Just fauxing


Interesting article (“Martha Raddatz and the Faux Objectivity of Journalists“) by Glenn Greenwald following the Biden-Ryan VP Debate. “The highly questionable assumptions tacitly embedded in the questions Raddatz asked illustrate how this works, as does the questions she pointedly and predictably did not ask.” “That is what this faux journalistic neutrality, whether by design or otherwise, always achieves. It glorifies highly ideological claims that benefit a narrow elite class (the one that happens to own the largest media outlets which employ these journalists) by allowing that ideology to masquerade as journalistic fact.” Greenwald gives examples of the “Medicare going broke” and “Iran is the greatest national security threat to America” questions to illustrate his point.

I just saw a discussion on one of our tv networks about the effects of the “carbon tax” in Australia after “100 days” that is a slightly different example of the same thing. As these things go it wasn’t so bad. They had actually got an expert to talk about it instead of a politician or shock jock as they normally would. The questions were based on the “sky is falling in” scare campaign of the Liberals, and his answers were calm and measured. So what am I complaining about (never satisfied am I, even when they do the right thing, whinge whinge whinge?)?

Three things. The segment was advertised for an hour preceding with the words “Carbon Tax”, the term used throughout the segment except occasionally by the guest. Now “Carbon Tax” is the term the conservative politicians and shock jocks have been using for two years (alternating with “Great Big New Tax”) for two reasons. First to continue the lie that the Prime Minister had lied in saying she would not introduce a “Carbon Tax”, and second so they can scare the living bejeebus out of all the punters out there by pretending that they were going to be paying so much tax that the Apocalypse would be a walk in the park.

In fact the PM had gone on to say words to the effect “but I intend to put a price on carbon” and that’s exactly what she did. A carbon price isn’t a “carbon tax”. No one is paying extra tax. In fact because of the package of compensation measures almost everyone is better off. Instead of introducing a punitive tax to stop people using so much carbon-generated power, the government used the carrot of compensation so that if you began producing less CO2 you would do even better. To keep on using the term “carbon tax” is to keep selling the conservative meme.

Second, all of the questions, as I said above, were based on the dire warnings the conservatives have been running for two years – businesses ruined, towns wiped off map, pensioners dying in unheated rooms, lamb roasts costing $100 and so on. But still presenting them as questions on 14 October 2012 implies that they were indeed valid points to raise. Proved by the last 100 days to be wrong (although one of the hosts, whose politics are always worn on her sleeve, muttered that meat prices might have gone down but that was because of good seasons – still fighting the battle to the last), but who could have known that?

Well, you could have. You were told plenty of times. There was endless modelling to show the effects, but even without that a moment’s thought about the way the scheme was set up would have told you that all the conservative publicity stunts and deceptive parliamentary questions were as fake as the ones involving an antique shop and a pensioner’s electricity bill. That is “100 days” tells us nothing we couldn’t have known in advance if you hadn’t constantly legitimised the conservative campaign by merely reporting it as fact for the last two years.

And finally the Polar Bear in the room was never mentioned. The Arctic is melting at a frighteningly rapid rate, America has been frying, Barrier Reef in big trouble, and yet reducing greenhouse gases, the whole reason for putting a price on carbon was never mentioned. Nor has it been very often during the last couple of years in this context. So for the public the government has inexplicably introduced a “great big new tax”, apparently for no other reason than to ruin antique shops, wipe towns off map, and kill pensioners, because they are such nasty people. And still, today, the carbon price was discussed without this frightening context.

Australian journalism, like American journalism has a history in recent years of this kind of acceptance of what Lakoff calls conservative “framing”. Perhaps, to give them the benefit of the doubt, unknowingly, but I suspect often in full awareness of what they are doing.

Watch out for it.

Queen Cate


It is a reflex response so strong that it could replace the ringing bell of Pavlov’s dogs in psychology textbooks without losing a fraction of meaning. A celebrity joins a public campaign in favour of something Rupert Murdoch is opposed to and the Murdoch hacks stream as one to their keyboards and churn out vicious attacks on said celebrity. Last one online is a rotten egg, or a sacked columnist.

