Shooting the Messenger

May 31, 2011

Remember the ‘No Carbon Tax’ rally back in March? The howling mob, the incredibly offensive signs, the crowd of Coalition MPs on the platform in front of Parliament House, and Angry Anderson out front exhorting the troops to rise up?

At the time, the Coalition were adamant that these ‘ordinary people’, who allegedly represented the majority of Australians, should be allowed to speak. Their voices, it argued, had a right to be heard. No one should try to shut them down. In fact, they spent quite some time that week – both in Parliament and in the media – accusing the government of attempting to silence rightful protest.

There’s no doubt that the government made much of the presence of the League of Rights and of Pauline Hanson. Their own accusations centred on the idea that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott should never have agreed to link himself with them – and, by implication, with some of their views, which could charitably be called racist – by addressing the rally. Being associated with them was a very bad look for Abbott politically, but the notion that Hanson’s voice could be effectively dismissed because of her beliefs about other issues was rightly condemned.

Hanson had a right to speak. She also had a’ right’ to be called out for her part in perpetuating a series of lies about the proposed carbon price, but countering someone’s view is not the same as silencing them – or suggesting that what they have to say can just be dismissed out of hand.

Jump forward to last Sunday. The Daily Telegraph published a story about a new advertising campaign in support of setting a carbon price. The ‘Say Yes’ campaign was put together by a group of non-government organisations like the Climate Institute, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, and supported by a number of prominent Australians. The television ad, due to air the next day, would feature actors Cate Blanchett and Michael Caton as part of a group talking about the benefits of tackling climate change and pricing carbon.

The headline for this story? ‘Carbon Cate Blanchett Tells Aussies to Pay Up over Carbon Charge’. The first few words? ‘Cate Blanchett has sparked outrage in the community’.

Not bad, considering that the ads hadn’t even aired at the time the story went to print.

The article went on to detail how Family First, the Australian Family Association and Coalition Senator Barnaby Joyce all thought that Blanchett was completely out of line for going on record to support a carbon price. The Telegraph was happy to support that argument – and so was launched an extraordinary series of personal attacks on Blanchett with an ugly subtext.

The most common criticism centred on her personal wealth – the Telegraph helpfully provided the figure, also informing readers that Blanchett was an ambassador for ‘luxury car brand Audi’. Subtext: she’s not like us because she has money – and besides, she’s a hypocrite because she promotes a car ‘ordinary’ people can’t afford.

Terri Kelleher, from the AFA, offered up a few snide remarks about how it was ‘easy’ for a multi-millionaire to endorse a carbon price – she could afford it. Subtext: Blanchett doesn’t care about ‘ordinary’ people, she’s just doing it for the publicity.

Barnaby Joyce said, ‘$53 million gives you a whole heap of latitude to care about a lot of things’. In his opinion, she was being ‘self-indulgent’ and commented further, ‘I love your acting Cate, but stick to what you’re good at’. Subtext: Well, it’s hardly subtext, is it? Joyce – who gave interview after interview on this matter – was flat-out telling Blanchett to be a good girl and quiet down.

Gerard Henderson, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, took a swipe at what he called a ‘double standard’. Because Blanchett is an actor who travels, he argued, she has a huge carbon footprint. If she lived like Mother Theresa, maybe Australians could take her seriously. Never mind Blanchett’s personal attempts to minimise that footprint through various measures – that can all be dismissed because she’s part of what he calls the ‘jet-setting eco-brigade’ (which, according to Henderson, includes carbon price advocate Tim Flannery). Subtext: because she’s rich, she cannot be pure of heart – and besides, she’s a hypocrite because she travels.

Radio 2UE criticised Blanchett’s mere presence in the campaign. Evoking schoolyard popularity contests, Jason Morrison said it was just about setting up ‘a cool group’ to make it ‘trendy’, to set up an ‘intellectual elite’. Subtext: she thinks she’s better than us and wants to make us feel like we have to conform.

