The centre cannot hold

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).

42 thoughts on “The centre cannot hold

  1. @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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Hugo
    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 ……. )

  6. 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.]

  7. @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. 😏💁

  8. 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.

  9. @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)

  10. @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.

  11. 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?

  12. 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).

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

  16. 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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