The Democratic Crisis

Barry Jones gave the Inaugural Jean McLean Oration at Victoria University on 15 September 2021. It was entitled: The Democratic Crisis: Whatever happened to courage, principle, commitment, accountability?

 He paid tribute to Jean McLean’s long career as a social activist, anti-war campaigner and supporter of Timor Leste. This is an edited version of the speech. The full speech  is at The Truth and Integrity Project website.

Two Boeing 767s crashed into the Twin Towers in Manhattan, a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon in Washington and another 757 into a field in Pennsylvania, resulting in 2977 dead and more than 25,000 injuries. Some thousands have been later diagnosed with cancers attributable to the toxins released.

If Osama bin Laden’s goal was to damage Western liberal democracy then he succeeded far more than he could have hoped. However, much of the damage was self-inflicted as Western leaders turned against their greatest strength, a free, open, tolerant, reforming, curiosity and evidence-driven society.

9/11, 2001 began twenty years of moral panic, in which liberal democracies morphed into national security states, adopting secrecy as a standard operating practice – more so in Australia, surprisingly, than in the United States, marked by secret trials, xenophobia and stigmatising of ‘the other’, and adopting a harsh, punitive attitude towards refugees, an approach that proved to be politically popular and was compounded by bipartisan support.

Apart from the barbaric cruelty of elements in the jihadist movement, particularly Islamic State (beheadings, crucifixions, the killing of civilians, suicide bombings), the central beliefs of jihadists, and ISIS militants, include the following:

Hostility to science and scientific method; rejection of evidence-based decision making; hostility to modernity; resistance to feminism and the changing roles of women; hierarchy; paternalism; theocracy; fervent belief; dogmatism; homophobia; self-definition as ‘fighters’; need to have enemies – to provide the rationale for action; inability to comprehend differing points of view; fundamentalism; willingness to use force; cultivation of a siege mentality; dismissal of United Nations and international opinion; preparedness to damage World Heritage sites; suppression of dissent; turning a blind eye to cruelty; acceptance of ‘heads must roll’ as an operating principle; acting outside the rule of law; adopting principle that ends justify means; punishing critics or whistle blowers; opposition to critical thinking and analysis; and, simple explanations for complex problems.

Elements of this disturbing mind set is to be found in Australia, sometimes in unexpected places. Our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has thoughtfully pointed out that women should be grateful that they not shot at.

Barry Jones highlighted the following:

Climate Change Paralysis.  The consequences of a 2 degree increase in GMST  (Global Mean Surface Temperature) before 2040 would be at least an order of magnitude more catastrophic than  COVID-19.

Climate change is the most egregious example of an important policy having been hijacked by vested interests, promoting the expansion of the fossil-fuel industry, whatever the environmental costs.

Neither major party will mention the ‘c’ word – coal or to acknowledge the central problem, that each tonne of coal that we burn produces 3.67 tonnes of CO2   which accumulates in the atmosphere for decades, perhaps longer. Australia ranks with Brazil and Saudi Arabia as a climate change prevaricator or denialist.

The Coalition is bad on this issue, Labor only feeble. Vested interests have captured the Coalition and Labor is fearful of offending workers in coal-mining seats. GetUp! claims to have 1,000,000 followers and asks for strong action on climate change. Gina Rinehart is passionately opposed. Who has greater influence?

Impact of social media. Social media has become the predominant source of news and information for most Australians (and Americans). In practice it has become an echo chamber and a vector of misinformation.

 The ECI (Economic Complexity Index) problem. Although Australia is one of the world’s most urbanised countries, with two thirds of its population in just five cities, mediocre political leadership still sees us as essentially a quarry or a farm, dependent on high volume exports and ignoring high value-added complex products. Harvard University’s Economic Complexity Index ranked Australia as No. 55 in 1995, falling to No. 86 in 2019. However, the good news for Australia is that we are well ahead of Ethiopia and Papua-New Guinea.

Corruption, vindictiveness and lack of accountability. Failure, incompetence or corruption is shrugged off, Commonwealth Ministers are never held to account, and this is now regarded as normality. Lobbyists are seriously corrupting elements in determining public policy. Enemies are punished and friends rewarded. Courts, tribunals and boards are stacked and grants given to friends without appropriate oversight. The Auditor General’s funding was stripped back and the prospect of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission is receding. We are the only Western democracy without a Bill of Rights

Failure to face up to our history.  Attempts to open up serious debate on our history are attacked as ‘political correctness’ or ‘cancel culture’, and propagated on social media and by shock jocks and News Corp.

Rejection of science and Enlightenment values. With the exception of medical, defence and agricultural science, there is a disturbing lack of curiosity about and knowledge of science in the political establishment, especially where the long term is involved. CSIRO, universities, the Bureau of Meteorology are all under-resourced.

Hollowing out of the Public Service.  The Public Service used to give governments independent policy analysis and ‘frank and fearless’ advice.  Expertise has been hollowed out and advice largely comes from two sources, management consultants, chosen on the basis that they will tell governments what they want to hear, and ‘minders’, essentially low-grade political apparatchiks in Ministerial officers.

There are ten priorities for our time if we are to survive the next half century without irreversible damage to the biosphere and our social and political institutions.

Strong action on climate change, transition to a post-carbon economy, recognition that coal is the biggest single source of greenhouse gases, that the environment is not the enemy and that Australia can be a world leader in adopting economically complex industries (ECIs).

Challenge major parties to adopt open democratic practices, come clean on funding, expose the role of lobbyists and restore trust in public institutions.

Reject ‘the Nixon strategy’ of winning elections by promoting division, exclusion v. inclusion, cultivating ‘the base’, persuading economic victims to blame those below them, race, refugees, promote resentment of expert opinion.

Making a personal commitment to strengthening liberal democracy, recognising the threat posed by the rise of populist authoritarian leaders.

Protecting the right to be informed as a central tenet of democracy: preserving the ABC and its investigative reporting; strengthening the public service’s capacity to give ‘frank and fearless’ advice; and providing adequate funding for CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and university research.

Recognising that inequality is not just a social Darwinian by product of the economic system but a political artefact: not an accident, but built into decisions about taxation, education and health.

Insisting that the goal of education must be to enable people to fulfil human potential for the whole of life, not just to train pupils to be consumers and producers for the contemporary economy. The syllabus should include some political science, philosophy, the humanities, the arts and exposure to comparative religion, with encouragement for speculative thought > imagination > creativity > aesthetics > historical perspective.

Rejecting all forms of racism and adopt rational and humane responses to the refugee/ asylum seeker crisis. Give high priority to the Uluru ‘Statement from the Heart’ and take stronger action on the Closing the Gap strategy.

Resist fundamentalism and rethink the nature of freedom and tolerance.

Recognise the moral basis of progressive taxation and not retreat from it.