Sunday, September 20, 2009
Do your job: a plea for politicians and the media to stop pushing stupid policies
Warning: This is going to be one of my grumbling posts, one of the ones that points out what is wrong with our body politic and how yours truly would go about fixing it up.
Every now and then something shocks me into the realisation of just how poor our media is these days. I don’t want to pick on journalists and say they're lazy and kowtowing, because if they are – and not all fall into that category – it's the industry's fault. But they're the ones we see, hear and read so they will have to cop my vituperation!
For example, I'm usually these days moderately annoyed by Fran Kelly's interviews with federal pollies on Radio National's Breakfast program. She lets them get away with blatant lies. I'm talking about both major parties here, who tow lines that differ only slightly from those of the opposing party but share the characteristic that they have very little to do with reality.
The reasons are extremely complex and I won't go into them in any detail. But what we have now, on both sides, is shockingly poor policy based on trying to keep in favour with two different forces.
The first category of policies are there to look good to the electorate, sound dramatic to journos, and make everyone think the government is doing something. These policies are sweeping, poorly conceived ideas that will grab headlines. They are cooked up by unaccountable, taxpayer-funded media advisers. They usually bear little resemblance to social and economic research findings, and sometimes contradict them.
For example, it makes more sense to give more money to disadvantaged schools rather than the same amount of money to every school, regardless of how obscenely wealthy its clientele and how steep its fees. However, every school, no matter how wealthy, was eligible for federal Labor's school infrastructure program.
This meant that the nation's wealthiest schools, such as Melbourne's Scotch College, Wesley College and Haileybury College, Geelong Grammar, Brisbane Grammar and Adelaide's Scotch College, received millions of dollars in taxpayer funds for new halls and classrooms that they didn't need.
Wouldn't it make more sense to have a teachers in schools program, or even a decent-toilets-and-sportsgrounds-in-schools program, for (government) schools? And how does this ridiculous gift to the rich square up with federal Labor's supposed commitment to 'social inclusion'?
It's also a bit silly to let the morale of child protection workers get so bad that the Human Services department has at least 70 (yes, 70) vacancies and then come out and say how shocked you are when the system breaks down and children get placed with known sex offenders. This is what the Victorian Labor government has done, ignoring realms of research on the long-term effects of poverty and abuse in an electorally unattractive area of social policy.
Now, after the expected outcry, Brumby has pulled out a few bells and whistles and announced 200 new child protection positions. It sounds good, but apart from the question of recruiting -- how are they going to find willing workers when there are already 70 vacancies -- the relevant union says that this is not nearly enough to answer the need, and address the 2000 children waiting for a case worker. Nor will there be wage increases for child protection staff, or a limit set on the number of children allocated to each worker, surely prerequisites for retaining staff in this difficult job. Never mind -- 200 is a nice round number and sounds good.
The second category of poor policies are those based on the relentless need for both Labor and Liberal to make decisions that please or at least do not disturb business and corporations at the expense of every other aspect of human life and flourishing. These policies are based on the dependence of the major parties on donations from business, a kind of legalised corruption.
For example, it's a bit silly to admit climate change is happening and then plan new deals to sell massive amounts of dirty brown coal to India (Victorian Labor) and to support a coal mine in some of the most fertile farmland in NSW, the Liverpool Plains (NSW Labor).
And it's a bit silly to admit climate change is happening, live in one of the countries worst affected in terms of rising temperatures, but let promising solar energy projects fail through lack of investment (Victorian Labor).
Both of these types of decisions result in an appalling, criminal waste of taxpayers' funds that could otherwise be used for the genuine advancement of the whole country.
We live in the information age. We have never had access to so much human knowledge. We know more about human psychology, how and why communities flourish, the kinds of criminal justice policies that don't perpetuate crime, than we ever have. We know about the effects of disadvantage and how to create a fairer playing field for Australian children. Academics give away their knowledge for free. Yet it's becoming rarer and rarer for politicians of the two main parties to make decisions that are vaguely sensible, and that have some cognisance of what is actually happening in the world.
Journalists, of course, are not the sole reason for this. But I think in relation to these trends they are falling into some major traps, which I'll outline below.
