Image for Tasmanian Election 2010:  Cynicism as Virtue

Tracking the Tasmanian election campaign through to its last few days, when the final melodramatic charade of party campaign “launches” occur, belatedly and meaninglessly, is to see how Tasmania’s future is to unfold into a social-environmental-economic wasteland, dominated by continuing and unrelenting downgrading of the essential natural resources of land and water and air.

All it seems we can do, Cassandra-like, is to watch the dismal march of Tasmania into a forlorn future, designed to serve the self-interest of those who seek to grasp the reins of political and economic power. 

As we count down the days to the Tasmanian election on March 20, it is almost surreal and bizarre to contemplate the absolute philosophical vacuity demonstrated by parties clamouring for attention of voters so breathlessly and recklessly.

It would be difficult to find a more morally and ethically bankrupt campaign in the history of Tasmania since 1901 than the ignominious pork-barreling, evasion, deceit and outright lies to the electorate we have witnessed in the last few weeks.

There was a time when issues grounded in questions of social justice, particularly in relation to the distribution of wealth across the community, provided the framework for legislative reform in the key areas of health, education, employment and infrastructure for essential and safe services, such as clean and reliable water supplies. 

That time has long gone.

There was a time when the humane philosophical bases of liberalism and social democracy came close to coalescing into a broad strand of political unison, in the public interest, but instead both those tendencies have become corrupted to serve the rigidities of neo-liberal capitalism, where profit overrides all other considerations, both human and environmental. 

The dull thud of reality of this election campaign is the stunning obliviousness running through it, from start to finish, that Tasmania is part of a wider world, not just marooned in its own little cocoon of Luddite blindness, and therefore somehow immune to what is occurring elsewhere on planet earth.

This is the context of the blatantly cynical Lennon-Gray-Field-Rundle manipulative ploy of telling the electorate to focus on the façade of “stability” of the status quo, to preserve “democracy”, rather than to look at where Tasmania’s future direction should lie.

As Tony Fitzgerald has just written, it is a “flawed assumption that democracy is synonymous with majority rule and that, because MPs are elected, parliamentary decisions express the popular will.  The first proposition disregards the fundamental democratic prohibition on the majority oppression of individuals and minorities.  The second ignores the realities of modern party-political decision-making, with rigid party discipline ensuring that, with few exceptions, MPs vote as directed”. (The Age, 13/3/10) 

Certainly, the unity of the four former Labor-Liberal Tasmanian premiers is telling in one way, for it shows the electoral contest between Labor and Liberal is a hollow confection, with no basis in real differences in policy.  In other words, the election itself is a deception, both parties exaggerating the minor differences they have to appeal as real alternatives to each other, when they are merely rivals for power within the same committee.  The only thing that separates Labor from Liberal is the matter of personal self-interest, of competition for the perks of office.  Nothing else.

It matters not one iota which side of the kissing cousins Labor-Liberal identikit apparatchiks get to sit in ministerial offices.  If there is a hung parliament the Labor-Liberal accord will be seen for what it is, a unity ticket, especially when it comes to betraying the future welfare of Tasmania and the Tasmanian people at the altar of corporate profit.

So why not a joint declaration from the past and the current Labor-Liberal leaders?  Why not add Bartlett-Hodgman to the list of Lennon-Gray-Field-Rundle?  They’re all in the same trough.

All that will happen in Tasmania on March 20 is continuity with the past, much like the change in dynasties in monarchical or feudal systems.  For people such as these, the future is about consolidating the present, of identifying the threat to power and position, and then acting from the basis of political self-interest.

Again to quote Fitzgerald, “a political class has evolved which is interested in little but the acquisition and exercise of power.  Careerists with little or no experience outside politics learn their craft in party administration, politicians’ offices and supporters’ organizations before party pre-selection and entry to Parliament”.

Bartlett-Hodgman fit neatly into that “cursus honorum” of political advancement.  The leaked written “advice” to David Bartlett at the beginning of March from “senior adviser” Rod Scott (whose salary is paid from the public purse), about how to handle the St Helens water issue (HERE) shows how this works in practice, day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year, underlining the profound cynicism at the heart of Tasmanian politics.

