Send in the clowns
It’s hard to believe that, three months ago, Australian national politics was (primarily) a contest between two broadly normal political parties. The government was running well ahead, but open to criticism for having talked a lot and done relatively little. The opposition was excessively keen on the maxim ‘the first duty of an opposition is to oppose’, and the alternative policies it proposed were neither as detailed as they might be, nor entirely consistent, but that has always been true of oppositions. Although a change of government in 2010 looked unlikely, there was nothing to suggest that such an event would be a disaster if it happened.
That could not be said today. The government is much the same as before, but the opposition has become a clown show, happy to do or say whatever comes to mind, either to chase votes, secure the support of its base or simply to muddy the waters enough that they have a chance to win in the resulting confusion.
Most obviously, we have an opposition leadership that embraces delusional beliefs on climate science. That would be bad enough if delusion could be confined to denial of the validity of science, but such isolation is not possible. Instead, delusionism is pervading everything the Liberal and National parties do and say.
First up, there are the personnel changes, with the replacement of Turnbull by Abbott, the rise of Minchin to the position of kingmaker and, most absurdly, the appointment of the ‘authentic’ but innumerate Barnaby Joyce as finance spokesman. Of the leadership team, only the marginalized Julie Bishop gives any indication of being connected to the real world. In the key economics portfolios, only Joe Hockey rises to the level of mediocrity, and he’s pretty much discredited by his vacillation during the leadership spill.
Then there’s the shift from ‘scepticism’ (the belief that thousands of scientists have simply got it wrong in ways that can easily be detected by armchair critics) to the kind of full-scale conspiracy theory exemplified by Lord Monckton’s claim that NASA crashed its own satellite to prevent it revealing the data that would disprove AGW theory. While the conspiracy theory has the merit of being more coherent and plausible, it paves the road to absolute craziness (again, see Lord Monckton). Of the leading figures in the Opposition, Minchin and Joyce are overt conspiracy theorists, and Abbott is willing to go along with idea. And whereas the conspiracy theorists were willing to undermine Turnbull throughout his leadership, any remaining pro-science Liberals (with the exception of Turnbull himself and the departing Judith Troeth) are keeping very quiet.
Unsurprisingly, this combination of delusion and incompetence is reflected in the opposition’s response to the government’s climate change policy. Naturally, the ‘science’ is pure wishful thinking, based on a willingess to count highly speculative gains from increased soil carbon as the primary line of policy response. But the economics is far worse – even the advocates of soil carbon don’t claim it can be done in the zero-cost fashion claimed by the opposition. More generally, since the opposition plan amounts to picking some winners, and throwing public money at them, it’s obvious from first principles that it must be more expensive than the government’s ETS.
But of course this doesn’t matter. No one, not even the opposition themselves takes the plan seriously – it’s simply there to meet the political necessity to have a supposed plan to refer to.
Finally, and most seriously, there is the embrace of the reality-free talking point approach that characterises the delusionist commentariat as a whole. Someone like Andrew Bolt is not acting out of character when recycles discredited delusionist talking points on a daily basis. His general approach to politics is no better. And, as the blogosphere has shown (as an archetypal example, see Glenn Reynolds) the longer you are immersed in this point-scoring, talking-point approach to political debate, the more distant becomes any connection to actual reality.
Barnaby Joyce has copped a bit of flak for this, most notably for the fiasco at the Press Club. But Abbott himself is just as guilty as witness his claim that NZ, which didn’t have much of a stimulus package, is doing as well, economically, as Australia. This is obviously false, but that didn’t stop Abbott making the claim or getting, broadly speaking, a free pass on it.
So far, the clown show has been at least a partial success in political terms. This is not all that surprising – at any time, much of the public is disengaged from politics and welcomes a bit of entertainment. And, with this level of disengagement, it takes a long time for the fact that a political party has taken leave of its senses to percolate through the public consciousness, as witness the recent successes of the US Republicans, despite their catastrophic mismanagement in office. So, there is no guarantee that this clown show will lose the next election. But, with luck, the long term good sense of the Australian public will come into play before then.