Most recent of course Cate Blanchett, daring to support a carbon tax, when King Rupert denies there is any change in the planet at all since he was a twinkle in Keith Murdoch’s eye, and if there was, well, certainly nothing involving business doing anything differently at all to fix it will ever be permitted in Rupertworld.

Why the strong response to Our Cate? Well, celebrities are the only chance that those of us on the progressive, reality-based, side of politics have of counter-balancing to a small extent the crushing juggernaut that is Murdoch media. They could have asked me to front the campaign, happy to help, but, let’s face it, Cate has somewhat more starpower even than the proprietor of the famous Watermelon Blog, and she is considerably more photogenic (my own peak of photogenicity seems to have been in 1950 in the gravatar above, immediately after the picture was taken it plunged faster, much faster, than the loss of Arctic ice). So, Murdoch billions versus the lovely Cate is something more of an even fight than Murdoch billions versus anyone else – queen checkmates king. And King Rupert is no more interested in competition than any other supporter of capitalism red in tooth and claw.

Oh occasionally a celebrity turns out for Right Wing causes – Charlton Heston, Angry Anderson – but 97% of the celebrities whose celebrityhood comes from ability and intelligence and charm (not the fake celebrity that comes from the Murdoch media machine) are left wing. Which is to say no more than that they live in the real world, can assess the truth, understand that the Murdoch press doesn’t speak the truth. Can see that while the Emperor does have clothes, they are the robes of deceit.

And that knowledge, that good and brave and intelligent people like Cate Blanchett seem to hate what Murdoch stands for, makes the attacks even more vicious.

Don’t mention the weather


When I woke up this morning, determined to write something quick and angry about extreme weather events, it was to discover, great minds etc, that Bill McKibben had been similarly provoked, and had the advantage of time zones over me.

I don’t know what drove Bill over the edge. Perhaps it was the US media being more interested in getting a “revised” prophecy of the date of the “rapture” from that vicious old fool, not content with the damage already done to his weak-minded followers, Harold Camping, than to talking about the climate change already afflicting our planet.

For me it was this article that sent me hot foot to the keyboard. Where Steve Connor, “science editor” for the Independent recorded “It is estimated that this April alone there were something like 600 tornadoes in the US. Scientists are not sure why this year has been such a record tornado year but one suggestion is that there has been a particularly strong jetstream blowing over the North American continent” before concluding “There is no evidence so far that the record number of tornados have anything to do with climate change. However, some experts believe they may become more frequent”.

Maybe it wasn’t the hapless Connor though, I had been primed earlier by the usually excellent Ben Eltham who said “Flannery, for instance, showed admirable restraint last night on 7.30 as the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann asked a series of irrelevant questions about tropical cyclones.”

We (and by “We” I mean those of us in the reality-based world of science) have done the world a disservice I’m afraid. Oh with the best possible intentions, but you know what they say – the road to a 6 degree warmer world is paved with good intentions.

No, I am being a bit too kind there. What has actually happened is that we allowed ourselves to be sucked in by the climate change deniers. It was as if they had challenged Roger Federer to a tennis match and then said, at the last moment, “oh, of course we won’t be using rackets and balls, we are going to throw gum boots”.

You see every time in the last ten years there has been an extreme weather event, a record-breaking weather event, something so far out of the ordinary as to be noteworthy, newsworthy, so extreme as to kill many people, destroy towns and lives, the deniers have screamed “don’t you dare to try to blame that on global warming”. And we haven’t. Backed away muttering oh so politely (politeness reigns on this side of the looking glass world) “good heavens no, wouldn’t dream of it, no, no, can’t attribute individual events to global warming, oh my goodness gracious no, that would be very naive, going beyond the evidence, we just aren’t that kind of people.”

Well, true enough. No sorry, let me start again. Well, true. Was the town of Joplin, Missouri destroyed by global warming? Would there have been a tornado anyway? As strong a tornado, as devastating? Who knows. Not the question, never was the question. Sorry, just a moment, I can hear the chorus again “Don’t you try to make political capital out of people’s misery you bastard, typical extreme greenie”. I am supposed to take this as the final word, and once upon a time, in Kansas, I would have done so. But we are not in Kansas any more, time the wicked witch was flattened under a collapsed house.