Trap 1: Let the pollies spout garbage without challenging them
Busy as they are, I don’t think journos these days have the time or the willingness to do some of the basic research required to actually challenge statements of their interviewees that are blatantly untrue. Such an ability relies on the time to read not just newspapers but books written by sophisticated commentators. Not to mention the bravery required to lose the good will of increasingly defensive politicians.
Take the ridiculous rumble that opened up when Kevin Rudd dared to say recently that the Howard government had dithered. Peter Costello flung himself into the fray: how dare Rudd tell such outright lies?
A journalist who had read, say, Mark Davis's Land of Plenty or George Megalogenis's The Longest Decade would have felt compelled to challenge some of Costello's assertions about just how great the Liberal government was – a government that failed to invest in either skills or infrastructure, sat on its hands for a decade as Australia slid into a climate-change-induced drought, and threw money at the electorate not to reduce unfairness but to curry favour with the swinging voters.
Not Fran Kelly. She mainly just let him talk. It was a typical example of how she treats politicians these days – give a token 'devil's advocate' question that reflects the opinion of the opposing force, but fail to actually challenge the veracity of what the politician themselves is saying.
But Kelly's fallen into a common trap – she's entered the world of the politicians and now she thinks like them. She cares only about how their policies differ from the opposing party, not whether they're actually any good, or the extent to which they actually interact with reality. She's become part of the world of spin.
Trap 2: Fool readers into thinking we have a functional democracy by portraying politicians as individuals
Another popular trap is to take an in-depth look at politicians as individuals to disguise the fact that they have little agency to subvert dominant party ideologies and structures. So we get a profile on Environment minister Peter Garrett in a recent issue of Good Weekend that is supposed to humanise him and paint him as someone who may care about the environment after all. But the point is not whether Garrett cares, has a good family life, loves his dog, prays every day etc – the point is that he's part of a party system and style of action that prevents him from doing anything meaningful.
The only interesting personal aspect to puzzle over is why he joined the ALP when he seemed to be a much better fit for the Greens. This is an intriguing question but the decision is made now and Garrett ain't going anywhere. He's now part of the problem, not the solution. (Not only that, but the establishment must be happy that at least one former rabble rouser has been tamed and silenced.)
Such profiles beguile us into thinking that the system is still working and that individuals can make a difference within the major parties. This is increasingly simply untrue. This style of journalism doesn't rock the boat too much, in fact it puts journos in the politicians' good books because it gives the latter valuable publicity.
Trap 3: become so frightened of being criticised for bias that you are too scared to provide honest, factual commentary about what is actually going on
Recently, Australia Talks, the popular talkback program on Radio National, ran a program on whether politicians were too influenced by big business. The host, Paul Barclay, seemed obsessed with emphasising that even if there were no undue influence (huh?) the perception of influence within the public was a problem. I'm sorry, but my sister's dog Jordan, who is a cocker spaniel and not the brains trust, knows there's undue influence. You would have to be living on Jupiter not to be aware of this obvious fact. Yet the ABC believes this fact is actually an opinion, and way too dangerous for a program host to be mouthing.
So what was the juicy piece of information that shocked me into realising just how bad things are in terms of calling a spade a spade? John Faine's Conversation Hour on ABC local radio (a great program apart from the ponderous name of the station – and Faine at his best is often an exception to my complaints) featured a US investment banker turned author, John R Talbott.
Talbott basically said that no good policies occur in the US any more because Congress is hopelessly corrupted by big business. He cited the shocking lack of regulation that produced the Global Financial Crisis, and the way the bailouts protected executive salaries, and he castigated Obama for handing over the health insurance issue to Congress. He also complained about the emissions trading scheme that was in the offing there – like us, the US is planning to give huge subsidies to the big polluters.
He was so honest, brave and unfazed. But it's devastating when you think about what is actually at stake. The GFC has produced untold amounts of hardship among the working classes in the US, a degree of hardship that we rarely hear about. And it's decimated the black middle class. And what hope now for the 46.3 million Americans with no health insurance?
Commentators, especially those from overseas, safely invited here by toothless writers' festivals, are allowed to tell the truth in the media. The journos aren't.
Imagine if journalists took the obvious truths and relentlessly, unremittingly, challenged politicians of every rank and stripe about them until the population got furious and put pressure on them to make real changes. This is what is not happening in either Australia or the US. But it needs to.