Opinion

Sean Kelly
Pushing the limits of acceptable debate

In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election victory, many people sought to persuade themselves it wasn’t as dramatic a result as it seemed. If only a few thousand votes in a few forgettable states had gone the other way, they posited, Trump wouldn’t be president. And if that were true, perhaps the world was not so different from the way they had thought it was. A drastic reconsideration of assumptions was not necessary.

While the statement about votes was true, it missed the point. What should have shocked was not merely that Donald Trump won an election. It was that an unqualified, ignorant, aggressive, boastful, racist, groping, lying, conspiracy theorist with a pathological defensiveness about the size of his hands got within a thousand cooees of the presidency. Analysing recent voting patterns wasn’t going to get anyone closer to understanding the decades-long destruction of institutions and standards in American public life.

I was reminded of this point during this week’s frenzy over the appearance on a Sky News program of Blair Cottrell, a neo-Nazi who has routinely advocated violence against women, and who would like a portrait of Hitler hung in every classroom.

Sky journalists who condemned the decision to host Cottrell – especially Laura Jayes, who subsequently endured horrific online abuse from Cottrell – deserve praise. Criticising your employer is not easy. And the criticism was well deserved –as many others have said, Sky’s “after dark” programming relies on a stream of right-wing provocateurs invited onto shows hosted by other right-wing provocateurs. It’s pretty clear by now that Sky management regard regular public apologies as part of their job description.

But like Trump’s victory, Cottrell’s appearance cannot be excused by reference to recent events. It wasn’t the dumb mistake of a producer, nor was it unique to Sky. The expansion of what is considered acceptable to broadcast in this country did not begin this week. The middle ground may be where it has always been but the edges have been getting further out for years now. It’s the political equivalent of urban sprawl.

For a start, Cottrell himself has had plenty of publicity before. He has been given the chance to put his views on both Channel Seven and the ABC. The radio cousin of the ABC TV show on which he appeared, Triple J’s Hack, has also put to air an American neo-Nazi.

These examples are not anomalies. Pauline Hanson is not a Nazi, but she is certainly a racist. Even before she was elected to the Senate, Channel Seven’s Sunrise regularly paid Hanson to explain her views to its audience. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in late-2015, Hanson was invited onto both Sunrise and Channel Nine’s Today, where she said, “People of Australia don’t want more Muslim refugees in Australia, who may be ISIS plants”.

If banning an entire ethnic or religious group from entering the country sounds extreme, it is. At least it was, until a fortnight ago, when former prime minister Tony Abbott told 2GB that the big question around the “African gangs problem” was “why do we store up trouble for ourselves by letting in people who are going to be … difficult to integrate?”

There are many reasons for this shift in acceptable programming, including an increasingly competitive media environment, the desire of both media and politicians to cut through a warp-speed media cycle, and the rising tribalism of politics and social media, which require longer explanations of their own. You may also have to look at John Howard’s use of race, as Mike Seccombe did in this paper last week.

But reasons are not excuses. The situation will not change until many different people recognise their role and work to change things.

If race were the only topic on which this sprint to the fringe was occurring, that would be awful enough. Of course, it’s not. A similar, and similarly destructive, trend risks derailing climate policy – again.

At time of writing, a meeting between states and the federal government was planned for Friday, to discuss the design of the national energy guarantee. Next week, government MPs are to get their chance to discuss it. If there is agreement, there will be another phone call with the premiers to formally sign off on the package.

The debate around the NEG is tragic, but it is also comical, as is the NEG itself in many ways. You probably don’t fully understand the NEG, and that’s fine, because almost nobody does. In fact, that’s the way it has been designed.

The main political thing to grasp is that this debate is being driven by the need to appeal to two groups of people who cannot possibly agree. On the right, you have people who don’t believe in climate change, and who want to build new coal power stations. On the left, you have people who deride coal and who believe only a “perfect plan” is good enough. Malcolm Turnbull needs to please the first group. The Victorian premier, and to some extent the Queensland premier, and Bill Shorten are worried about the second group, and its ability to deliver seats to the Greens. This means that Turnbull, who wants an agreement, needs to give Labor just enough cover with that group, too.

So for Turnbull, the NEG is about finding a way of allowing people who disagree to agree while not looking like they’re agreeing. That’s why, for example, the cost of emissions reduction is deliberately obscured, as Bruce Mountain of the Victoria Energy Policy Centre has pointed out. The scheme is ridiculously complex because only a mystery can be all things to all people.

The Labor states spent the week making an increasingly difficult set of demands around the NEG, and trying to delay discussion. It seemed like they didn’t want a deal because it would anger the left. On the other hand, they didn’t want to be blamed for scuttling the deal because that would leave them vulnerable to attack from the right. Because they couldn’t risk looking like they agreed or disagreed they were hoping the government would disagree with itself first, thereby saving them the trouble. They were therefore providing every opportunity for that to happen.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is political leadership in this country today.

Not that Labor’s concerns are imaginary. The reality is that a half-decent NEG could exist – but right now it doesn’t. The legendary “certainty” doesn’t exist, not while the Coalition wants a 26 per cent cut in emissions and Labor wants a much higher cut. Business can’t plan on the basis of that.

Another major problem is that the deal the government wants won’t meet the Paris commitments we signed up to. The NEG only covers electricity. To hit the Paris target, we either need to cut emissions in other areas as well, such as farming and transport – hideously expensive and politically impossible – or cut heaps more in electricity, which the government is refusing to do.

Asked about this last year, Turnbull’s energy minister Josh Frydenberg told journalists, “I would think about the positives of the announcement today rather than the other challenges in other sectors that will be for another press conference.” Ten months later we’re still waiting for that press conference. Again, the government is guessing it has a better chance of reaching agreement on a mystery.

If the government fails to deliver a better NEG, it will be a pity. Turnbull understands the importance of acting, and on ABC TV’s 7.30 this week put forward
a clear argument for being part of the “global effort”.

The rest of his performance, however, ranged from bland to bad. Two weeks ago he promised to “very seriously and thoughtfully and humbly” look at policies in the light of byelection losses. Asked about this by Leigh Sales, Turnbull launched into an attack on the media, before finally conceding the obvious: any refinements of policies would come at the election.

Which Turnbull will turn up to the company tax debate? Contrite Turnbull or Blamey Turnbull? The NEG discussions may have an effect. One loss is bearable, two less so. Phillip Coorey reported in the Financial Review that the majority of Cabinet believes whatever isn’t negotiated this fortnight should be dropped. You would have to expect that the post-byelection swearing-in of new MPs, none of them Liberal, would increase these numbers.

At least one potential byelection will be avoided. Labor MP Emma Husar, battling allegations of mistreating staff, declared that she would stick around until the next election, but would not run again. Bill Shorten will be relieved.

Other mysteries stalk the parliament. The auditor-general may look at Turnbull’s odd decision to grant almost half a billion dollars to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. The head of the foundation repeated this week that the grant was a “complete surprise”, as there had been no application. Elsewhere, Labor frontbenchers spent two days this week meeting with business chiefs for $11,000 a pop – we don’t know yet who or what they talked about. A benefit of next year’s election date is that the government should have ample time to pass new laws on donations transparency.

One thing you would expect business to have told Labor is to keep immigration levels high. This week the Australian population hit 25 million. The debate over how to deal with this will continue. Only our politicians can put in place the infrastructure we will need. But it will be up to both our leaders and the media – journalists, presenters and management – to ensure the debate takes place within reasonable limits.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 11, 2018 as "Dread Sky at night, haters’ delight ". Subscribe here.

Sean Kelly
is a political commentator and writer, and a former adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.