risen to unhinged levels. This might seem like reason to despair, to give up on my daydream, but I have the opposite, optimistic view. People have long been eager to move beyond the slick politics of the past two decades, and they will soon be impatient to move beyond the ragged politics of the past few years. Trump was one manifestation of that wish, but he’s not the only possible model. If authority and trust are in short supply, their value goes up. It’s only a matter of time until a skilled politician responds to that political incentive.

The reason this is on my mind is because all week this Yassmin Abdel-Magied circus has been rolling onwards and all week I’ve been avoiding writing about it, for the simple reason that I cannot imagine anything more boring or less important than yet another social media controversy.

In case you’re missing what this was about, earlier this week Abdel-Magied, an ABC presenter who holds various public roles, posted something on Facebook about Anzac Day. It read: “LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine …).” That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

This was enough to make her front-page news for disrespecting the Diggers.

So, yes, the right came out and smashed her for this. And those who did are mostly absurd hypocrites when it comes to free speech. And – this point is more important – it’s no coincidence that the other target of outrage this week, only this time over completely fake news, was another Muslim woman, Labor MP Dr Anne Aly, who was attacked for not laying a wreath at an Anzac dawn service because … wait for it … she was at another Anzac dawn service, laying a wreath.

And now we’re wrapped up in debates about free speech and whether Anzac Day is a legitimate subject of debate and the glorification of war and a million other things.

But it shouldn’t have got that far. We’re talking about a Facebook post. By someone millions of Australians would not have heard of. In which she didn’t actually mention soldiers. It’s not like Sunrise decided to devote an entire morning to dissing Diggers. Daryl Somers didn’t turn up to the dawn service and drop his daks. This. Was. Not. News.

Where the hell are the gatekeepers? Why should anyone keep buying newspapers if this is what they think is important? Why should anyone vote for mainstream politicians (hint: they’re not) if they won’t come out and say “this really doesn’t matter”. Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop should have stomped on the idea that Abdel-Magied would lose her part-time job on the Council for Australian-Arab Relations.

But of course this bland stupidity is everywhere in politics.

Scott Morrison announced changes to the budget this week (about the way debt is accounted for) that on substance are potentially very useful. There’s a debate to be had, but certainly the government is thinking in new and interesting ways about how to finance infrastructure, how to improve productivity, how we might conduct a public discussion about such matters. Tick tick tick.

But why did Morrison have to go further and dumb everything down into the economics-for-toddlers categories of “good debt” and “bad debt”? For one of the first times since he got the job, Morrison had the chance to sound like he was on top of his portfolio. His credit card analogies were clear. And then he went and made it sound like he was a guest presenter on Play School. And it wasn’t just his language that brought the tone down, it was the sleazy desperation to wring political benefit out of every last thing possible. Why else is the government intent on labelling every department with its overall contribution to debt, as though departments didn’t have entirely different jobs with entirely different aims? Good infrastructure department! Bad health department! 

And then the prime minister got himself in trouble with similar eagerness to oversimplify. When it was put to him on radio yesterday that his gas plan might not make gas cheaper, he immediately leapt to correct his interviewer: “Oh, no, it will be cheaper than the prices that are being offered now. People are being offered prices of $20 a gigajoule. It should be around half that or less.” That’s the transcript from the PM’s website, by the way.

“Oh, no, it will be cheaper.” Not “if this works”, or “we certainly hope it will be”. Just a blunt assertion, presumably because he couldn’t bear the idea that having made a spectacular intervention in the gas market – a very good one – he wouldn’t get the political windfall of voters believing prices would come down. He fixed it up later in the day, and again today, but by then he’d been pinned for exaggeration by Bill Shorten, and looked like [$] he was having to “admit” something and “back down”.

None of this is new this week. This vapid rhetorical idiocy, the pretence that unimportant things are important and the public aren’t capable of understanding nuance, has been slowly embedding itself in our culture for a long time. It’s not unique to Australia, there are many forces that have led us here, and nobody is entirely to blame. But there are people who have more power than most to put a stop to it: those who create the news by speaking – politicians – and those who choose the news we read and see. You would have thought that in this age when traditional politicians and traditional media are under threat this would be more of a concern. Look down on the public long enough, and they will end up looking down on you.

In other news


‘Loving’ directed by Jeff Nichols

A return to stark and powerful simplicity

Harry Windsor

“It’s a story with all the makings of an Oscar bell-ringer, but Loving (in national release) failed to make a dent in this year’s derby. That’s a testament to the film’s director, Jeff Nichols, whose refusal to adorn his tale with scenes of barnstorming indignation nicely honours his less-than-prolix leads. Played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga without a trace of actorly condescension, the Lovings are undemonstrative to a fault, except with each other.”    READ ON


In light of recent events

The “mostly men stuff” that should be “men and women stuff” according to Oslo’s daughters

Oslo Davis

“Watching women in daggy footy shorts run around during the inaugural season of the AFL women’s league required very little getting used to. In just a few months it’s become so normal that I’m embarrassed to explain to my daughters, aged 8 and 11, why the league hasn’t been around since, like, forever.”  READ ON


For a rights-based response to asylum seekers

Australia must work towards a medium-term solution

Klaus Neumann, Anne McNevin, Antje Missbach, Damir Mitric and Savitri Taylor

“The current government’s claim that turn-backs are a success depends on the measure of success. Turn-backs may be a technical success in terms of ensuring that very few boats arrive in Australia – and this is the success that Manne insists we should acknowledge. But the policy remains a failure since it does not address the problem of refugee protection that confronts us in our region.”  READ ON


Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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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