We went you see from agreeing with the self-evident proposition that an individual event wasn’t caused by global warming to refusing to talk about extreme weather at all. “OK you guys” we said “we won’t talk about droughts and floods and storms. Don’t need to, the planet is slowly warming at a steady but slowish rate, sea levels likewise, ocean acidity as well, ice melting ditto. All we need to do is tell you that if things keep going the way they are (I mean you can all read graphs, right?) in 100 years time things could be very uncomfortable for us all”. There, that should do the trick.

In the mean time the deniers (remember Federer and gum boots) were busy doing exactly the reverse. Claiming that every cold day in Oklahoma was evidence against global warming, every warm period was just El Nino, oh and didn’t we know that the Chinese had sailed across the Arctic Ocean in 1421 and had a fireworks display at the North Pole. By agreeing not to mention the weather (“don’t mention the weather”), that is the manifestation of climate that actually affects the public on a day to day basis, we have made absolutely certain that the public will remain blissfully unaware, so many frogs in a pond, that the evidence of their eyes and other senses (including their common sense) is not to be believed. If the scientists won’t say that extreme record-breaking events are the result of global warming, and the deniers are saying they are not, then there is really no contest of ideas. Are we geting tornados and droughts and floods because of global warming? Course not, but in spite of what people like Barnaby Joyce (“look, it’s raining, we were told there would be droughts”) say, that was never the question. “Are we getting stronger, more damaging, longer lasting, more frequent extreme weather events that keep breaking records because of global warming?” “Yes of course we are, you some kind of idiot, what did you think?”

Until we start explaining to people that global warming is going to hit home, is hitting home already, right where they live, we have lost the battle. Lost indeed the war.

Well I mentioned the weather, but I think I might have got away with it.

The ragged trousered philanthropist


Because I am a philanthropist, in words if not finances, can I offer a couple of free suggestions to Julia Gillard and the Labor Party. I mean you are doing about as well as Gordon Brown just before the Cameron landslide, or John Howard before the Kevin Rudd one. Sorry, that was a bit mean-spirited – how about Malcolm Fraser before the Hawke deluge?

Anyway, suggestion one. Julia, call Bob Brown, apologise. Arrange to meet for dinner. He is a charming dinner companion you will get on well. Say that you recognise, now, that Greens are normal human beings who have jobs, families, and values very similar (I’m guessing, and we’ll come to that) to your own. That having, belatedly, read some Australian Labor Party history, you recognise, now, that in many ways the Greens represent the Labor Party of Chifley and Curtin, of Whitlam and Cairns. That the Labor party has lost what was once its progressive wing in the way that it once lost its regressive wing (the DLP) and is suffering for it. That you understand that while there are disagreements between Labor and the Greens in relation to the importance of environmental issues and one or two others, these are not insurmountable. That you would like therefore to see a formal coalition (joint party room, shared ministries), in government, between the two parties, in the way that the Liberals and Nationals, facing similar policy agreements and disagreements, have successfully managed for over half a century. That you realise that there will be objections within both parties, at elected and grass-roots levels, but that with goodwill this should be something that two social democratic parties should be able to overcome. The alternative being another long-lasting Liberal/National coalition government led by the most regressive members of that coalition and creating an Australia anathema to both Labor and Green parties. All elections are critical, but the next one is arguably the most critical ever seen for the future of this country and planet, and we no longer have the luxury of the two left-wing parties of Australian politics slagging each other off more than they do the real political enemy.

Right, that’s the structural thing out of the way, and it is a biggie.

Now, you yourself Julia. I know everyone has had a go at your style of public speaking (just between you and me I have been known to yell in despair at the TV – “no, don’t say it like that Julia, don’t say that” – the most recent example was when you responded to Malcolm Turnbull’s thoughtful interview on climate change as follows “Malcolm Turnbull told us the truth. He told us the truth that basically this plan won’t work. He told us the truth that it would blow the budget.” – that kind of repetition, and negativity, is what drives people like me to despair) but that isn’t much use without something positive to suggest. And telling you to change the style (I’m guessing) you have had since high school doesn’t get either of us very far. So here is a positive suggestion, and a bit more Labor history (in a very broad sense). According to WikiPresident Franklin Roosevelt first used “fireside chats” in 1929 during his first term as Governor of New York. He faced a conservative Republican legislature so during each legislative session he would occasionally address the citizens of New York directly. He appealed to them for help getting his agenda passed. Letters would pour in following each of these “chats,” which helped pressure legislators to pass measures Roosevelt had proposed. He began making the informal addresses as President on March 12, 1933, during the Great Depression“. These “informal” chats came to be called “fireside chats”, not sure why, partly I think because his audience were sitting around the fireside listening to the radio, partly because the illusion they presented was that Roosevelt himself was sitting by the fire in the White House, in a comfortable chair, talking personally, as to a hundred million friends, about the important issues he and they were concerned with (the Depression in general, and then the War).

