Opinion

Barry Jones
The death of political debate

In Australia, in the decades after World War II, politicians were generally ahead of public opinion – on the mass migration program and ending the White Australia Policy, on abolishing the death penalty, divorce law reform, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, access to abortion, recognising the People’s Republic of China, funding for the arts, admitting large numbers of refugees. The list could go on.

Australia was a democratic innovator. Universities were significantly expanded, we created one of the world’s best national health schemes, and tariffs were significantly reduced without causing large-scale unemployment.

In recent decades, though, politicians have fallen well behind the public on issues including same-sex marriage, effective action on climate change, transition to a post-carbon economy, protecting the Great Barrier Reef and other heritage sites, voluntary assisted dying, ending live animal exports, and the republic. They are fearful of antagonising powerful political minorities and of being “wedged”.

Many of today’s politicians and political operatives – “apparatchiks” – have not just lost the capacity to debate: they never had it in the first place.

When I was first elected to the house of representatives in 1977, there were outstanding debates. Often between members of parliament who were without much formal education, but who shared three things: life experience, much of it very tough; a prodigious reading ability; and an understanding of a counterargument and how to rebut it.

Of course, this was not a golden age for parliament representing a cross-section of Australia. Federal MPs had a few more things in common – they were all white, all men, well above the median age and almost all of British or Irish descent.

But they were times dominated by “conviction politics”. We live now in the era of “retail politics”, where ministers don’t ask, “Is it right?” but “Will it sell?” There is policy paralysis. A significant failure of nerve by those who purport to be leaders, largely because they have little or no grasp of how to frame a debate.

The last serious debate in parliament on the republic was in 1998, on human rights in 2001, on the environment in 2009. Neither major party will debate a fresh approach to the issue of how we treat refugees and asylum seekers – leaving it to independents or the Greens to initiate action, as with the medivac vote, possible only due to the lack of a government majority in both houses.

Many MPs rely on a page of dot points they have been handed, with no understanding of or interest in a contrary point of view. They simply declaim the material they have been given, “staying on message” and repeating mantra after mantra ad nauseam.

The Italian philosopher, historian and novelist Umberto Eco deplored the “use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning”. He was writing about Fascism, but his remarks could apply to the mindless clichés and dumbed-down repetitive mantras from Scott Morrison and his ministers. “Fair dinkum”, “congestion buster”. George Orwell made the same point in his essay “Politics and the English Language” – by destroying effective use of language, serious debate becomes impossible.

In the forthcoming election, there is no hope of a serious debate. Morrison’s combination of feel-good vacuity and naked appeal to fear and prejudice will not be presented as structured argument. Attempting debate would be as futile as shovelling fog. Bill Shorten, an enigma to many voters, will stay on message, a strong one in 2019, but he must be a risk-taker to cut through.

Scott Morrison – like Tony Abbott – communicates largely in memes. “Meme”, a useful coinage by Richard Dawkins, is defined as “an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads rapidly from person to person within a culture”. They are self-replicating, like genes in biology, fragmentary, easy to disseminate by writing, cartoon, poster, graffiti, speech or gesture – a wave, wink or smirk – propagated widely by social media, defying analysis, emphasising clichés and slogans.

But you can’t formulate a debate with memes, only make assertions – one more tattoo, an ever-louder motorbike. And increasingly, our political process is reliant on memes more than words.

When politicians today harangue their audiences, faithfully following their scripts with no risk of a new idea arising, they will often invoke great names from the past – assuming listeners will have a shared collective memory, with powerful emotional weight. This is dubious, at best. Robert Menzies retired as prime minister in 1966. It is unlikely anyone under the age of 60, even avid consumers of news, will feel much stirring of the blood when Scott Morrison says, “The Liberals remain the party of Menzies.”

Back in 2007, I addressed a drama class at a university in Melbourne before they went to see Keating! The Musical. They wanted to know who Paul Keating was, barely a decade after he had left office. When I asked them to nominate who they saw as the most iconic figure of 19th-century Australia, leading them strongly in the direction of Ned Kelly, the only names offered were Bob Hawke and Captain Cook.

I am old enough to have a vivid recall of the Great Depression and World War II, the personalities of Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Mao, the Atomic Age, the Cold War and the end of colonial expansion, the Korean and Vietnam wars and the collapse of the Soviet Union – all subjects where powerful ideologies rocked, transformed and often devastated much of the world. Ideology was central – and so political outcomes were essential for survival and personal commitment to public life seemed to be compelling.

We now have a sharply reduced political agenda. There is a widespread refusal to analyse and explain complex “wicked” problems. On major issues – taxation, national security – we see policy convergence, largely out of fear, while on trivial issues, toxicity abounds – a sideshow of personal attacks and “gotcha!” moments.

There is a retreat from evidence, rational argument, analysis and the use of statistics. In controversial areas, such as climate change and the treatment of asylum seekers, feeling carries more clout than evidence. Meanwhile, expert opinion is denounced as “elitist”. Politicians are no longer constrained by a moral obligation to tell the truth, and the quality of political debate on climate change has been abysmal for the past decade. We are incapable of talking about planetary issues, because the planet has no vote.

Our politics is today dominated by the infantilisation of debate and the fallacy of the false antithesis. “If we don’t beat up on refugees, we will be overrun...” “Too much tolerance will destroy our traditional values...” “If we don’t promote the use of coal, next month’s power bill will ruin us.” “You can’t preserve the rule of law in an emergency...” “We have to impose secrecy to protect an open society.” “If we increase our emission reduction targets we won’t be able to watch night footy!”

The demand for instant response through social media, where most of our information about the world is now received, has weakened our sense of, or empathy with, “the other”, the remote, the unfamiliar, and has all but destroyed our sense of community, being members of a group. Now individualism is not just the primary motivator, but the only one.

In the Digital Age, opinion has become more important than evidence. And far from exploring the universal and the long term, social media emphasises the realm of the personal, or the tribal, in the short term. Truth is in constant flux. John Stuart Mill coined the term “fractional truths”. As a practice, it has caught on. Something that was true yesterday, and may well be true tomorrow, is not necessarily true today.

In my 1982 book Sleepers, Wake! I spoke about the impact of the information revolution, long before it was fashionable, and predicted its outcomes optimistically. On this point, I was largely wrong.

The ubiquity of the internet has reinforced the realm of the personal. The smartphone has probably changed social relationships more than any other single technology – even the car. It has become the new best friend, the last thing seen and touched at night, the first thing seen and touched in the morning. Facebook and other social media, cohort-specific, with their emphasis on the immediate and the tribal, family and close friends, only serve to feed back existing views.

Policy, belief, courage and vision are essential elements in ensuring Australia’s future and its role as global citizen. All these depend on our mastery of evidence and our capacity to define and debate. Without this, Australia will remain lost in a dark alley.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "Death of debate". Subscribe here.

Barry Jones
was a minister in the Hawke government and twice served as the ALP national president.