Scott recommended to Bartlett that “for this audience” of local residents he should convey the message “of understanding people are frightened, we put in the filters, let’s wait for the science… avoid pointing the finger at Bleaney”.  No real interest at all in anything except damage control.  But in the end of course, Bartlett was even unable to follow the spin line he was delivered.  Such was his rancour at the publicity given to the Bleaney-Scammell investigation, he soon resorted to character assassination, (HERE) or maybe that was always the plan for a different “audience”.   

However, at times of rapid change such cynicism often backfires, as politicians misread the signs of change, but it is invariably their own societies which carry the huge social-environmental-economic costs – as insular self-serving politicians the world over and the conformist social inertia they promote and rely on always learn too late.

The only differences between the latter intercenine administrations of Easter Island, or ancient Egypt, or the court of Nicholas II of Russia, or of Louis XVI –Marie Antoinette of France, and that of the Labor-Liberal accord in Tasmania, are their differences in time and place and political system.  Aside from those differences they all demonstrate the same incapacity to see beyond their own self-interest, and their own incapacity to see or to adapt to what is happening in the world at large.

They choose to ignore the realities of the outside world because that makes it easier to ignore what is happening here at home.  Like the ancient Egyptians, who failed to see how Rome would consume them and cast them aside, even though they had plenty of warning, Tasmania’s political class does not want to see that the world is moving much more quickly into a different industrial future. 

It is not only peak oil and peak water and peak carbon in the atmosphere that the Bartlett-Hodgman Labor-Liberal accord totally ignore, but they ignore, castigate and revile all alternative voices. 

In the city of Detroit, once the car-capital of the US and the world, it is now possible to buy deserted homes for as little as one dollar. This is occurring while the political-corporate oligarchs who caused such social misery are being subsidized to maintain their bonuses.  In Yemen the capital city looks like it will die of thirst in the next few years, because massive corporate investment in plantations of qat uses huge volumes of water, and the Yemeni government subsidies its own drought to support growing qat to the tune of $700 million annually, forcing the country to import 75% of its food and forcing ordinary people to spend about 30% of their income on water in order to survive.

In Tasmania, after the election at the end of this week, we are set to see the continuation of clear-felling in water catchments for a product (pulp) which has declined in use in the US from its 1999 peak by 57%.  We are set to see the increasing conversion of Tasmania’s most productive soils into monocultural tree plantations, and the diversion of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money into irrigation schemes on less productive agricultural land to allow “Plantation Isle” to grow.

There is no doubt at all that the bipartisan Labor-Liberal accord, in total agreement about sinking massive use of Tasmania’s natural resources of land and water into an industry that has been shrinking for some time, and will continue to shrink (by up to 98% in the US by 2020 from the peak year of 1999), is guaranteed to provide a poverty trap – a Tasmanian Detroit and a Tasmanian Yemen combined – for the next generation of Tasmanians.

Sit back and watch as the Labor-Liberal accord garners a majority of seats in the coming election.  The aphorism that people get the governments they deserve is a double-edged sword, because the cost, in all ways – social-environmental-economic – will extend well into the future, and well into the lives of those who have no say in what our legacy to them will be.

In the fifth century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus – himself a political exile from persecution – put these words into the mouth of one of his historical figures –
“My guest, it is difficult for man to stave off what the gods have willed, and this is the worst of human pains:  foreseeing many things and being powerless to change any of them.” (Hdt 9.16) 

As people who still have the hard-won right to vote, we should be grateful for the sacrifices made by those who fought for manhood suffrage and then for women’s suffrage, but we are in the process of squandering that inherited legacy as well as our responsibility to the future by voting for those who have no intention to represent our interests, but merely to pursue their own personal careerist ambitions within a self-serving party caucus. 

Finally, if you don’t read anything else before you vote next Saturday, take time out to read Tony Fitzgerald’s short piece in The Age on 13 March just past.  It is titled “Power but little glory in polluted politics”.