Again turning to Wiki for an explanation of the success of these chats (Roosevelt would receive millions of letters in response to each one):
Rhetorical Manner
Sometimes beginning his talks with “Good evening, friends”, Roosevelt urged listeners to have faith in the banks and to support his New Deal measures. The “fireside chats” were considered enormously successful and attracted more listeners than the most popular radio shows during the “Golden Age of Radio.” Roosevelt continued his broadcasts into the 1940s, as Americans turned their attention to World War II. Roosevelt’s first fireside chat was March 12, 1933, which marked the beginning of a series of 30 radio broadcasts to the American people reassuring them the nation was going to recover and shared his hopes and plans for the country. The chats ranged from fifteen to forty-five minutes and eighty percent of the words used were in the one thousand most commonly used words in the English dictionary.
Where Roosevelt’s Simplicity and Clarity Come from?
When Roosevelt was doing his chats he wanted them to be simplistic and clear. He wanted to be clear enough for his audience to understand what he was saying because it was important to him. He came up with three techniques to make his chats clear and simple. First, he wanted easy to read and open language use. Second, he wanted to include many concrete examples and explanations into his text. Third, he wanted simple organization in his text.
How did he make his chats persuasive?
There were four tips that Roosevelt used to persuade his audience when he gave his chats. The first was he used the word “We” when he made claims. He wanted the audience to feel like they were a part of the chats. Second, he embedded his claims into objective statements. Third, he used a lot of adverbs and adjectives. Finally, he made his language go from soft to hard. Slowly draw his listeners in and hit them hard later on.

Memorise those tips Julia, make them a part of your being. I want you to start “fireside chats” to the nation. Literally, sit by a fire in the Lodge in a comfortable chair, having had a nice dinner, couple glasses red wine, and now a beautifully made fresh pot of coffee ready to pour your first cup. Just a single camera there, and you start talking through it (not to it as you usually do), forgetting it is there at all, to the people of Australia, to all your friends, as if they were sitting in the other comfortable chair with a cup of coffee. You speak softly and quietly and warmly, as you are just talking to your friend. And what do you talk about? Well, this is just as important as the ambience. You will talk about the “Why” of what you are doing. Not the “what” and the “how” and the “when” and the “how much” and how you are being blocked by the Opposition. There is no opposition in the room, just you and your friend.

Explain the “Why” of a Carbon Tax in relation to global warming, the why of plain packaging of cigarettes, the why of improving conditions for workers, the why of health reform, the why of mining resources taxes, the why of improving education, the why of saving the Murray and old growth forest, why infrastructure like the National Broadband Network is important, and so on. Let your own ideas, and those of your Green partners, flow out to explain clearly and simply to the people why these policies are important. In doing so you will, as Roosevelt intended, bypass the vicious spin of the Murdoch Press and the shock jocks and you will communicate directly to your friends the Australian people. And if they understand the why they will understand the reasons in a way that the dull recitations of what and how doesn’t do (this was the mistake Kevin made too). So you will bring them with you instead of letting them be alienated. And it will serve another purpose too – you will also start to consider more fully the why of existing policies, and some of those might be changed as a result (think refugees, think gay marriage, think free trade). And when they are changed to something more reflecting your social democrat ideals you will then in turn be able to let the public see the reason for the new policy, the “Why” behind your change of mind.

Oh you won’t win them all, in some cases the public will disagree with your “Why”.

But at the moment you aren’t winning any of them.

Feel free, adopt both ideas, quickly. No gratitude needed, say they were your ideas. I’ll keep shtum, just the warm glow of a job well done is enough for this philanthropist.

