This piece is inspired by Paul Frijters’ post titled The Benefits of Being Dumb in Politics. I don’t actually think it is possible meaningfully/reliably to distinguish between politicians who are “really smart and great actors as well, who thus have no problems with telling outright lies and with backstabbing” and those autistic egomaniacs who “are sincere because they truly do not see the inconsistencies and selfishness in their own actions and those of others”.
11. KP: In fact political discourse (and indeed human discourse in general) is a complex, interwoven continuum of truth, lies and self-deception. I suspect that the most common mix in the political arena is that the politician calculatedly oversimplifies her own position and skates over its deficiencies, while equally deliberately demonising and exaggerating the shortcomings of her opponent. Nevertheless, she fundamentally and sincerely believes (rightly or wrongly) that her own position is markedly superior to that of her opponent. She accepts that effective communication with a mass audience of largely disengaged voters inhibits the conveying of nuance and complexity. [↩]Paul’s own attempted assignment of various particular politicians to each category appears to me to be at best arbitrary. How could one possibly reliably distinguish between the two categories without being able to read the politician’s mind? After three hours of interviews with Kerry O’Brien I still can’t really tell where Paul Keating is engaging in calculated bullshit and where he is deluding himself.
Nevertheless, the musings of both Pauls give rise to some important points. Not even the most intelligent and well-educated of us is as reliably reflective, analytical and rational as we like to imagine. All of us unavoidably make frequent use of heuristics in decision-making; all of us frequently exhibit cognitive phenomena like confirmation bias; and all of us mostly make moral judgements by a process that clinical psychologist Jonathan Haidt christened social intuitionism.
Moreover, there is cogent evidence that Paul Frijters’ somewhat uncharitable labelling of autistic egomaniac politicians actually identifies a widespread and perhaps even universal cognitive phenomenon, certainly one that is not confined to politicians. As far as I know, the phenomenon was first labelled as a politico-literary trope by George Orwell in
Animal Farm 1984. He called it doublethink:
As conversational topics go, productivity is hardly a barbecue stopper. Nevertheless, adopting policies that boost national productivity is really the only way for Australia to avoid a slide into national penury as our population ages and the Chinese mineral boom ends.
That’s why I was interested in an article on the subject by Peter van Onselen in The Australian a few days ago. Van Onselen raises numerous interesting points. However, I was rather puzzled by his concluding suggestion that there are grounds for optimism about the new Coalition government’s productivity reform prospects, unless it succumbs to “timidity” in which case “Abbott’s government will only be the lesser of evils” (presumably by comparison with Labor).
The most immediately obvious policy reform areas that could contribute to enhanced productivity are education and training; public infrastructure investment (especially road, rail, port and telecommunications); taxation policy; and workplace regulation.
On education and training, even van Onselen concedes that the Howard government’s record was fairly inglorious and that the early signs for the Abbott government are no more promising.
I don’t often agree with Greg Sheridan, and I certainly don’t agree with the whole of his article on asylum seeker policy in today’s Weekend Australian. But he certainly says a lot that is worth thinking about and makes numerous points similar to things that I’ve been saying for years in my Troppo posts on this subject.
Of course you have to ignore Sheridan’s tedious trademark Tory rhetoric and gratuitous smears against the Right’s bête noire Julian Burnside. Moreover, you also need to be able to overlook Sheridan’s own studious overlooking of Tony Abbott’s extraordinary post-election volte-face compared with just about everything he said about asylum seekers as Opposition Leader only a few weeks ago. Sheridan’s stablemate Peter van Onselen highlights that aspect of the emerging Abbott Prime Ministerial style in today’s Oz.
Nevertheless, Sheridan’s perspective is quite a bit more perceptive than most of the nonsense currently being written by mainstream media pundits. He especially highlights, albeit perhaps not strongly enough, the extent to which the goodwill and active efforts of Indonesia have always been centrally important to any successful attempt at regulating irregular asylum seeker arrivals. That was the central reason why the Howard government’s “turn back the boats”/Pacific Solution was successful, partly because Presidents Sukarnoputri and Yudhoyono were particularly anxious to curry favour with the West in the wake of September 11 but partly also because both of them developed positive personal relationships with John Howard despite (or perhaps because of) his handling of issues surrounding East Timor’s independence following the 1999 act of self-determination. Few (including this writer) imagined that Abbott could readily emulate Howard’s success, but early indications are that he may well be in the process of doing so.
