”Hang on, woah woah woah woah!”
If you believe Paul Sheehan we can thank Alan Jones for the demise of Malcolm Turnbull and the derailment of the CPRS.
Every time a Liberal backbencher is asked why he or she withdrew their support for Ian MacFarlane’s deal, the answer is the same — ‘my office has received literally thousands of emails and faxes from our electors, demanding that we stop this ETS’. The Senator or Honourable Member goes on to deny vehemently that the correspondence consisted of form letters, or betrayed any other signs of an organised campaign.
But it was always hard to believe these thousands of letters were spontaneous, and Jones is a plausible culprit. Sheehan doesn’t explicitly say that Jones exhorted listeners to write to their MPs, but he clearly implies it. Nor does he explain why parliamentarians outside of New South Wales received floods of correspondence — assuming they did, though I’m not sure about that, since I’ve been hearing mostly NSW backbenchers, on ABC Sydney local radio.
In any case, if it’s true that Jones inspired the letter campaign, it raises two issues. One is the ability of radio ranters like him to exert influence vastly out of proportion to their knowledge and wisdom. This influence corrupts the democratic process: ideally, citizens take information from a range of sources (including the superior blogs) in the market for ideas, and weigh them up, rather than adopt fully formed opinions from one shrill source. It’s not just that these broadcasters are propaganda tools for vested interests; the type of individual whose opininated ravings rate highly also tends to be motivated by quite arbitrary personal prejudices and preoccupations.
In Jones’s case a relevant foible is that he can’t happen to stand anyone who refuses to be sycophantic. He is vindictiveness itself when not shown due deference. It was astounding to see Turnbull stand up to him in the interview last month (read Sheehan for some highlights), and I confess to having lazily thought to myself, it’s nice to see a federal leader refusing to be cowed by this demagogue. What I’d forgotten is that they grovel for a good reason, and in the last week we may have seen the chickens coming home to roost. Now, it’s possible that Jones helped destroy Turnbull at the behest wealthy and powerful interests, but — and this is my point — it may just have been because Turnbull got under his skin. And that isn’t a healthy basis for determining the course of climate policy.
The second issue is whether in this case the tactic will backfire, in terms of the Liberals’ long term electoral prospects. As Peter Hartcher puts it, the Party has
made a fundamental choice to stop campaigning for the centre ground in Australian politics, to move to the right… the Liberal Party has decided that it’s more important to cater to its base than to the mainstream of Australian public opinion… Once the Government sees this result, sees that the Liberal Party has chosen an unpopular leader, campaigning on an unpopular issue, it may find the temptation to call an early double dissolution election overwhelming.
According to a Ray Morgan research cited by Clive Hamilton, Liberal voters are over-represented in Jones’s audience by a factor of two. It’s therefore likely that it was rusted-on Liberal voters whose letters persuaded their local members to ditch Turnbull and his ETS compromise. In appeasing them, they may be driving the swinging voters away and putting their seats at greater risk. The weekend by-elections should give us an indication.
In any case the implication is that Jones’s persuasive power has more to do with undermining consensus and polarising opinion than with determining policy outcomes by converting fresh minds to his point of view.