Or are they just the products of a fevered brow (nah, not so fevered today), or somewhat ragged trousers?

All along the watchtower


The other day I saw the wind farm near Gunning for the first time in a while, and I must say it gladdened my heart a little. There were the great towers shining in the sun with the turbines turning slowly but gracefully on a clear morning. And I thought, “Hey, we can do this after all”. Mind you it wasn’t long before the “Carbon Tax” protests, the polls about people’s attitudes to climate change, and the government reducing subsidies for solar power, pulled me back to earth again.

But that image of the towers stayed with me. As does the sound of the meter ticking over as my solar panels generate power on a sunny day. What is it that makes some shock jocks, and conservative (on both sides of politics) politicians, prefer the burning of the remains of rotten compost from millions of years ago, with all the dirty compost-burning consequences we expected, and some we didn’t, to running the planet on the input (in all its possible forms) from the sun?

I guess I can excuse these people not understanding the science of climate change, and the consequences, though normally it’s best to remain silent and have people think you are stupid about climate change than open your mouth and remove all doubt, but I can’t understand the rejection of renewable energy. Did their cradle rock when the wind blew? Got sun in their eyes from a mirror reflection? Dumped by a wave and got sand in their eyes? Must be some fundamental psychological problem that makes them prefer burning old compost heaps to having a glass panel on the roof, seeing a beautiful tower on a hill.

In the old days in Britain and Australia and America good news, or warnings, were transmitted by signal fires or smoke. A bonfire on a hill could be seen a long way off, as soon as seen a new fire was lit, pass it on. The wind turbines could be seen in the same way, but passing on simultaneously a warning and good news. Hey everybody, the bad news is we are in trouble because climate is changing rapidly. Good news is we can do something about it. Pass it on.

Arsenic and old civilisation


The story the other day about NASA finding a bacterium that could (possibly) partly use arsenic in its DNA suggests that if we only look for the essentials of Earth life (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, sulphur) on other planets, then we may be missing some clues about life forms that could have evolved to use other elements instead of the big 6 on Earth.

Got me thinking more generally, this story roughly coinciding with the announcement of the finding of yet another planet (there are hundreds now) circling a different star, some of them now roughly of the size and position to correspond to Earth, and therefore having a dream run into life evolving from the chemistry, and then evolving into more complex organisms (with or without arsenic!). Are we going to find life on these other planets (assuming the technology improves enough for us to be able to sense it from afar)? I suspect not, I guess that we may well find many planets that were capable of evolving life, did in fact do so, and then lost all that life and returned to being a lifeless shell.

One of the many aspects of the genius of Charles Darwin is that his mechanisms for evolution are not specific to Earth but apply to any planet on which life is present. If individual animals vary, then natural selection will act to cause change in populations; if geography varies, then isolated populations undergoing natural selection will become new species. The propositions are simply a matter of mathematics. Any planet, anywhere in the universe, is going to be geographically varied in some way; any species on such a planet is going have individual variation.

It also seems likely that on most such planets with life, at least one life form will have evolved towards relatively high intelligence as a consequence of the accidents of its evolutionary history. Not necessarily true by any means – the myriad of highly specialised and successful adaptations in all sorts of directions on Earth show that you can do a lot with a small brain and strong incisor teeth for example – but with billions of planets with life present intelligence must have led to the glittering prize of world domination not infrequently. Also seems likely that any planet with a long history will have experienced the slings and arrows of galactic misfortune – being hit by meteors; having an imperfect orbit that causes major variations in climate; having a sun that varies; acquiring a moon or two; developing super volcanoes. So, given life forms mainly made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen; and given that radical environmental changes on a planet are going to cause mass deaths and extinctions among the species that have evolved to that point in time; it is obvious that many planets will have buried stores of hydrocarbons in various forms available for use by subsequent intelligent life forms. Hydrocarbons – whether solid, liquid or gas – are an easy and concentrated source of energy. Abundant energy and intelligent life forms and away you go into all kinds of advanced civilisations.

