Barry Jones
The shadow of a very bad year

The vicious circle of modern politics.
The vicious circle of modern politics.
Credit: Barry Jones

The year just ending is the worst I can recall for more than half a century. Already there are strong indications the next will be worse.

It has been the hottest year on record since global meteorological systems were established in 1873. The power of “fossil capitalism” is undiminished, with the prospect that climate change will be irreversible, exacerbating drought, floods, cyclones, melting of glaciers, breaking up of Antarctic ice sheets and sea level rises.

Increasingly brutal wars between Russia and Ukraine, and Israel and Hamas, and massive conflicts in Africa and border wars in South America are destructive not only to lives and property but to all human values and the whole concept of rational problem-solving. Indeed, they are an affront to rationality itself.

Politics itself is a war zone. No prisoners are taken and the winner takes all.

The more existential the crisis, the more trivial and toxic the response.

In the years 1989 to 1995 there were solid grounds for optimism about the world: the fall of the Berlin Wall; the end of the Cold War; Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost in the former Soviet Union; a revival of democracy in Eastern Europe and South America; some opening up in China, Tiananmen Square notwithstanding; the end of apartheid in South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s election as president; the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, giving some hope for a permanent settlement of historic grievances until Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish extremist. In the same period, historic treaties were signed or extended on action to repair the hole in the ozone layer, there was a moratorium on mining in Antarctica, and the indefinite extension of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The same year as that latter treaty – 1995 – the first Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP1) was held in Berlin.

That era seems very remote.

Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, social planners at the University of California, Berkeley, coined the term “wicked problem” to describe messy, circular or aggressive problems, in contrast to relatively simple or tame examples in, say, mathematics, engineering or chess. They argued “wicked problems have incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements; and solutions to them are often difficult to recognize as such because of complex interdependencies. While attempting to solve a wicked problem, the solution of one of its aspects may reveal or create another, even more complex, problem.”

Climate change and the Israel–Hamas war are obvious examples. Both have displaced millions of people, a phenomenon sometimes called “transhumance”, fuelling the refugee crisis that has become a white-hot issue in domestic politics throughout the world. The Israel–Hamas war has already killed more civilians in seven weeks than Russia’s war against Ukraine has in 21 months. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are increasing exponentially.

Donald Trump’s political genius was made for these times. He is a useful symbol of the state of the world. He promises the capacity to turn back the clock – to appeal to people who feel marginalised by modernity, science, universalism, racial equality and affirmative action, and who resent being condescended to by educated people.

In the 2016 presidential election campaign, Hillary Clinton came under fire for having, as United States secretary of state, occasionally used a non-secure email provider. She came under savage attack by Trump in their televised debates and at his public rallies. “Lock her up!” he shouted. No presumption of innocence there. His cry was taken up by his followers and he kept repeating “Crooked Hillary!”

The FBI decided there was no case for prosecuting Clinton, but the mere accusation was damaging, perhaps decisive.

In the preliminaries to the 2024 presidential election, Trump has already been charged with 91 felony counts. There have already been adverse judicial findings against him in cases involving fraud. Some of his close associates have pleaded guilty and been jailed.

Instead of destroying Trump’s political viability, however, each charge appears to strengthen his grip on the Republican nomination.

In the 2020 election, Joe Biden led Trump by seven million in the aggregate vote, but in the electoral college, which decides the outcome, less than a mere 45,000 votes in three swing states would have given Trump a narrow victory.

To appreciate the mood that led to this, it is worth noting the highly respected Pew Research Center report, released in September, found 65 per cent of Americans were always or often exhausted by thinking about politics. A full 55 per cent were driven to anger by it. While 10 per cent had frequent flashes of hope on the topic, only 4 per cent were “regularly excited”.

Polling also indicated most Americans believed current unemployment was at a historic high. The latest figure (3.9 per cent) confirms unemployment is lower now than it was under Trump and before Covid-19. However, politically, belief is more important than evidence, and fear or anger is much more potent than hope or optimism. Social media, targeted at the vulnerable, is a perfect vector for misinformation and disinformation.