As Sheridan points out, the Rudd/Gillard government’s relationship with the Indonesian government has been far from universally positive, most prominently because of its mishandling of the live cattle export issue but also because of its confusing and inconsistent approach to the asylum seeker issue itself. Clearly the Indonesians were uncomfortable about Abbott’s inflammatory domestic “turn back the boats” rhetoric, but the assumption that this made them natural allies of Rudd/Gillard has turned out to be seriously misguided. The Indonesians are almost as unhappy as most Australians about the tens of thousands of asylum seekers flooding into their territory and waiting months or years to jump on a boat to the Lucky Country It clearly hasn’t escaped their attention that the increase in those arrivals is at least in large measure a result of Labor’s mishandling of the issue.
In any event, rather than paraphrasing Sheridan’s article I think I’ll just reproduce it over the fold and hope Rupert doesn’t get too angry:
Kevin Rudd got elected in 2007 by convincing people that he was a slightly younger and more vigorous version of nerdy John Howard, with similar conservative policies except that he would abolish that nasty Work Choices legislation and introduce some fairly meaningless warm and fuzzy window-dressing like apologising to the Stolen Generations and ratifying the Kyoto Protocol.
Tony Abbott just got elected by similarly convincing people that he was merely a more disciplined, authoritative version of Rudd/Gillard with very similar conservative policies and a handful of meaningless but macho slogans like stop the boats, stop the waste and build the roads of the 21st century. 11. KP: which actually seems to mean spending pretty much the same amount as Labor on infrastructure but diverting it from railways to roads so we can move the traffic jams a couple of kilometres further up the road. [↩]
It now emerges that the rather more practically significant macho slogan that Tony failed to mention was “stop the Westies from going to uni“. Good job too! Manifestly the only way to restore flagging academic standards is to reserve university places for all those thoroughly decent chaps and chapettes from Shore, Riverview, MLC and Scotch College, while relegating the Westies to their ordained social place in TAFE- certified occupations, burger-flipping and waiting in dole queues. Ill-considered resentment on the part of the lumpen proletariat is to be avoided through early implementation of time-honoured tactics of mass distraction like firing up the Culture Wars and History Wars to get them hating arty- farty and intellectual “elites” instead of their real enemies.
Meanwhile, the vanquished Australian Labor Party is busily experimenting with pseudo-democracy by staging a rank-and-file ballot for parliamentary leadership between two almost equally shop-soiled union/factional heavyweights. I think I might go out and buy one of those Aussie Pride T-shirts and find a quiet pub in which to reflect on my good fortune.
To an even greater extent than previous election campaigns, this one seems to consist almost entirely of lies and grossly misleading mischaracterisations of opponents’ policies and performance. Kevin Rudd’s claim of a $70 billion Coalition black hole, his claim that Abbott has a secret plan to increase the GST, Abbott’s long-standing claim of Labor debt and deficit (when in fact our debt is quite low by OECD standards and our economy one of the strongest in the world), and so it goes on. Rudd’s attempt a couple of days ago to justify his ridiculous Northern Territory Special Economic Zone policy by asserting that Territorians are doing it tough and don’t have a level playing field, when in fact almost the opposite is the case, is a relatively minor but amusing example of the political porky phenomenon.
Former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes wrote an interesting article on Fairfax yesterday in which he drew attention to the relatively new phenomenon of “fact check” organisations (mostly associated with mainstream media groups) dedicated to uncovering and analysing political lies and distortions. Of course, Holmes’ former TV vehicle Media Watch, and another ABC program Gruen Nation, have also fulfilled that function to some extent over a considerable period of time. But PolitiFact (associated with Channel 7), ABC FactCheck and a similar service now run by the G8 universities’ site The Conversation, have a specialist focus on uncovering and analysing political lies. They certainly have their hands full during the current campaign.
This is a welcome development, at least if you accept that the truth might be a useful thing to know when exercising our democratic choice at election time. Nevertheless, as Holmes points out:
Troppo readers who have followed my meanderings about asylum seeker policy over the years will realise that I have some fairly basic differences with the Greens on that issue 11. KP: although not on the fundamental fact that many if not most of them need our compassion and support – it’s a matter of how best to deliver it and that’s where I think the Greens are both naive and self-indulgent. [↩].
However, I am utterly repulsed by Tory media pundits like Andrew Bolt and Ben Fordham who advance the proposition that Labor and the Greens should be blamed for the one thousand or more asylum seekers who have drowned at sea over the last few years trying to reach Australia. An interview by Fordham yesterday with Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is a particularly odious example of the genre:
Tension mounted after Mr Fordham asked if Ms Hanson-Young took responsibility for the deaths that have occurred at sea since the Rudd Government dismantled John Howard’s immigration policies. …
“You supported a policy which has led to 50,000 people arriving here ever since and 1000 plus people drowning to the bottom of the ocean and dying,” Mr Fordham said. “They’re not on the earth anymore.”