And then? Well, depends. Not going to take whatever these various intelligent organisms call “scientists” on their planets long to realise that burning hydrocarbons releases a lot of trapped carbon and turns it into CO2 and that CO2 will cause their planet to warm. But some members of the species will have discovered that supplying energy from hydrocarbons to the rest of the species is very profitable – a license to print whatever the intelligent race calls money – and those suppliers knowing that if the scientists are listened to their gravy train is in danger of spilling its load, will use whatever they call “think tanks” and “Fox News” to ensure that the population doesn’t believe the scientists. That being the case, the highly intelligent life form, and other life forms it shares its planet with, are destined for extinction.

Oh a few bacteria-like forms may survive, eating arsenic (or rust, like the ones discovered eating the Titanic wreck recently) and other odd chemicals. Might eventually lead to a new flowering of multi-cellular evolution after the few million years it takes for the excess CO2 to be turned into rock and planetary temperatures return to the Goldilocks zone. Even if it does, not much consolation to the dead scientists, or the dead hydrocarbon sellers for that matter. And if it doesn’t, well then, just a bare planet endlessly circling its sun.

On other planets there may be beings called “politicians”. On those planets it might eventually be understood, in spite of the best efforts of energy companies, and a few geologists and retired weather presenters, that their globe was warming, rapidly, and that the climate the intelligent beings had evolved in was changing under their feet. However the politicians (a life form certain to evolve everywhere there is life) believe there is a way to deal not with the causes of the warming but the effects. On these planets you would hear calls from the politicians to damn all the rivers (sorry, that should read dam all the rivers), burn all the forests to stop them burning, radically modify the genetics of organisms to make them more productive, take more marine organisms from the seas, clear more trees to expand farm land. On such planets the environmental damage that these “solutions” cause speeds up and exacerbates the damage caused by the warming itself. The planet will reach bare rock status much faster even than those where nothing was done.

The scientists on some other planets may have an actually intelligent population to work with, think tanks that actually think, and no local equivalent of Fox, and the hydrocarbon extractors may find themselves faced with a demand that burning fossil hydrocarbons stop, now. That use be made of resources that can be used by individual communities, even individuals; sun, wind, geothermal energy, inexhaustible, too cheap to meter. What to do, what to do, can’t keep making money if the population loses its addiction to big power stations. Ah ha, the planet has, as part of the result of its chequered history, radioactive elements, though buried safely underground. Quickly, get a campaign moving. Find some scientists with vested interest in the nuclear power industry to tell the public how safe it all is. Run campaigns on whatever the equivalent of “television” is, where deep voiced men create loud voice overs which consist of just three words – “base load power”, “base load power”, while the screen shows an image of a young girl happily pulling petals off a daisy-like flower in front of a nuclear power station that doesn’t explode even when she counts all the way to ten.

The planet is quickly covered in nuclear power stations and every source of uranium ore on the planet is being dug up and shipped to them. The urgency of dealing with climate change means of course that you can’t impose too much red tape on these developments. Huge sums of money change hands as energy companies become nuclear energy companies much of it in the form of taxpayer subsidies. On such planets the huge expansion is much too slow to have any effect in reducing greenhouse gas increase (especially given likely continued use of all the buried hydrocarbons) so the planet continues to warm. Accidents begin to happen – here a train of nuclear waste goes off the tracks, there an electrical fault causes damage to a nuclear power plant, over there a uranium tailings dam bursts during flooding. Everybody knew about accidents in the coal mining and oil industries but no one thought about incidents and accidents in the nuclear industry, however clever the technical whizz bangery. Oh and terrorist groups all over the planet, seeking more bangs for their bucks, with so many more potential sources of radioactive materials, began to find it easier to get hold of dirty bombs, exploded for reasons to do with whatever they called “religion” on the planet. Final outcome – radioactively sterilised bare rock, and no possibility of a new flowering of evolution.

So what do you think? Possible that if there is an arsenic-based life form on another planet in another galaxy, and that such a life form is intrinsically more aware of the fragility of life and therefore doesn’t burn all the available hydrocarbons, or turn to nuclear power, then there may be intelligent life somewhere in the universe. But us phosphorus-based organisms seem unable to sense danger or react to it, valuing stupidity over intelligence in our rulers and advisers. And since the time interval from the moment you discover hydrocarbons burn to the time when you overheat your planet is so short, just a moment in the age of the universe, I am predicting that we will never find intelligent life anywhere. But if those clever arsenic guys are coming to look for us they’d better get a move on, or they won’t find much here at all either.

