Books

Barry Jones
What Is To Be Done

The climate crisis demands urgent action. Our democracy, with its “oligarchic” major parties – “shelf companies” with “small, ageing memberships” that serve as little more than “executive-placement agencies” – and an “infantile” standard of political debate, is ailing. Barry Jones, 88 years old, an official National Living Treasure, former long-term Science minister and one-time Labor stalwart, is here to help. He has diagnosed the illness and come up with an idea or two for the cure, suggestions that could also address endemic racism, political corruption and economic malaise.

But first, Jones has a few things to get off his chest. He knows a lot, typically knew it before anyone else, and has done so from a young age: “From early childhood I had a stark vision of how technical change could enlarge human capacity or threaten it …” He expressed this vision in his best-selling 1982 book Sleepers, Wake! Tragically, the dullish clods who were his Labor peers in the 1980s didn’t perceive how important and prescient his ideas were. This was partly because they were so wedded to the manufacturing unions that they dared not embrace his vision for a post-industrial society. Still, if they didn’t appreciate him, there were plenty of others who did: among others, Bill Gates, the OECD and Deng Xiaoping, whose daughters told Jones his vision had influenced their father’s thinking.

Jones plays all the brass instruments in his own horn section. He has to, because he has so often been misunderstood, even mocked, such as when he came up with the “complexity diagram” for then opposition leader Kim Beazley’s “Knowledge Nation” agenda. The diagram featured circled phrases such as “infrastructure”, “welfare” and “ ‘Third Age’ lifelong learning” connected by such a dense web of lines that Coalition politicians derided it as “spaghetti and meatballs” for a “Noodle Nation”. Everyone made fun of it, writes Jones, but no one wanted to discuss what it was saying. Maybe, he reflects, he shouldn’t have insisted on using the archaic word “cadastre” in making the case for evidence-based decision-making. But some things are just complex and there’s no point in pretending otherwise.

At this point we’re about 30 pages in. I’m thinking, Please hurry: the glaciers are melting. But we still have a lot to get through, including (not necessarily in this order) a survey of the Enlightenment, an exposition on democracy and its crises, Australian talkback radio (and Jones’s pioneering contribution to it), abacuses and looms, and the advent of the Digital Age, complete with brief disquisitions on Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Wikipedia. Regarding the last, he admits it is “disconcerting” when he is consulting Wikipedia and finds himself “listed as the authority”. The text abounds in references, epigraphs and quotations, as well as a magisterial abundance of classic Pick a Box-style point-scorers, such as the year zirconium was discovered (1789) and the weight of the Durham ox (1300 kilograms). If any male reader of normal intelligence and reasonable knowledge of the world is curious what it feels like for women to have things mansplained to them, I commend these sections.

Nearly 200 pages in, following a chapter titled “The Trump Phenomenon” and another surveying climate science, we arrive at the heart of the book, an incisive and cutting analysis of the state of Australian politics. Here, Jones’s sense of history and grasp of detail effectively power his central thesis that the two major parties are failing Australia. The susceptibility of this continent to the impact of climate change – the gravity of which he has understood since 1967 – ought to impel us to world leadership on this issue. Instead, “Australia’s response has been feeble, confused and, at times, corrupt”, and obstructive internationally. Both major parties are, to one extent or another, captive to the fossil fuel lobby. On the subject of climate change, they are either dishonest or uselessly vague in their messaging – Albanese, Jones reminds us, has “never uttered the words, ‘Coal is the problem.’ ”

One solution would be for concerned citizens to join political parties en masse, and force change from within. Short of that, if the two major parties aren’t up to the task, we need another one – hence, the title’s homage to Lenin. Jones and Malcolm Fraser, both disillusioned with their parties, discussed creating a new one before Fraser’s death in 2015. They agreed on everything except the name: Fraser failed to recognise the genius of “Courage Party”. The platform would include constitutional revision to recognise Indigenous rights and create an Australian head of state, the institution of a bill of rights and a federal ICAC, and a funding boost for universities, the ABC and the CSIRO. That all sounds terrifically progressive, but ignores the typical fate of third parties: Democrats, anyone? Regrettably, Jones doesn’t mention citizens’ assemblies, a radical idea for renewing democracy with Australian as well as global proponents.

Jones believes in the transformative power of education and reason – the Enlightenment project. If only people were educated in democracy and history and politically engaged, politicians would be forced to govern on the basis of reason. If only people understood climate science, they’d act on the climate crisis. Yet as Rebecca Huntley, author of How to Talk About Climate Change, has persuasively argued on this issue, a carefully calibrated appeal to emotions is in fact far more effective.

Because Jones emphatically opposes and assiduously calls out examples of racism and misogyny, it feels slightly churlish to note the relative sparsity of people who aren’t white men in his citations. Still, how much sharper his critique of Australian political failures around climate change would have been had he quoted from Carmen Lawrence’s pithy, powerful Fear and Politics, for example. His analysis of Australian history and political stagnation would similarly have been enriched, expanded and updated had he quoted from the likes of Anne Summers, Marcia Langton, Stan Grant or Sarah Maddison, to name a few other authorities on these subjects.

There is still so much to be done.

Linda Jaivin

Scribe, 400pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2020 as "Barry Jones, What Is To Be Done".

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Reviewer: Linda Jaivin