Harvesting fear and rage, and identifying an enemy, has worked in the US. It may succeed in Australia, too – and that seems to be the Peter Dutton master plan.

Our politics used to be collegiate. No longer. Menzies liked and trusted Curtin, Chifley and Calwell, but not Evatt. Gorton and Whitlam had some common interests. In fact, I recall writing Gorton’s speech for a parliamentary debate about the arts while Phillip Adams wrote Whitlam’s. After leaving office, Whitlam and Fraser worked together on some issues and found they shared some enemies. They both launched two of my books. Malcolm Turnbull, not a tribal person, had many friends in the Labor Party. Division has now taken over from these old customs.

The hysteria generated about the release of 148 asylum seekers from indefinite detention following the decision of the High Court in NZYQ v Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs & Anor has been unequalled. The panicked overreaction, the complete lack of proportionality, does little credit to government and none to the opposition. It is politics at its worst.

The policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers was introduced by the Keating government in 1994. It became harsher under Howard, who introduced offshore processing, and worse still under Abbott and Morrison.

The World Population Review, which ranks the intake of refugees and asylum seekers, found this year the overwhelming majority went to neighbouring countries: Türkiye, Jordan, Uganda, Colombia, Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Some millions have travelled much farther – to Iran, Germany, the US, Italy, France. More fortunate refugees, with passports and money, arrive by aircraft and are rarely locked up. A very small minority risk their lives in long journeys by sea, and these people, who have lost virtually everything, are characterised as criminals. Both major parties compete in the harshness of their language and the punishments they have devised.

The number of refugees arriving in many countries amounts to millions. In Australia, after a spike of 6600 in 2013, in the decade 2014-23  1309 “boat people” landed, most receiving bridging visas. The turnback figure was 1082.

Al-Kateb v Godwin (2004), which upheld the right of government to order indefinite detention, had only been decided by a 4-3 majority in the High Court, with powerful dissents written by then Chief Justice Murray Gleeson and justices William Gummow and Michael Kirby. In 2023, it was overruled 7-0.

I was puzzled when the minister for home affairs, Clare O’Neil, said she had been advised that the Commonwealth was “likely to win the case”. Seriously?

With a completely new set of justices in 2023, it was reckless to assume Al-Kateb was untouchable. The High Court decided stateless refugees could only be sentenced to imprisonment or detention by a judge after a trial, instead of being confined by administrative order, signed by a public servant after a brief glance at a file.

In the referendum on the Voice, held in October this year, the opposition was insistent, even hysterical, in claiming that the Commonwealth Constitution must not be changed. Yet when the High Court of Australia ruled a month later to insist on the separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive, as provided for in the Constitution, the opposition was hysterical about that too.

Can they really have it both ways?

Of the 148 detainees released, at least five will be referred to state courts. As a threat to Australian families, how does this compare to our level of domestic violence, where Australia ranks No. 8 among G20 nations?

There are troubling inconsistencies in Australia, an outstanding success story in so many ways and a wonderful place to live.

The number of prosecutions for Aboriginal deaths in custody is a national shame, as are the deaths themselves. There have been no high-profile prosecutions following revelations in the Hayne royal commission on banking, and none on robodebt, or following the PwC revelations.

It is more dangerous to be a whistleblower than a malefactor. Australia ranks No. 1 in the world for secrecy provisions with 875 – very ambitious, as we don’t have much to conceal. We are No. 1 in the harshness of our treatment of stateless refugees, much envied by Trump. We are No. 1 in gambling and the influence of lobbyists. Our schools are among the most segregated in the OECD. We are notorious for the systematic cruelty and neglect in our prisons, police stations and aged-care facilities.

Yet we must not give up. We must be active public citizens. At the age of 91, I live in the spirit of Samuel Beckett’s words in The Unnamable: “It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don’t know. I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know. You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "The shadow of a very bad year".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription