Home > Economics - General, Oz Politics > The centre cannot hold

The centre cannot hold

April 4th, 2018

Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton have a piece in the Fairfax press decrying the collapse of centrism in Australia.

There are some problems with their data. As William Bowe has pointed out, the change in voter attitudes described by Harris and Charlton as “polarisation” looks more like a straighforward increase in support for the left, rising from 19.5 per cent to 31.4 per cent over the period 1996 to 2016. Measures of voter disaffection show no consistent trend over the period except for a sharp uptick in 2016.

Regardless of the data, there’s no reason to dispute the central claim that Australian politics is more polarised than at any time in the past twenty years.

The big problem with the piece, and the besetting sin of centrist analysis, is the near-complete absence of discussion of actual policy. The assumption is simply that whoever is in the middle must be right.

The case of climate policy, the only specific policy issue mentioned in the article, illustrates the point. Do Harris and Charlton really think the appropriate starting point is to split the difference between policies based on overwhelming scientific evidence and a denialist reaction derived entirely from the politics of the culture war?

More broadly, I think it’s useful to discuss the issue in the light of the three-party model I proposed a while ago. In policy terms, the problem described by Harris and Charlton is the collapse of the neoliberal consensus that dominated both parties from the 1970s to the Global Financial Crisis. This consensus never commanded all that much popular support. Now that it’s failed to deliver the goods, the parties are being forced to respond to the elements of their base that could safely be ignored in the past.

On the right, that means Pauline Hanson and tribalism/white nationalism in general. There’s no evidence Hanson’s support has increased since her first upsurge in the 1990s, nor has she changed. The difference is that her views have now become mainstream on the political right, as witness her reconciliation with Tony Abbott.

For Labor, the soft neoliberalism pushed by every leader from Hawke onwards* is no longer an option. The disasters that have befallen social democratic parties that have gone along with austerity politics, and promoted themselves as better managers, stand as a warning of what the dangers. Labor is finally breaking with the orthodoxy of small-targets and promising progressive tax policies to finance necessary public expenditures.

It’s certainly true that this represents a break with the model of Australian politics that has prevailed since the 1980s. But a choice between alternatives is democracy is all about, even if one of those alternatives represents the worst in our national character.

* The exception was Kevin Rudd’s brief flirtation with a renewed social democracy, epitomised by his essay in The Monthly. Interestingly, Andrew Charlton was closely involved with that piece (I also had a peripheral involvement).

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  1. Smith
    April 4th, 2018 at 12:13 | #1

    “There’s evidene Hanson’s support has increased since her first upsurge in the 1990s nor has she changed.”

    Presumably should be “no evidence”. Fixed, thanks

  2. Newtownian
    April 4th, 2018 at 12:32 | #2

    “The exception was Kevin Rudd’s brief flirtation with a renewed social democracy, epitomised by his essay in The Monthly.”

    My main memory of Rudd is still the Labor Party conference around the same time of that piece (2009) which appeared to be a set piece to demonstrate ‘L’etat C’est Kevin’. Perhaps a better way to describe his proposal would have been social ‘managed’ democracy?

    But I guess the Rudd phenomenon is hardly surprising given Keating’s pride at having jetisonned the old Labor ideology like the baby with the bathwater.


    On the article its interesting to see ‘left’ wing sentiment rearing its head. But how much do those people answering Aye to being left, understand what they are talking about principle wise? The neoliberal brainwashing of the past 35 years has regretably modified all our beliefs and assumptions which seems to be supported by people getting more satisfied up to 2007 at the same time as the system was racing towards its crash. How many can actually claim despite the GFC they arent still wedded to its snake oil?

  3. I am and will always be Not Trampis
    April 4th, 2018 at 12:50 | #3

    I fail to see how soft neo-liberalism is related to austerity policies.

    Ironic that austerity will be in vogue if the ALP is Keynesian at all in the next election.
    Given the structural deficit is all about revenue not spending I would have thought boosting revenue measures is inherently Keynesian and neo-liberal both of which is needed.

  4. Smith
    April 4th, 2018 at 13:43 | #4

    “denialist reaction [to climate policies] derived entirely from the politics of the culture war”

    Who now want a new government-owned coal-fired power station. Whatever this is, it isn’t neo-liberalism. Governments building and owning power stations (obviously not the coal-fired variety) is the kind of policy normally associated with the Greens and their ilk.

    Neo-liberalism is also not spending $6 billion (or whatever it turns out to be) on Snowy Hydro, the policy brought to you by the internal Liberal party enemies of the hard-denialists.

  5. John Homan
    April 4th, 2018 at 13:51 | #5

    An alternative to neo-liberalism has become more mainstream over the years. The Scandinavian countries were the first to accept, and respond, to ‘inclusive growth’. The notion that by reducing inequality community, and the economy will benefit. They proved that with low inequality, high quality services, including health and education, high taxes, they can generate a thriving economy.
    In our British influenced cultures: politics, the law, industrial relations, are all confrontational. The north Europeans have figured out that collaboration gives better outcomes.
    With inclusive growth government, the community services sector and private sector can sit a the table with a common goal, but different objectives.
    Labor in Australia has been tasting this fruit at least since 2011, when Tanya Plibersek delivered an address on the subject at the McKell Institute in that year.
    In 2015 Wayne Swan, through the Chifley Institute launched the ‘the Inclusive Prosperity Commission’.
    The NDIS, as designed by the PC11, as an insurance scheme, was projected to cost 0.5% of GDP, but deliver a return of 1.0% by 2050, a clear example of an investment in reducing inequality delivering an economic benefit.
    Labor policiy is more and more focused in this direction, and I believe it may be the ground the next election will be fought, and won on!

  6. Moz of Yarramulla
    April 4th, 2018 at 15:07 | #6

    It’s also worth noting that the article describes the collapse in community groups, unions and so on as something that just happened. There’s no mention of the campaign to destroy those groups carried out by the right – and in some ways it’s bleakly amusing that the likes of Abbott and Howard worked so hard to destroy the churches, Rotary clubs and so on that used to form the bedrock of their parties.

  7. Fran Barlow
    April 4th, 2018 at 15:12 | #7


    Typos… straightforward para 2 ‘what the dangers ^are^’ para 9 (omitted last word)

  8. Duncan Earley
    April 4th, 2018 at 15:59 | #8

    There is a centre position on climate change. The right denies it. The left believes its the end of the world. The centre is trying to figure out what to do about it. A carbon tax doesn’t work unless its global. Subsiding renewals doesn’t work if the power companies are out of control (and the poor cant afford solar panels anyway).

    On another note… I would be interested in JQs thoughts on why people vote for Hanson. We cant just dismiss them. We need to understand their concerns.

  9. Fran Barlow
    April 4th, 2018 at 16:32 | #9

    @Duncan Earley

    That’s not a centre position because what you do about it rather depends on whether you think it’s ‘the end of the world’ or maybe not hapoening/a good thing because it’s stopping an ice age, or happening but not because of human agency …

    Really, the left position is not that it’s the end of the world — the world will carry on even if our societies are in turmoil as a consequence of a roiling set of unmanageable disasters the provenance of which is in AGW. We need the ecosystem services we’ve taken seen as eternal for 7 millennia or so to return to much as they were in about 1880, but that’s clearly not in prospect anytime soon. How we respond to that is indeed the challenge, and we will need good public policy starting from good science to minimise the harm. That’s the left position as this leftist understands it.


  10. Tom the first and best
    April 4th, 2018 at 18:27 | #10

    The use of data only from 1996, when it appears that the data set likely goes back to 1987 (although I have not confirmed that one way or the other in my search of the AES website, downloading “.sav” files appears to be needed to analyse the data). It would be even more useful if the 1967, 69 and 79 studies have the same data (same “.sav” issue).

    In the late 1980s and 1990s the Left was at a low ebb. Communism was falling/had fallen apart, right-wing and/or pro-market opinions were dominant in both major parties in Australia the USA, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, increasing parts of Europe, and most places around the world and so it is quite possible, likely even, that left identification had declined since the 1960s and 1970s. A decline in left identification, followed by a rebound, would likely not fit their narrative.

  11. Moz of Yarramulla
    April 4th, 2018 at 19:47 | #11

    FWIW I normally think about the politics of climate change of a green/brown axis, but there are others (reality/fantasy if you want to be rude).

    There’s not really a middle way, it’s pretty much debating the law of gravity. We don’t know how it works but there’s pretty solid evidence that it does and the exceptions are generally edge cases where there’s disagreement about the fine print. Plus there are the clear counter-examples, like levitation 🙂 What’s the middle way on the so-called “theory of gravity”… that gravity exists but we shouldn’t worry about it when building structures?

  12. Duncan Earley
    April 5th, 2018 at 11:55 | #12

    @Fran Barlow

    As a centrist I accept climate change. What I am concerned about is how we respond. None of the options on the table seems to be effective or only seem to punish the poor.

