Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-3-5952 5780

+61-4-1349 7828

June 2008 # 4

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Back to Editorials 2008

Its a Strange World

It’s a strange world out there. I’ve been watching the current political debate and the comings and goings in the ‘big house’ with interest. While the demise of the Democrats is now complete, what does lie in store for us? Perhaps the next bunch of “fairies at the bottom of the garden” will do much better “keeping the bastards honest” than being part of them. But that is not what interests me. 

The rise in utilitarian, populist politics is much more interesting. Over the weekend I read half a dozen articles on the current government from a range of authors, right, left and in between. All of them wrote from the same script. They concluded that Rudd is just as, if not more, of a populist than Howard and that he is yet to find his mojo. 

The last election, like most of the ones I can recall, were all about the ‘what’s in it for me?’ factor. In other words, who is going to do the most for ME! Higher wages, better hospitals, more schools, flatter roads, less tax, and the list goes on. So far as I can see, after all the bluster from all ruling parties so far in my life, things haven’t really got much better. Sure, I earn more and the income / cost ratio of many goods has reduced but what is the overall cost of these things … to all of us? 

For instance, in our quest to source cheaper goods and at the same time enjoy higher wages, many of our manufacturing processes have been shipped off shore. I’ve just heard that another 500 Australians will loose their jobs because a tyre manufacturer will move their plant to somewhere with cheaper labour. For the 500 blue collar workers, who I assume quite a few are Labor voters, what do all the promises of the incumbent government now mean to them? 

This phenomenon is not, of course, exclusive to the Labor party. The Liberals promise petrol price cuts while at the same time saying they want to protect the environment. They are chasing our vote by hoping that we will weigh up the utility of being able to access cheap petrol against the harder to quantify benefits of being able to enjoy the amenity of the natural environment. Who among us really cares if Pacific islands are already sinking under the sea? Only a few really care and most of them live on those islands. Some here may be concerned that their investments in those places will, no doubt, be devalued. However, under a ‘carbon trading scheme’, they may be compensated for their loss. 

On the matter of so called ‘carbon trading’, we find again that this is being packaged as something we should accede to as being good for us. However, the very title suggests that it is something we should be very wary of. Why? Because the ‘creation of a market’ means there will be winners and losers and the losers are usually the vast majority of citizens who stand to gain no benefit. When taken apart the scheme is really about providing tax payer funded subsidies for highly polluting industries to continue to pollute. They buy a few ‘credits’, someone plants some trees and hey presto, problem solved. I don’t think so. 

Utilitarian voting hinges on the politicians being able to spin the biggest issues in the smallest packages. That is, the spin doctors reduce complex and interlinking issues to the easily digested sound bite or media grab. In so doing they contribute to the dumbing down of the electorate. Like the priests of old, the politicians tell us that we should remain outside the ‘holy of holies’ and trust them to communicate with the ‘gods’ on our behalf. 

In order to make this work, the spin doctors spend large amounts of our money trying to find the best way to sell their ‘message’ back to us. They know that it’s too hard to try and connect with our intellects so they go for our gut and / or our heart. What they do is target our emotions then back that up with something more concrete. 

For instance, most people would love to see cuddly koalas remain untouched by climate change. They’re cute, constantly stoned and make us a fortune in tourist dollars. On the other hand, we need huge buses and private cars to drive the tourists to the koala park thus contributing to green house gasses. So, in a hierarchy of utility and populism, the cute, cuddly koalas are easier to sell than an esoteric concept such as ‘green house gasses’. We are told we need tourist dollars and we need to cut emissions as well. There is a conflict between our heart and our head. We want both but ultimately one will have to go. 

In trying to get around this the spin doctors devise a campaign that says the koala park donates a small amount from each entry ticket to climate research. Ah! The good consumer says. I can drive to the park, eat the pre-packaged over processed food, enjoy the highly manicured, over watered garden, safe in the knowledge that two cents from my $25 entry fee went to save the whales or something. The heart (which enjoys the experience) is able to resolve the conflict with the head (how much will this cost) by diverting the intellect from examining the bigger picture (climate change and its impact on native wild life). In the battle for hearts and minds, the heart wins every time. 

Utilitarianism is all about cost benefit analysis. If I do X and it is good and costs me Y, which is bad, how bad or big will Y be and how will it impact of my enjoyment of X? According to the current politic this is a question best left to the high priests within the political and bureaucratic classes. We vote, in the end, for the one who offers us the best cost / benefit ratio. In other words, X will cost me but under A it will cost less than under B. Simple! 

It is a strange world out there. Collectively we seem to ignore threats to our own person in pursuit of intangibles such as ‘wealth’, ‘happiness’ and ‘prosperity’. These concepts are made material by their expression in goods and services, all of which cost something. The objective of a good politician is to maximise political appeal while minimising the perceived risk to the individual they are attempting appeal to. Sure, its not an exact science but it does seem to work. 

After all, I’m sure the 500 workers who are being sacked thought that no matter who governed, their jobs were safe. Like the cute, cuddly koala, perhaps one day we will have enclosures for that other endangered species, the Australian manufacturing worker. Problem is, by then there will be no petrol to put in the car or bus to take the tourists to see them.

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