Grahame Morris, Liberal strategist, offered this catty comment: ‘Cate Blanchett can’t go from one side of a room to the other without a director to tell her “please walk”‘. Subtext: she is not doing this of her own accord – the government is manipulating her.

Then there was Parliament. During Question Time yesterday, Abbott moved to suspend standing orders. This is one of the Opposition’s favourite tactics. It gives them the opportunity to push their message for an extended period of time, without fear of being called to account for deliberate misrepresentations and outright lies. (It’s called ‘Parliamentary privilege’, and it’s dreadfully abused.) Although the motion was nominally about Prime Minister Julia Gillard, much of Abbott’s attack centred on Blanchett. Here’s a sample:

‘You do not give special weight to celebrities who live in Hollywood half the year where there is no carbon tax’. Subtext: Blanchett is a hypocrite. Apparently the fact that California does price carbon slipped his mind. As did the fact that Blanchett lives in Sydney – not Hollywood.

‘People who live in eco-mansions have a right to be heard … but not ahead of the ordinary working people of this country’. Subtext: Blanchett is not ‘one of us’.

‘This is a Prime Minister who’s happy to listen to actors, but she won’t listen to voters’. Subtext: Blanchett is unfairly privileged by a pandering government.

And so it went … on and on and on, into last night and again today. Every Coalition MP who could get a few moments in front of a camera or in print hammered the same line of attack. The most cunning was the notion that maybe Blanchett did have the right to speak, but really, how much weight could you give what she says? It’s not like she understands how ‘real’ people live.

At the height of it, some called for a boycott on Blanchett’s films.

Yeah. That’ll show her.

Absurdly, Senator George Brandis, appeared on ABC1’s QandA last night, asserted that the Coalition were not attacking Blanchett personally. As did Joe Hildebrand on behalf of News Ltd – the very organisation that led the media barrage against her wealth.

(Strange that Angry Anderson didn’t come in for the same level of scrutiny. No one published his annual income or suggested he didn’t have a right to front a rally against a carbon price.)

There’s a name for this. It’s called an ad hominem argument. It’s used to discredit a speaker, and so avoid engaging with them on any substantial issue. There are several ways in which such an argument can be employed – and all of them were used against Blanchett.

Never mind that Blanchett is only one of six speakers in the television ad – the others are actor Michael Caton; a self-funded retiree who volunteers for Greenpeace; a man who assists businesses to reduce their carbon footprint; a tradesman; and a single mother who works as an accountant. All the scrutiny is on the easy target.

It’s a nasty, and sadly, effective strategy. Make enough noise, and no one will listen to what’s being said in the ad. Everyone gets very neatly sidetracked – and suddenly it’s not about pricing carbon, it’s about whether you think Cate Blanchett has a right to speak.

And it’s totally ludicrous. It was bad enough that the government suggested Pauline Hanson’s views on a carbon price could be effectively ignored on the basis of her beliefs regarding immigration. Hanson is rightly condemned for her racist statements – but that has nothing to do with tackling climate change.

To launch an all-out attack that smears someone for being rich, that suggests she has forfeited her voice because she travels, and which calls her everything from a hypocrite to an intellectual elitist to being so brainless that she should just sit down right now – well, that’s going far beyond the pale.

Businessman and millionaire Dick Smith admitted that he had been asked to join the ‘Say Yes’ campaign. Unlike Blanchett, Smith refused – but not because he didn’t support the idea of establishing a price on carbon. He said he was too ‘gutless’ – because he feared that the Murdoch press would attack and smear him.

I wonder why he thought that might happen.

It’s a shameful display – and it shows that there is a real reluctance to engage with a positive message. It’s easy to attack Gillard in Question Time and keep yelling that she ‘lied’ about a ‘carbon tax’. It’s easy to scream lies at a rally and shout down others in panel interviews. It’s very easy to shoot the messenger and dismiss, rather than discuss, the science.

It’s a lot harder to front up to a rational debate – to willingly explore the issue, learn about the science, and fully investigate the options.

And so, while we’re distracted by the spectacle of media and politicians tearing down the same woman they clasped to their collective bosom when she won an Academy Award, the opportunity to mitigate human-induced climate change founders again.


Married to the lynch mob

March 24, 2011

There’s a truism that says Australia is the 51st state of the US – a McDonalds on every corner, a rather pathetic desire to curry favour with the President, and a willingness to be screwed over in treaties and trade agreements by an ally.

After yesterday, I think, we can really claim that title. Yesterday, we saw the Tea Party come to Australia, with all its hysteria, fake claims of ‘grass-roots’ sentiment and lies. And – just as in the US – we saw a conservative political party try to convince us that they weren’t causing the hysteria, just listening to ‘the silent majority’ finally rise up and exercise their right of free speech.

Radio station 2GB – home of ultra-conservative ‘shock jocks’ like Alan Jones – helped organise a protest rally against the government’s proposed carbon pricing scheme at Parliament House yesterday. According to the Australian Federal Police, about 1500 people gathered on the lawn, led by former rock singer Angry Anderson. In the crowd were One Nation, the anti-Semitic Australian League of Rights and former One Nation MP Pauline Hanson. On the platform were discredited scientists, self-styled ‘experts’ and carefully chosen ‘ordinary Australians’.

And the Coalition came out to meet them with open arms.

All well and good. People have a right to protest, despite the best efforts of politicians like former Prime Minister John Howard and former Liberal Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen (who infamously legislated to declare any gathering of three or more people in a public place an ‘unlawful assembly’). That right isn’t limited to any cause, or restricted to reasoned debate in conference halls. When people feel passionately, they want to be visible, and they want to be heard.

But what happened in Canberra yesterday went far beyond ‘protest’ – it was an ugly mob, and the Coalition pandered to it and whipped it into a frenzy.

Speaker after speaker mounted the platform to address the rally. Every one of them repeated the lies that form the now-familiar Coalition message: that Prime Minister Gillard’s broken promise on a carbon price was a deliberate deception on her part; that every Australian would suffer terribly by being forced to pay a carbon tax; and – with the notable exception of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott – that climate change was simply not happening.

Well, they can lie. They should, and are, being called on those lies, but it’s free speech, right? As Liberal MP Kelly O’Dwyer repeatedly yelled over both Labor MP Nick Champion and Sky’s Keiran Gilbert this morning, they’re ordinary Australians who are allowed to have their views heard. Even if those views are the kind of personal insults yelled by Pauline Hanson (who fronted the cameras to attack Gillard for being unmarried with no children).

Except this isn’t about free speech. This isn’t about the person who carried a sign protesting against everything from the ‘carbon tax’ to the IMF, the UN and ‘one world government’. This isn’t about the person who carried the brightly-coloured placard that made ingenious use of fridge magnets to spell out ‘NO LABOUR CARBON TAX’. It’s not even about the ‘My Mom Is Cold’ sign that popped up. (And can anyone explain that? Anyone?)

This is about the so-called alternative Prime Minister of Australia standing on a platform with his senior colleagues, scare-mongering and lying, while standing in front of this sign (photo credit to the ABC’s Latika Bourke):

Notice the flames of hell?

This is about Senator Barnaby Joyce trembling with anger and screaming red-faced into the microphone, ‘She lied to you! She lied to you!‘, then smiling and nodding as the crowd roared, ‘BITCH! BITCH! BITCH!’

This is about not one of the Coalition speakers asking the crowd to show respect for the Prime Minister – or even for the office of Prime Minister. Every single one of them either stood silently with approving smiles while the crowd roared, or actually encouraged further abuse.

It was a mob virtually baying for Gillard’s blood, and being encouraged to do it.

Unsurprisingly, those actions provoked shock and outrage – although, to listen to some media outlets, you’d be forgiven for thinking the rally was just an excitable picnic rather than a sustained personal attack on the Prime Minister. Senator Bob Brown sent a letter to the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon expressing his feelings of disgust at the abuse they’d hurled at her, along with his wish that Abbott would apologise for endorsing such sentiments.