  13. derrida derider
    April 5th, 2018 at 14:16 | #13

    “A carbon tax doesn’t work unless its global” – Duncan Earley
    OT, but not really true. A national carbon tax or ETS works to the extent that nation burns carbon. And to the extent it replaces less efficient taxes in raising revenue (which is almost always the case) it incurs no reduction in living standards or (if you prefer) overall international competitiveness.

    What a global ETS would do is yield quite large gains from trade in quotas, which makes carbon reduction cheaper or, equivalently, the carbon tax more efficient. But to the extent that a national carbon tax replaces other equally or more harmful taxes there is no global free rider problem.

  14. Duncan Earley
    April 5th, 2018 at 15:02 | #14

    @derrida derider

    A carbon tax doesnt work unless its global because what ever you put the carbon tax on gets done elsewhere in the world where there is no carbon tax. The most obvious example is steel. You put a carbon tax on steel in Australia then you move steel production to China which has no carbon tax. But it also effects everything else we make in Australia as a carbon tax should effect electricity prices so EVERYTHING costs more to make here. And don’t think that just means manufactured goods, it also includes services like IT and accounting.

    But none of that matters of course as the political process makes the carbon tax ineffective anyway. Steel gets an exemption (and beef of course, cant let those farmers be effected) and power prices are effectively set by the government anyway.

    You might talk about trade tariffs at this point, but then you are in the Trump camp right?

  15. rog
    April 5th, 2018 at 15:22 | #15

    @Duncan Earley The “what about China” argument has been done to death. If we are to have govt policy designed to be accommodative of Chinas’ govt policy then we have a problem.

    Leaving that aside, China has announced an emissions trading scheme/putting a price on carbon so what about that, eh?

  16. Duncan Earley
    April 5th, 2018 at 15:39 | #16


    There are countries other than China that make Steel – and even more that make other “stuff”. That was my point about a carbon tax being global. So yes we “have a problem”

    Sidenote: An ETS is actually WAY worse that carbon tax as it much more complex so much more easily gamed.

  17. Tom
    April 5th, 2018 at 17:55 | #17

    Centre is as much an extreme as the left or right, if the ideology of the centre is defined as – the middle ground of the two sides on everything is ALWAYS right.

  18. Fran Barlow
    April 5th, 2018 at 18:19 | #18

    @Duncan Earley

    As a centrist I accept climate change. What I am concerned about is how we respond. None of the options on the table seems to be effective or only seem to punish the poor.

    Let’s unpick this.

    All unequal societies ‘punish’ the relatively poor, not merely in decarbonisation, but in every area of policy. Being poor is ipso facto, disadvantageous. Most try to avoid it for thst reason, and indeed, the punishment attaching to poverty is, for defenders of inequslity the principal driver of integrity in the system. The elite are kept in check by the fear that they will become less rich and start to suffer as do the poor, and the poor by the prospect of having ruined lives and being held responsible for their condition. In many western countries wealth indicates virtue, and poverty, turpitude. It seems perverse for a ‘centrist’ i.e a defender of existing social arrangements, to be bothered about the negative differential impact on the poor of the most commonly discussed routes to decarbonisation.

    Let us be clear: if decarbonisation and other measures sufficient to foreclose the future damage to human systems of degradation in ecosystem services are not undertaken the poor and their descendants will suffer much more than the relatively wealthy althlugh almost everyone will be worse off. Accordingly, even if you could show that measures needed to foreclose such damage did regressiveky maldistribute losses onto the relatively poor those regressive transfers would need to be catastrophic for the poor to be worse off than in business as usual scenarios or in modest reform paradigms. The proncipal constraint on decarbonisation policy is not a concern for the interests of the poor, but rather the losses to the wealthy arising from the creation of stranded assets. They don’t fear climate change losses because their timelines are shorter, and their losses are near term.

    In any event, the last variant of explicit carbon pricing in Australia gook care not to regressively transfer costs to the poor. Transport and agriculture were carved out of the system’s reach. Compensation was given to householders to compensate for cost-push inflation. Ultimately the price rises were substantially less than anticipated. The lroblem was that the CEF fell well short of being an adequate series of steps by Australia to shoulder its share of the global burden.

    There are measures we could take to meet these two standards — decarbonisation and just transition. It won’t surprise you that as a leftist, I strongly favour both a robust approach to abatement and mitigation and suitable social provision for those whose living standards are likely to be onerously or regressively prejudiced.

  19. rog
    April 5th, 2018 at 20:20 | #19

    @Duncan Earley You misconstrue what I said; our govt should be free to make policy without having to seek accord with China, or any other state.

    We did have a carbon tax and it did reduce power consumption and therefore reduced emissions.


  20. Fran Barlow
    April 5th, 2018 at 21:38 | #20

    Even Credlin now admits it wasn’t a carbon tax Rog. It was an ETS … sheesh …

  21. John Goss
    April 6th, 2018 at 08:15 | #21

    There is a clear distinction between the left and centrist positions on climate change with regard to the timing of the phase out of coal. John Quiggin says ‘Everyone who cares about the environment knows that we need a rapid global phase-out of coal-fired power’.
    The Greens argue for shutting all coal-fired power generation by 2030.
    Shorten represents the centrist position and argues that coal mining will continue for the next few decades as part of the transition to net zero carbon emissions in 2050, and would not agree to ceasing all coal-fired power generation by 2030.
    Ánd indeed, in support of the centrist position, one could argue it might be better for achieving rapid greenhouse gas reductions to use more coal in existing Chinese coal-fired power stations to power electric cars instead of using oil in powering petrol cars. So, if that’s what the sums indicated, that could be a case for more coal in the short term.
    If I was doing the sums on the optimal pathway to net zero carbon emissions, I would do the calculations assuming all means of power/energy production and distribution were owned by government and financed at the long term bond rate, and assuming an equity loading with regard to greenhouse gas reduction so the rich bore most of the cost. It would be fascinating to see the results of such calculations. It might well find a role for coal as in the scenario I put above, but I suspect that the optimal scenario would, within 5 to 10 years, have almost all gross addition to power/energy production coming from renewables. However I don’t know, as I don’t know if anyone has done the calculations in this way.
    Before adopting any absolute targets with regard to coal, these sort of calculations should be done, to see what the optimal path is. But I fear that the left has already come to a position that coal is evil and should be opposed in all circumstances. This sort of emotional commitment to a position is not helpful to evidence based policy.

  22. Fran Barlow
    April 6th, 2018 at 10:49 | #22


    But I fear that the left has already come to a position that coal is evil and should be opposed in all circumstances. This sort of emotional commitment to a position is not helpful to evidence based policy.

    What a pity you spoiled an otherwise generally well-composed piece with the strawman above. (Demur: China, EV case for coal extension).

    We don’t regard coal as evil, but see its harvest and combustion fir thermal usage as unacceptably dangerous. Coal for steel is still dangerous, but for the moment, there’s no ready made scaled solution. We could increase recycling, cut down the amount of steel we use, explore other options but we are stuck with it for the moment. The same goes for concrete, although there are some promising options on the horizon.

    The funds exist to almost completely decarbonise industry and transport and to effect CDR (CO2 removal) on a world scale, probably by 2035. We should just get in with it. It’s not merely an emotional issue — much as one becomes emotional at being in part responsible for decades and perhaps centuries of avoidable human misery. It’s a practical question. We must protect the ecosystem services that support our species. We should summon whatever resources are needed to do that as an urgent priority.

  23. Duncan Earley
    April 6th, 2018 at 14:57 | #23


    Thanks for linking to that paper. I wasn’t aware of it. Its a good paper, but it unfortunately has an issue in it which unravels the rest of the paper – The price of power was already changing rapidly due to other government policies. They briefly touch on it in the paper on page 8. Prices went up by 25%!! in the 2 year period. They attribute 10% to the carbon tax, but 15% to “other issues”. They refer to Appendix A which isnt easy to follow and for WA leads you to “(b) No data on the breakdown of electricity price increases is publicly available” but somehow they managed to estimate it anyway. Basically the justification on what percentage went up due to the carbon tax is not clear and even if you take what they said it was still less that half of the reason for changes in prices.

    And even then if they are right I expect the reduction was most due to heavy Solar power subsidies which meant rich and middle class households could put panels on their roofs.

  24. rog
    April 6th, 2018 at 16:09 | #24

    @Duncan Earley I’m not sure of your point, are you saying the abstract is not true to the paper?

    “We conclude that the carbon price has worked as expected in terms of its short-term impacts”

  25. Fran Barlow
    April 6th, 2018 at 16:10 | #25

    The claim that the subsidies merely helped the rich snd middle class put panels on their roof is an overstatement. In practice relatively lower middle class suburbs in the cities, people on the urbsn fringes and of coyrse rural people got solar panels on terms that made them affordable.

    In some cases, whole precincts were signed up as neighbours took advantage of group discounts, since the installation costs could be shared amongst 8, 10 or even 15 dwellings. Where these dwellings were similar e.g. as in new housing estates, the savings proved considerable.

    The dwelling I occupy was one of two dozen within a radius of about 500 metres done by one company (before I purchased in 2013) in Sydney’s suburbs west of Parramatta. The person I purchased from was relatively well off but most people were on relatively modest household incomes.

    FTR, the FiT of $0.60kWh was even then IMO, much too generous — $0.20kWh or current retwil price (whichever was higher) would have been entirely adequate. PV costs have fallen dramatically since then. I have since installed more panels and will continue until I really have no space left on the roof.

    I’d be happy if the buy price were the same as the sell price at any point. As to ‘grid connection costs’ I’d prefer these were rolled into the one per kWh charged, by using a precinct calculation for typical annual demand per dwelling and adding that to the bid price. That would encourage efficiency because selling your surplus when prices were high implies refraining from wasting harvested energy. It would also make battery storage and or microgrid coops with grid scale batteries a much more attractive proposition.

  26. rog
    April 6th, 2018 at 16:55 | #26

    @Fran Barlow That claim was just a throw away comment – I can guarantee that there is no evidence.

    I drive through rundown ostensibly blue collar districts and see solar panels everywhere, the temerity of these uppity poor people! Social climbers!

  27. ZM
    April 6th, 2018 at 19:34 | #27

    Andrew Charlton also had a problem with data in his Quarterly Essay from 2011 Man Made World. There was a lack of sourcing for data he used about European GHG emissions by consumption increasing substantially while GHG emissions by production declined. The figures might have been right, but I couldn’t source the figures anywhere and he didn’t provide sources in the essay. He worked under Kevin Rudd so I thought maybe he had access to treasury research, but it was a bit of a problem for the assignment I was doing that I couldn’t find a source for the data he gave.

  28. John Goss
    April 6th, 2018 at 20:41 | #28

    Fran Barlow
    You are much more pragmatic than most on the left, so you have been willing to seriously consider the arguments for nuclear power, and then on the basis of the evidence rejected it as not a solution with regard to climate change. But most on the left reject nuclear power a priori.
    It has become a similar situation with regard to coal. Coal for steel is a good example. Clearly we have to reduce the amount of coal we use for steel (and we should reduce the amount of steel we produce as well), but there probably is a case for ongoing use of some coal for steel as long as we offset the atmospheric damage. It is not helpful or rational to be absolutist with regard to any use of coal.

  29. Hugo
    April 6th, 2018 at 21:33 | #29

    John, did you miss this:

    “UK billionaire Sanjeev Gupta has made good on his commitment to transform his newly acquired Australian steel business into a renewable energy powerhouses, announcing massive investments in solar and storage that will knock 40 per cent off his electricity costs.

    Gupta said on Monday that he would build 1 gigawatt (1,000MW) of dispatchable renewables in and around Whyalla, where his major steel plant is located. This would comprise huge investments in solar, battery storage, pumped hydro and demand management.

    He won’t stop there. Gupta is looking to repeat the dose – although with varying mixes and scale of renewables and storage – to power the company’s steel operations in Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle. He said on Tuesday he wanted these bigger plants to be powered 100 per cent by renewable energy.”

    There is no need for steel exceptionalism.

    As to nuclear, I note with considerable amusement that recent bid prices for even offshore wind energy in the UK has fallen below the 35 year locked in minimum megawatt hour price for power from the yet to be completed Hinkley C nuclear power plant. I’m on the left but have no problem with nuclear, but I’m not aware of anything in the pipeline that makes nuke look good.

  30. John Goss
    April 7th, 2018 at 11:13 | #30

    Gupta will still be using coking coal in the process of making steel. It’s just the energy for making steel which will come from renewable sources. So we will still need coking coal for a while for steel, and perhaps long term, (but who knows about the long term, as in the long term we will all be ……. )

  31. Collin Street
    April 7th, 2018 at 11:26 | #31

    But most on the left reject nuclear power a priori.

    Do you even know what “a priori” means? What is your evidence — you need evidence — for your claim that the rejection is a-priori rather than evidence-derived?

    [malapropisms are conclusive evidence that a person’s linguistic desires exceed their grasp: people only use words that they believe they understand, and in the case of malapropisms it’s evident that this belief is false. This suggests the possibility that the person might have more-general problems with intellectual overconfidence; net result, I’m much more likely to pay attention to a simply-worded or even inarticulate suggestion or observation rather than one written in formal language that’s slightly off. It’s actually a pretty good heuristic, this.]

  32. Fran Barlow
    April 7th, 2018 at 14:49 | #32

    @John Goss

    In theory I haven’t yet ‘rejected’ resort to nuclear power. Indeed, in countries where there is functional nuclear power operating within acceptable specifications, I don’t favour forced decommission.

    It’s notionally possible that some extraordinary breakthrough in the engineering of nuclear fuel from nuclear hazmat, in the price, complexity and lead times for reactor construction and consequently a change in the attitude of most people to such proposals will arise. Perhaps the regulatory requirements will become very easy to meet and low cost and can be set up within the build time of the plants in ways that would not trouble most people. Maybe government will be totally fine with complete transparency end to end through the process and will say that no secrecy need attend their operations because all plants will be state owned assets.

    I suspect not in practice, but never say never right? As soon a I see a flock of pigs winging their way across the sky heralding the news on banners as they follow the bin chickens, I will know it’s time to hail a nuclear renaissance. 😏💁

  33. John Quiggin
    April 7th, 2018 at 19:42 | #33

    We’ve done the economics of nuclear power to death here. At this point, it’s the advocates of nuclear power who are clinging to a preconceived position in the face of mountains of contrary evidence. Here’s a recent data point, on China


  34. John Goss
    April 8th, 2018 at 13:31 | #34

    Collin Street
    I’m not entirely sure where the belief that many on the left hold that nuclear power is intrinsically bad comes from. I do believe though, that it is a belief that is very hard to argue with rationally. It may well be a belief that has arisen because of theoretical deductions rather than evidence, (hence my use of the phrase á priori’), but it may well have arisen out of a deep-seated fear of nuclear radiation. Once a belief which is not susceptible to argument arises, it then survives and propagates for all sorts of political, economic and psychological reasons. And if there happens to be a lot of evidence supporting that belief, then one would hope it has a better chance of flourishing. In general the right are more likely than the left to hold beliefs that are hard to argue with rationally. eg immunisation, health effect of wind turbines, climate change denial, and as John points out, the belief that nuclear power will be our salvation, but it is a malady of both houses.

  35. Hugo
    April 8th, 2018 at 16:06 | #35

    @Collin Street
    “malapropisms are conclusive evidence that a person’s linguistic desires exceed their grasp …. ”

    At the risk of copping flak(I note many of your comments are commonly truculent), may I suggest you acquaint yourself with the meaning of the term “malapropism”. John Goss’s use of the term “a priori” doesn’t fit the definition.

    A malapropism is nothing more than mixing up similar sounding words.

    It is obviously the case that many, but by no means all, on the left of politics assume nuclear power stations (and sometimes anything nuclear) are too dangerous to ever be considered and such people are impervious, and sometimes irrationally hostile, to the presentation of evidence that suggests otherwise.

    The Australian Greens are so virulent in their opposition to all things nuclear that they want to ban food irradiation and the production of nuclear meds at Lucas Heights. It is open to Mr Goss, and others, to posit the view that those who hold such opinions are driven by an irrational passion that makes nuclear an untouchable subject, rather than reason.

    However I also agree with Mr Goss that the “the right are more likely than the left to hold beliefs that are hard to argue with rationally”.

    It is seems to me that many on the right are driven by an irrational desire to oppose any position that they see as being associated with the left. This often results in a thoughtless and reflexive championing of nuclear power stations even though almost all current and recent nuclear projects have produced poor and in some cases, utterly terrible, results. (As to the latter, US$9 billion was blown on nuclear projects that were abandoned in N Carolina last year)

  36. Fran Barlow
    April 9th, 2018 at 11:21 | #36

    @John Goss

    I’m not entirely sure where the belief that many on the left hold that nuclear power is intrinsically bad comes from.

    Opposition (effectively in principle) to nuclear power on the left has many sources, but some of the motivating factors in Australia are endogenous.

    Generally, opposition to nuclear power draws heavily upon perceptions of the close connection between the threat of nuclear apocalypse and nuclear energy. What emerged from the 1950s and the Cold War on the left was a kind of ‘peacenik’ opposition. Large sections of the left in the 1950s found the full court press of McCarthyism to difficult to confront directly and so responded obliquely, appealing for ‘peaceful coexistence’ ‘an end to war’ and so forth, reckoning that as a far more saleable proposition than avowal of socialism.

    For their part, the proponents of nuclear power popularised the slogan of ‘the peaceful atom’ emphasising its civilian character. After October of 1962 however, all that had the word ‘atomic’ in it reminded people of how close the world came to a nuclear apocalypse, and reassurance that ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) would restrain such an outcome did little but increase anxiety.

    Equally, it’s worth keeping in mind that at the time Japan was a-bombed, the concept of radiation sickness had not filtered out to the general public. Even though the generals should have known — their prior tests had shown it — Stimson still apparently thought he could simply put boots on the ground in the aftermath of the attack. Reporters went in blithely seeking images soon after. When the Americans began in 1949 to acknowledge radiation sickness amongst the survivors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki one even described it as ‘quite a pleasant way to die’. Yet they still believed it could be cured and certainly hadn’t considered that it could cause cancers or effects in the offspring of those who had been exposed prior to conception.

    By the 1960s however, this was very much something on the minds of people — and not just on the left. In the minds of many, the cautionary tale of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became one of the connection of ‘atomic’ warfare and the ‘peaceful atom’ emerging from it with existential questions — the end of civilisation directly through war and indirectly through subtle and innocent exposure to radiation. (Ironically, getting a tan was still considered healthy!)

    Outside of those who study physics, very few can explain the concept of ‘radiation’ and unlike poisons — which at least have the property of being visible — radiation was/is seen as a silent and stealthy killer. Some thought nuclear power plants could explode like atomic bombs. They knew that people working in plants had to carry devices to see how much they had been exposed to at work, and wondered if it was contagious and so forth. It was pointed out that the half-life of some elements in the waste was 50,000 years — again true (albeit misleading).

    They also knew that the hazmat from nuclear plants contained elements that could be used in atomic warfare (technically true), reinforcing the connection with those existential fears. I attended an anti-Uranium rally at UNSW in about 1980 where feminists held signs saying “you can’t hug children with nuclear arms”. (That remains my all time favourite slogan.)

    My point is that were it not for the existence of nuclear weapons, I rather suspect opposition in principle to the nuclear fuel cycle would be far weaker than it is. Once the phrases ‘nuclear winter’, ‘extinction level event’, “dirty bomb” and “nuclear proliferation” enter people’s heads, and that around a technology that is hard to understand it’s hard to stay dispassionate.

    In Australia of course there were other issues too. In the early 1970s there was something of a stoush between the Whitlam government and the Liberals backed by business about ‘buying back the farm’. There had been a resources price boom and following the 1973 oil embargo massive cost-push inflation. The ALP in general and Rex Connor in particular had become associated with Australia (i’e the government) ripping control of resources out of the hands of big miners. Needless to say, the states were not keen and in the end, when the Whitlam Government was ousted prematurely (effectively by the state governments of QLD and NSW after the “Khemlani Affair”) in circumstances that still bring a tear to the corner of the eye of most leftists who were around at the time the issue of stopping “uranium mining” became a significant source of left-ALP agitation. At that point if you were pro-Uranium mining you were pro-Fraser and pro-big-businesses ripping off Australia, pro-“Kerr’s Coup”. Opposition to nuclear power took the shape of a culture war.

    It helped a great deal too that the mining of uranium needed to be done largely on land that was and remains the subject of land rights claims by Aboriginals which had by then become a significant cause for the left. Opposition to uranium mining and nuclear power more generally became an act of solidarity with Aboriginals. By the time TMI and later Chernobyl came along the left-right battle lines on the issue had been well drawn and given the players on both sides, it’s scarcely surprising that opposition took the form that it did. Nuclear power became seen as a technology that really was beyond the scope of even advanced societies to control.

  37. Moz of Yarramulla
    April 9th, 2018 at 12:30 | #37

    John Goss :
    Collin Street
    I’m not entirely sure where the belief that many on the left hold that nuclear power is intrinsically bad comes from.

    Oddly I don’t see very much of that at all on the left in Australia, their positions tend to be a mix of pro-manufacturing and soft green sentiment. It’s the green side that have been infested with anti-science nutbaggery. But it doesn’t often suit the right to use that analysis because so few of them are willing to identify as browns. They prefer to fixate on a left-right analysis and collapse everything from Maoism to Gaiaism under the one heading “left”. By the same token, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott are both right wing.

