Morrison’s luck part 2: shifting baseline syndrome

For those puzzled by Morrison’s good luck, and the apparent lack of widespread outrage about incompetence and corruption and lies and contempt for once-accepted standards, a concept derived from fishing research provides a useful framework for understanding how it happens.

Shifting baseline syndrome was a term coined in 1995 by a French-born marine biologist Daniel Pauly. He studies human impacts on global fisheries and is a professor and the project leader of the Sea Around Us Project at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia.

Pauly used the terms to describe fisher folks’ baselines for healthy fish populations.

It describes the phenomenon in which each new generation of fisher folk perceive the environmental conditions in which they grew up as ‘normal’.

It is not just limited to fishing but also climatic conditions, wildlife populations, rivers and streams, forests and even entire ecosystems. It also describes how people’s expectations of acceptable environmental conditions can steadily decline.

It’s obviously not valid for many areas – for instance science and technology, medicine and the rights of women and children in many part of the world. But it is an apt device to frame the steady decline in the quality of political discourse, policy development and willingness to confront social, economic and environmental problems and how each new low point becomes a new baseline.

You also don’t need to view the past with romantic illusions about lost policy paradises to see the change and how Pauly’s thesis can apply to Australian politics. There was a time when big policy reforms were about significant structural changes and the word reform was not just a convenient catch phrase to describe your latest plan to deliver goodies to your supporters and donors.

Whitlam, Keating, Howard, Costello, Rudd and Gillard – whatever you think of them or their policy priorities – tried to bring about significant changes which they believed would make Australia a better place.

In many cases some of them succeeded: Medicare, GST, superannuation, disability services, Indigenous recognition, land rights, arts funding and other areas. However, it is no accident that the most profound were products of Labor Governments and the most destructive reversals and failures were products of LNP Governments.

Today there has been a steady erosion of standards and achievement. The Morrison Government operates on the basis of evasion and assertion rather than debate or achievement.

It punishes ‘enemies’ such as the ABC and rewards friends irrespective of their merit or the cost to Australia.

It is relentlessly tactical (like many of its predecessors) – releasing controversial reports when other news is likely to swamp them and making a big deal of a tokenistic one word change in the national anthem (welcome as it was) while ignoring the bigger problems about our history and Indigenous recognition. It also came after a draft Closing the Gap report set a target of 2093 for making Indigenous incarceration rates equivalent to the rest of the country albeit the goal was withdrawn after it became public.

Morrison is also relentless in signalling to racists and others. In the controversy over Cricket Australia dumping Australia Day as branding for BBL matches Morrison said January 26 wasn’t too flash for the First Fleeters either.

Justin Mohamed, Cricket Australia Indigenous Leader, gave him a bit of a free pass by saying the comments were “off the cuff” and showing little thought  even though everyone knows Morrison’s “off the cuff” comments are never casual or thoughtless. They are inevitably carefully considered and crafted dog whistles – although in this case he did get the number of ships arriving wrong.

The Abbott Government operated on destructive ideological campaigns which destroyed an emissions trading scheme and saddled us with a costly second rate NBN scheme.

Speeches are previewed before they are delivered not because the content is significant but because it helps dictate the day’s media agenda.

Politicians of both major parties reduce their daily discourse to glib talking points distributed by the PM’s or the Leader’s office. Issues are reduced to three word slogans. In an era when Australians are better educated than any time in our history trivialisation and media stunts are the discourse standard.

The independence of the public service is compromised by politicisation and expertise and competence are replaced by the need to conform to what Ministers and their staffers want.

Ministerial standards and accountability are now a joke.

Campaigning is focussed on scare tactics and negativity which, while always an aspect of politics, has become the default operational mode. The maps with threatening red arrows coming down from China and Vietnam have been replaced by more sophisticated campaigns by foreign-funded think tanks, such as the ASPI.

This has not all happened overnight. Cynicism begat more cynicism; social media produced echo chambers; mainstream media became ever more overtly partisan; and, massive problems such as climate change were reduced to ideological choices. The resigned belief that “they all do it” gradually overtook many Australians.

After each debasement of policy debate or each new corrupt act a new normal was established. Examples of increasing inequality, demonization of the other, declining Ministerial standards all became a new base line against which the next outrage was judged.

Pauly’s syndrome thesis was demonstrated in the Brexit negotiations. Fish stocks around the world have been devastated and one of the biggest Brexit disagreements – about respective EU-UK fish catches – was about who got what was left rather than how to ensure there was more of it.

Australia has got more at stake in policy terms in the next decades than whether the French or British get more or fewer fish. But it is useful to keep in mind Pauly’s shifting baseline syndrome and what it means to Australian political and public discourse about our future.