In reality, asylum seekers have full agency in their own decisions. They are making difficult choices in situations that are sometimes close to impossible. If Australian laws are effectively changed in the ways that Rudd and Abbott are promising, all that will happen is that most asylum seekers will turn their attentions to other first world country targets that now look like a better bet. Moreover, irregular entry to many of those countries is also dangerous. Lots of asylum seekers drown while trying to get from North Africa to Italy or Spain, even more while trying to get from Cuba or South America to the United States, and some even suffocate while being smuggled overland into Europe in shipping containers.
Government authorities are not responsible per se for asylum seeker deaths any more than police are responsible for the actions of murderers and rapists just because they don’t stop all of them.
Kevin Rudd’s announcement yesterday of a Special Economic Zone in the Northern Territory surely comes very close to the silliest election promise of the last decade, matched only by Tony Abbott’s almost identical promise a couple of months ago.
The only positive aspect of either policy is that as far as one can tell neither Rudd nor Abbott is actually serious. They are merely producing shiny but worthless policy baubles in the hope that they might impress a few gullible voters in the highly marginal seat of Solomon.
The problem is that both of them are not only insulting the intelligence of Territorians but our memories as well. They must think we have a collective dose of Alzheimer’s Disease. They certainly wouldn’t have tried it 15 years ago, maybe not even a decade ago, because back then there were still too many Territorians with quite fresh memories of the financial fiasco that had occurred last time a “free trade zone” was tried as a magic bullet solution to the Territory’s chronic underdevelopment.
In Part I of this article I outlined the major shortcomings of the Refugees Convention and traced the ways it was contributing to the current influx of boat-borne asylum seekers to Australia and the ongoing political controversy that has engendered.
11. KP: I am not suggesting that Australia should “subvert” the Convention in any morally repugnant way. For a start, we should boost our offshore humanitarian intake to 25,000 per year. At the moment it is effectively zero because the entire quota is being taken up by self-selecting “boat people”. And we should devote the billions of dollars currently spent on processing and incarcerating “boat people” on improving the conditions in offshore refugee camps in Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan. This would do far more genuine good than our present policies, and no-one could reasonably accuse Australia of failing to shoulder its fair share of the international refugee burden. [↩] I argued that the Convention should be radically overhauled or abandoned, but also suggested that in the absence of international will to overhaul it Australia might be better advised in effect to subvert the Convention by implementing policies like the current Papua New Guinea Solution rather than incur the inevitable international opprobrium that would flow from formally renouncing the Convention. However, I also suggested that adopting a cynical policy like the Papua New Guinea Solution could not be morally justified if the practical reality was that Australia could easily absorb the current numbers of boat-borne arrivals without significant social or economic tensions. In Part II, I explore whether this is actually the case.
The ground work for an analysis of that question was done by the then Chairman of the Australian Multicultural Foundation Sir James Gobbo in a 1995 paper which inter alia attacked the anti-multiculturalism arguments of (unjustly?) notorious historian Geoffrey Blainey:
Liberal Catholic priest and legal academic Father Frank Brennan thinks Australia’s current asylum seeker policies, which are effectively bipartisan despite the electorally-driven sound and fury, exhibit a disturbing “race to the bottom” tendency.
Sydney Morning Herald columnist Sam de Brito at least recognises that the politicians’ cynical responses are driven by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Australians are deeply hostile to irregular boat-borne asylum seekers. He opines that maybe this would not be so if they actually met these asylum seekers and heard their stories. The problem for his theory is that the people most opposed to irregular asylum seekers are those living in western Sydney and Melbourne where the asylum seekers themselves live, whereas the ABC viewers and Fairfax readers who instinctively agree with Father Brennan mostly live in leafy suburbs in which asylum seekers couldn’t afford to rent a garden shed.
Meanwhile, Murdoch’s token left-leaning columnist Phillip Adams opines that Australia’s asylum seeker policies are really a paler shade of the old White Australia policy and aimed at “brown people”. He sees the comfortable entry into Australia of white South Africans in the post-apartheid era as proof that our asylum seeker policies are really aimed at the dusky and yellow races. However, the wealthy South Africans mostly got into Australia under our racially neutral business migration policies, which are now even more heavily utilised by wealthy Asian business people.
The fact is that the racist trope is just a lazy rhetorical device for people who can’t be bothered carefully analysing a difficult, complex and ever-changing phenomenon.