Cross-posted at ABC Unleashed.

Essentially destructive


And off we go again. Doesn’t seem like five minutes since I was handing out how-to-vote pamphlets in the Boorowa Schoolyard in 2007, not much more than ten minutes since I was doing the same at Gunning in 2004, and yet, here we go again, another election campaign. Already the silliness has begun. As the announcement was made Tony Abbott said Gillard was running to the polls before she had established her leadership credentials. Had she postponed until October it would have been because she was running scared of facing the people. Abbott also said “this election is not about glib slogans”, repeating it so often it became a glib slogan (like “big new tax”). And he said that “I expect this to be a filthy campaign from the Labor Party”, showing once again that what is said in an election campaign stays in an election campaign, with Tony obviously having no memory at all of Liberal election campaigns of the last 14 years.

It’s a looking glass world in an election campaign where words splinter, break, lose all connection with ordinary meanings in the everyday world. Where phrases are chosen from focus groups and repeated more often than a certain advert for spectacles, Julia Gillard of course with “looking forward” and “hard work”, and Tony Abbott with whatever glib slogans his focus groups throw up, probably something about pink batts and the simple lie about debt levels forcing up interest rates. There will be glib references to recent history, but nothing with a time depth of more than a few weeks (Rudd’s overthrow referred to but not that of Malcolm Turnbull), and certainly nothing from the Liberals about the consequences of 11 years of Howard government, or from Labor about their abject failure on climate change.

All of it, for five long weeks (or one long week five times) will have the feel of being in a preschool with small children clamoring for glittering prizes, all the time calling out “Pick me miss, pick me, I’ve been good, they were the naughty ones, pick me.” And jolting the arm of their neighbour to make them spill something or knock something over. Remember the old saying “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, said by Churchill, no great democrat himself, and usually used when a government has done something appalling and wants to blame the voters for it. Well, how about “Democracy, the best system of all except for true democracy”?

The current democracy we have, corporate controlled, media-driven, spin-doctor and focus-group inspired really isn’t much of an attempt at democracy. We need a true democracy where facts are checked, journalists pursue real stories, political advertising is limited and must be truthful. One where politicians really debate the issues, not present sound grabs, and one where they say what they really think, really intend. One where a platform is a genuine prescription for action, not one that can be negated by non-core promises or changed circumstances. And one where the health of the environment is first on the list of things to do, not last, where not putting a price on carbon is a political death wish, not some kind of populist race to the bottom.

Don’t want much, do I? What do you want from an election campaign?

Life on Mars


My eyes always light up when I see there is a press release from the National Farmers Federation, my fingers itch to hit the keyboard, knowing, for sure, there will be a column in there somewhere for me. So there we were last week, Labor and Liberal parties trying to outdo each other in developing a scheme that gave the most money to energy and coal companies while ensuring that reduction in greenhouse gas emissions was kept to an absolute minimum, certainly any time in the next century. And there were Larry, Curly and Moe, sorry, that should read Wilson, Barnaby and Steve, doing some comedy routine involving fish net stockings and a fruit head dress, in which they not only demanded no reduction in carbon dioxide, but wanted an increase above and beyond business as usual, just to teach those greenies a lesson.

And suddenly, there in the middle, was the Farmer's Federation (yes, the Farmer's Federation that had leading climate change denialist Professor Plimer address their national conference), demanding that not only should agriculture be excluded from whatever minimal emissions reduction scheme eventually got past any of the stooges for the next five years, but that it should be excluded forever, or an infinite number of years, whichever was longer. The Federation seems to see itself not as the NFF but as the MFF, the Mars Farmer's Federation, representing the population of the Red Planet, happily growing crops with irrigation from the melting polar ice caps, and sending the produce off in clipper space ships back to the mother planet of Earth. And Earth's concerns are of no concern to the farmers, not their problem, and if some socialist government wants to reduce emissions on Earth, well then, get on with it, but don't expect the farmers to be involved. "Don't call us", says the MFF, "we'll call you. Not."

It could be so different if the Federation saw themselves as part of the solution, not part of the problem. If they saw opportunities not costs. If they saw themselves as players not uninvolved onlookers. Is it not in the interests of farmers to reduce their energy use and dependence? Can we not look at more efficient engines, more efficient use? Would farmhouses not benefit from renewable energy supplies and insulation? Is it beyond imagining that a viable modernised rail network instead of semi trailers could once again serve country areas? Are there not farming practices (low tillage crops, biochar, changed pastures) that might reduce energy use, absorb CO2, reduce methane? Will farmers really be not interested in putting aside land for, and generating an income from, solar or wind or geothermal arrays? Can farmers not be involved in a greatly expanded LandCare style program to not just put a full stop to land clearing, but bring more wind breaks, tree clusters, native hedgerows to Australian farms? Should there be a nation-wide project to make every country town carbon neutral? Would not all of those things benefit country Australia as well as the rest of the continent that the farmers are, and it's odd to have to make the point, part of?

I don't remember reading that farmers demanded not to be involved at times when Australia was at war. On the contrary, farming sons and daughters flocked to the colours, and farmers themselves kept the home fires burning, kept the nation fed, did their bit, made do in difficult times. And in spite of what the three stooges seem to believe, and in spite of what the Labor and Liberal Parties are failing to do, we should be on a war footing now. The globe is warming, the climate (of Australia, and elsewhere on Earth, though not on Mars) is changing, and not for the better. And farmers are going to be not keeping home fires burning this time but in the front line.

On Mars  its cold outside, there's no kind of atmosphere, time the NFF brought its members, all alone now, more or less, in from the cold, got them involved in the fight against global warming. It's going to take us all, working together, to win this fight.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.

Who you gonna call?

You know how young children make bargains in their minds – "If I don't miss this bus I will do my homework for a month", that sort of thing? It's a bit like whistling as you pass the graveyard to keep the ghosts away. Or clapping hands to keep the elephants away ("Does it work?" "Well, you don't see any elephants do you?").

Penny Wong reminded me of all of that last week. There were nation-wide protests about the lack of meaningful action on climate change. Afterwards Ms Wong said people's expectations were unrealistic – "What many of these people are calling for simply can't be done. It can't be done while supporting jobs," she said. About the same time it was revealed that Australia was demanding that CO2 emissions from bushfires not be included in calculating Australia's total, because we had so many (and will be having more and more as the continent dries out). You can hear Penny clapping, whistling, and making bargains with invisible beings can't you? She seems to think that good intentions ("Like the people who are at these rallies, this Government does want to take action on climate change") will make that nasty global warming go away. That she can make bargains, that the CO2 already in the atmosphere will totally understand if the politics of coal companies, the CFMEU, and Barnaby Joyce make it impossible to reduce our emissions. There are no bargains Penny, and clapping hands won't make the elephant in the room go away. The world (yes, Penny, the world does include Australia) has to actually reduce emissions (including bushfires and everything else), quickly, and no amount of whistling and bargain making changes that grim reality. Ms Wong has failed.

Harsh? Yes, but we expected better of Kevin "we will let the science decide" Rudd and his team of the best and the brightest. Penny Wong has that aura of brightest girl in class [Steve Fielding on the other hand is the class clown and doesn't know anything but has learnt to stick his hand up and say stupid things ("Now class, what do astronomers tell us the moon is made of?" "Please miss, please miss, green cheese miss") just to get the class laughing - loves being the centre of attention] but she has been given the most important job in government and she has failed to do her homework, failed to hand it in, and Australia is going to miss the bus in Copenhagen.

And Greg Hunt – doing much better than Penny Wong (and won't she be cross when she reads that). But he reminds me of the star eighteen year old recruit to a football team doing really badly, full of has-beens and never-wases. You can enjoy his flashes of brilliance in a Reserve's game, but you know that the team as a whole is never going to achieve anything. And you are quite certain that he won't get a start in the first team, and if he did he will never be allowed to play his natural style.

As American scientists, detailing the disastrous changes (bigger graveyards among them) that are coming to America this century (many of which are coming to a southern continent near you too), said "These are not opinions to be debated, these are facts to be acted upon". Penny Wong clearly doesn't understand this – the whistling has to stop, and the action has to start, ghosts or no ghosts.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.