15 April 2009

How immoral, to lack a sense of proportion

Not being a high priest of anything, or even much of a parishioner, I went and did something relentlessly secular and read the SMH. What did I find? A wannabe Prime Minister doing Janet Albrechtsen impressions.

The first half of this article was your standard warmed-over-Keating, hand-me-my-cliche-bucket farrago you'd expect from Peter Costello. Iguana and the stripclub are hardly hot-button issues, and it would be truly sad if Costello is attempting to stoke those cold coals with a view to flinging them at Labor during the next election. Now that Costello's in opposition he can apply his lawyerly skills to the provisions of the What's Good For The Gander Act in a way that would otherwise make government impossible.

Having lulled people into shallow thinking on a shallow issue (and the accountants who run Fairfax, including John B., are after that not-too-bright demographic), Costello just assumed that he could apply shallow thinking to an area that exercises some of the finest minds of our time; and at which much, much more is at stake than Iguanagate.

Don't go on about morality when you're trying to equate Iguanagate with climate change. You know yourself when you're trying to force change that you have to resort to strident language - a bit like yourself on industrial relations in the '80s, really, or when you went after Ros Kelly for doing what the National Party was established to do.
I called my old press secretary last week to complain that he had never once advised me to boost my approval ratings with a couple of boozy hours in a lap-dance club.

You asked him the wrong question. It isn't that your approval ratings increase, it's that they failed to drop like a felled tree; which is what lazy members of a tired government hoped for, or demanded as their due. The old press secretary clearly knew better and went along with it.
I asked: "Where were you when I needed good ideas?"

He answered: "(a) I was never drunk enough to think of it, (b) you were never drunk enough to go through with it, and (c) you're from the Liberal Party."

By that he meant that since journalists are predominantly pro-Labor you can't expect easy treatment on the other side of politics.

Or: I'm sick of being blamed for your shortcomings and dopey assumptions, the Liberal Party should hope for much better than you can possibly offer, piss off.
The modern view is that a person's private conduct is not nearly as important as a person's public morality. And that turns on having the right political views and making the right pronouncements.

Nothing terribly modern about that - in fact, I'd venture it as a definition of the word "mainstream". That view explains why all those wife-beaters, drunks, closeted homosexuals, SP punters and flagellation addicts could lead outwardly respectable lives while mouthing and acting out the old pieties. See what happens when you go and write stuff for the newspaper without checking with your father-in-law?
Let's take another case study.

No, let's not. I take case studies from those imparting knowledge in an educational environment. Don't you abrogate an authority you don't have.
Take climate change.

Oh dear.

Evelyn Waugh once complained that watching one of his fellow writers use the English language was like watching a chimpanzee with a Sèvres vase. I think this is what's going to happen with one of the great questions of our age in the hands of Peter Costello. Being tone-deaf to the nature of the society in which he lives, how could he be anything but blind to the nature of his environment?
The way the argument is being presented you can be for aggressive targets to cut emissions or you are for rising tides, mass drownings, increased heat-related deaths, the destruction of the planet and the death of polar bears.

That is the sort of thing that might work in a bull session with Mitch Fifield and the Swinging Dicks, but in the cold light of day it raises more questions that it answers:

  1. Presented by whom? You can't spend the rest of your life chasing down a small number of Trotskyites, like you could at uni. Besides, all the old Trots are now writing for Quadrant. Leave the straw men to Tony Abbott.

  2. Is there a better way of presenting the argument in favour of lower emissions, and if so what is it? A Liberal leader should be looking for exactly that. The status quo is not sustainable, let alone a place on which to recline and review this debate like a form of entertainment. Who do you think you are, Annabel Crabb?

  3. Do you really think that targets to cut emissions are more "aggressive" than mass drownings, increased heat-related deaths and the destruction of the planet?

  4. Why whack the polar bears on at the end like that - if you could avoid killing polar bears without losing a lot of money or otherwise being inconvenienced, wouldn't you do it? If not, why not?

  5. Did you ask your old press secretary some of the above questions? You didn't get where you are, or where you were two years ago, by wasting your time jabbering to some loser who can't help you - and nor will you get where you want to go.

Menzies spent most of the 1940s applying a very fine mind to the issues of his day, and you could do worse than spend the next little while working out how Australian business can prosper while reducing carbon emissions, given that it ultimately can't if carbon emissions fail to be reduced. We've seen that banks can't be relied upon to keep themselves solvent or apply sensible risk assessment activities - and there is more at stake with the environment than with the GFC, and Menzies had his go at answering the questions he raised on those issues. What he did not do was dribble nonsense like this:
Characterising this as a moral question allows the high priests of emission targets to actually measure the morality of their opponents.

Again, who are these ill-defined clergy (high or otherwise) and do they have a point? All great causes need a moral element:

  • Subsidising failed industries was immoral in the 1980s when protectionism was to be reduced (do you remember that supporters of high tariffs used jobs to defend their position? I do).

  • Fighting Communists in Vietnam, Malaya and Korea was moral, refusing either to fight or help those who did was immoral.

  • Fighting Nazis was moral, Peter, and you yourself have sneered at appeasers who stood against Churchill. Can you imagine if Halifax or Chamberlain had not just wrung their hands in defence of their position, but come out with bullshit like this:

Take the German government. The way the argument is being presented you can be for aggressive war or you are for some sort of German Reich spreading throughout Europe, mass murders, no democratic input to government policy by people throughout Europe, northern Africa and elsewhere, the destruction of the planet and the death of Jews.

Glenn Milne would laugh at that. So would your old press secretary. Feel free to try it at your next bull session. A bit of Godwin’s Law never hurt anyone.
If anyone questions whether these targets will be met, if they will make a difference without the co-operation of major emitters, or what will happen to those who lose their jobs in industries affected, they can be dismissed as engaging in moral subterfuge.

Do you think the co-operation of manufacturers whose whole business model depended on high tariffs was really worth having? As for those who'll lose their jobs - same thing that happened to all those manufacturing and call-centre jobs that went offshore, same thing that happened to all those jobs shed by private equity takeovers to get a short sharp rise to the share price, same thing that happened to all those jobs not created by the Gordon-below-Franklin dam. Something will happen, Peter, because I have faith in the free market.
There is not much you can do wrong at a personal level as long as you're in favour of a better planet.

In other words: get the big issues right and it will be easier to overlook petty issues. If you have a problem with that, what could it possibly be?
Which brings me back to Belinda Neal. Why was she singled out for reprimand and counselling? It was not that she treated a waiter badly or lost her temper. The point is she was becoming a political nuisance who had to be distanced from the party leadership.

But she was unlucky with the timing. After recent events no backbencher will be ordered into anger management for yelling at a waiter.

If you were a leader, here's what you'd focus on:

  • Should individuals with significant power in a community feel free to yell at those with relatively little power, or not?

  • Is anger management worse than being yelled at by Belinda Neal?

  • Are Neal and Shagger Thomson big greenie warriors or something? That circle wasn't really closed in what passed for Costello's argument. I think they're just backbenchers toeing the line: if you've got a problem with government policy, why not take on Penny Wong or Rudd himself?

  • Can the Liberal Party come up with anyone who'd represent the good people of the NSW Central Coast better than Neal and Thomson, and if so how is Peter Costello helping them?

  • Do you faithfully promise that you have never, as deputy leader of your party for thirteen years, had to admonish an errant backbencher?

I've been feeling sorry for Peter Costello. Then, I read his articles and realise that he deserves no sympathy at all, let alone any support. He's no better than Belinda Neal, and hopefully has about the same chance of becoming Prime Minister. As Albrechtsen would say, stick to your day job.

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