HERE: Tony Fitzgerald

Power but little glory in polluted politics
TONY FITZGERALD
March 13, 2010
We look to our MPs for leadership. Instead we get political game-playing.

A HARMONIOUS civil society rests on essential pillars, such as individual freedom, non-discriminatory equality, and the rule of law. As Chief Justice Earl Warren of the US Supreme Court pointed out years ago, law ‘‘presupposes the existence of a broad area of human conduct controlled only by ethical norms and not subject to law at all’‘.

That aphorism sits uneasily with the realities of 21st-century Australian politics.

However, until official misconduct becomes egregious enough to overcome community cynicism and generate public outrage, few Australians seem troubled by, or even interested in, structural and systemic flaws in our political process and public administration.

Citizens not directly affected by a law are generally more concerned with day-to-day financial and other personal considerations than with the misuse of power or the impact of injustice on others.

This general apathy is not really surprising. Life is good for most Australians. Most have family and other priorities to distract them from matters that don’t directly affect them personally. Few crave power or understand those who do. Like the Trojans who disregarded the warnings of Cassandra, the beautiful daughter of King Priam who had been cursed by Apollo, most of us are also reluctant to confront major problems that we would prefer to ignore. Our unwillingness to act on scientific warnings about global warming and its potentially disastrous consequences are a dramatic example.

Communal inertia is also magnified by Australia’s anachronistic, rudimentary political system, which is based on flawed assumptions that democracy is synonymous with majority rule and that, because MPs are elected, parliamentary decisions express the popular will. The first proposition disregards the fundamental democratic prohibition on the majority oppression of individuals and minorities. The second ignores the realities of modern party-political decision-making, with rigid party discipline ensuring that, with few exceptions, MPs vote as directed.

A former prime minister once praised “the uniqueness of the Australian system’‘. What is unique is our virtually pristine version of theoretical parliamentary sovereignty; although in practice, under executive control, it is unfettered by constitutional constraints, international law or universal human rights. By and large, our laws are valid even if they are contrary to the public interest or unjust.

Voters are little more than observers of a substantially rule-free contest who are entitled, indeed compelled, to choose one or other of the established political parties to govern every few years.

The community is ill-served by this growing transfer of power from the public to the dominant political parties and the parties’ disinterest in ethical constraints and resistance to oversight and accountability, even by independent anti-corruption bodies. Without satisfactory legal and ethical fetters, the political process, like all human constructs, can be, and is, manipulated and exploited to advance personal and group interests.

A political class has evolved which is interested in little but the acquisition and exercise of power. Careerists with little or no experience outside politics learn their craft in party administration, politicians’ offices and supporters’ organisations before party pre-selection and entry to Parliament.

Small groups control each of the two major parties and indirectly the national destiny. It is now extremely difficult, if not impossible, for another competitive political force to emerge because of the financial advantages held by the two major parties and the critical role that money plays in political activity.

The well-connected, and often wealthy, are given access to and influence over the political process. Decisions favouring special interests are common. “Media management” insults and confuses the electorate, which is denied the comprehensive accurate information which is essential to the proper functioning of democracy.

Most, if not all, conventions concerning standards of political conduct which the Westminster system once incorporated are now obsolescent; bipartisan support for fundamental institutions is periodically abandoned for political advantage; and social division, populism and prejudice are occasionally used as political tools.

Because all parties grasp opportunities when in power, opposition criticism of government self-indulgence is generally muted and the risk of an electoral backlash is low.

These short-term political practices and tactics risk serious social problems. Public figures are role models and their standards percolate into the community. Social capital and social cohesion built on integrity and trust are easily dissipated as the population increases, communities become larger and more diverse and economic disparities widen. People who consider themselves powerless outsiders readily become disillusioned, cynical, apathetic and disengaged and lose trust in government, the integrity of its process and decisions and even fundamental institutions. Principled leadership is essential to preserve our confidence in and support for each other.

Tony Fitzgerald is a former Australian judge, who presided over the Fitzgerald Inquiry. This is an edited extract from his address to the Accountability Round Table on Thursday. See http://www.accountabilityrt.org