    Nuclear power is great, without it we would all be dead. Or at the very least freezing to death in the dark. But the safer sort of nuclear power is at the heart of almost all green activism and political action – we want the nuclear reactor to be a nice safe(ish) 8 light minutes away, and to store the radioactive waste in the reactor until a long time after it’s decommissioned (which in turn will be a long time in the future). That approach is also cheaper, which appeals to the capitalist right, and currently dominates the market which pleases the neoliberals. It’s only the conservatives who are upset, seemingly because they’re committed to fossil fuels no matter what. But even they have mostly lost interest in nuclear fossil fuels, even though the “might start helping in 20-50 years” timescale would seem to suit them. Maybe it’s the huge up-front cost?

  38. John Goss
    April 9th, 2018 at 14:33 | #38

    Bernardi played the nuclear card in the SA election, but it didn’t serve him well. I suspect that was part of the reason the Family First wing were a bit less enthusiastic in voting for him. They tend to distrust man-made nuclear power as its not in the Bible. There’s a lot of primitivism in the religious right eg DLP, the Brethren, the Cooneyites (in SA).

  39. Tom
    April 9th, 2018 at 20:23 | #39

    Moz of Yarramulla :
    Oddly I don’t see very much of that at all on the left in Australia, their positions tend to be a mix of pro-manufacturing and soft green sentiment. It’s the green side that have been infested with anti-science nutbaggery. But it doesn’t often suit the right to use that analysis because so few of them are willing to identify as browns. They prefer to fixate on a left-right analysis and collapse everything from Maoism to Gaiaism under the one heading “left”. By the same token, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott are both right wing.

    Without being “…fixated on a left-right analysis and collapse everything from Maoism to Gaiaism under one heading “left”.”, it is almost impossible to form a “centre” view. Which is also the reason why sometimes self-proclaimed centrist forms strawman to represent either the left or right before entering their own arguments.

    The moment you start allowing more than two sides, it becomes harder and harder to form a “centre” view. How do you form a “centre” view taking all the below into consideration:

    – Climate change will cause apocalypse
    – Climate change will cause serious consequences such as crop shortage, population displacement etc. so we need to urgently act on it
    – Climate change is a problem, but it will fix itself naturally through technology breakthrough
    – The earth will self-regulate itself to fix climate change
    – Climate change is a mirage due to long term climate cycles
    – Climate change is a hoax
    – Climate change is a conspiracy
    – Anthropogenic climate change is false because god designed the earth perfectly
    – Earth is flat
    – Add whatever you like

    The more different sides and views you allow in any argument, the more untenable a “centrist” position is.

  40. Collin Street
    April 9th, 2018 at 20:30 | #40

    I’m not entirely sure where the belief that many on the left hold that nuclear power is intrinsically bad comes from.

    The question I actually asked you — go and check! — was
    “What is your evidence — you need evidence — for your claim that the rejection is a-priori rather than evidence-derived?”

    I’ve bolded what’s probably the crucial part.
    What you wrote isn’t an answer to the question I asked, is it? Be honest now. Be less careless now, if you can.

  41. Moz of Yarramulla
    April 10th, 2018 at 14:42 | #41

    Tom :

    The moment you start allowing more than two sides, it becomes harder and harder to form a “centre” view.

    Yes. Or the centre becomes so obviously ridiculous that no amount of pretending will make it work. While the Israel/Palestine question is ugly, once you include the “Greater Israel” types and for balance the Caliphatists it becomes utterly intractable (co-territorial Jewish, Christian and Muslim theocracies FTW!).

    Likewise the uneasy alliance between the Coal-Liberals like Abbot and the Coal-Unionists like Martin Ferguson doesn’t exactly provide a lot of common ground – subsidise coal companies to provide fuel for state-owned power plants using union labour? Now we compromise with “eliminate coal by 2020” and end up with… giant solar farms to provide energy for sequestering the CO2 from the coal plants?

  42. John Goss
    April 11th, 2018 at 09:32 | #42

    Collin Street
    This is a discussion group to try and get at the truth, not a linear 20 question and answers exercise. So I didn’t respond to your question ‘Where is the evidence?’ , because I didn’t think it productive to go down that route. The ‘what is the evidence’ question, in this case, boxes us into a tribal argument, whereas my more reflective statement ‘ I’m not entirely sure where the belief that many on the left hold that nuclear power is intrinsically bad came from’ led to some interesting responses from Moz (and then Tom) and Fran Barlow and Hugo, which I found illuminating.

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