Abbott, however, was having none of that. Late last night he issued a statement saying he regretted the actions of ‘a small group of people’ – but no apology, no admission that he and his colleagues had helped fuel the situation. Confronted by the media this morning, he expanded on those remarks. Let’s take a look.

‘A few people went over the top … naturally I regret that … but I can understand that people feel passionate.’

A few people? There were hundreds of people waving abusive signs and chanting ‘Bitch!’ and even ‘Kill the Witch!’. A sky writer even gave us the benefit of his opinion at an opportune moment. And it was particularly impressive how many of those signs were identical and professionally produced.

But what about this?

Abbott: ‘Let’s face it, this is a Prime Minister who told us before the election that there will be no carbon tax … it was unfortunate that some ppl chose to go a bit over the top yesterday … I would urge all people to conduct this debate with respect … but if we are going to build respect for the democratic process in this country it is important for the Prime Minister to seek a mandate for her carbon tax.’

‘It’s a pity when some people go a little over the top … it would have been better for everyone if the Prime Minister had said “I don’t want to deceive you, there will be a carbon tax” … if the Prime Minister had been straight with the Australian people before the election we wouldn’t be in quite the situation we’re now in.’

A ‘little over the top’? Calling for violence to be done to the Prime Minister of the country?

Just in case we didn’t pick it up, Abbott kept repeating that the ‘real’ problem here was Gillard’s broken promise – what he consistently referred to as a ‘lie’ or ‘deception’.

Yes. You read that right. It’s Gillard’s fault. She made these poor people howl for her blood. If only, if only she hadn’t ‘lied’, we could all be having tea and scones right now.

In the real world, Mr Abbott, we call that ‘blaming the victim’.

Then there was this gem:

‘People are entitled to feel pretty unhappy … I want the protest to be civil … but let’s not get too precious about these things.’

No, let’s not get concerned about the fact that the Coalition egged the protesters on to louder and more abusive expressions of intended violence. Let’s not worry about Joyce’s endorsement of the kind of abuse we consider unacceptable if it’s yelled in the street. Let’s not get precious, because after all, she brought it on herself.

Asked why he and his colleagues addressed the rally, Abbott replied: ‘I thought it was important that … politicians should speak with them.’

Oh, how disingenuous. Abbott was just doing what politicians should do – speak to the people. After all, other politicians go out to see protesters on the lawns of Parliament House – why shouldn’t he?

Because other politicians confine their actions to talking one-on-one with protesters. Other politicians listen to grievances – they don’t deliver speeches designed to turn a rally into a screaming lynch mob. Other politicians carefully demur when asked by protesters to endorse their slogans.

In other words, Mr Abbott, other politicians speak with protesters, not to them.

Abbott even suggested that Gillard was at fault for not going out to speak to the protesters, as he had. Given the mood of the crowd, she would have been mad to do that. We’ve already seen people throwing shoes at politicians and burning their pictures – and that’s without the Coalition helpfully whipping them along. Watching that rally yesterday, I don’t think many people could doubt that Gillard’s safety would have been at risk.

Abbott tried to shift the blame to Gillard. He tried the old ‘oh, it was just a few mavericks’ line. He tried the free speech and ‘caring politician’ defence. In short, he did everything he could to excuse himself – everything but apologise. In the words of Jake Blues:

But – as Keiran Gilbert asked this morning – what more could he have done?

How about this?

He could have asked the crowd to stop yelling abuse.

He could have insisted that the ‘Bitch’ sign be taken down while any Coalition representative was on the platform.

He could have made it clear that he wouldn’t tolerate any of his colleagues encouraging abuse.

He could have forbidden any Coalition representative from addressing the crowd as a whole, and confined his actions to listening.

But he did none of these things. By mounting that platform yesterday, he married the Coalition to the lynch mob

Abbott should now apologise without reservation on behalf of himself and his parliamentary colleagues. And he should stop treating the Australian people as idiots. After yesterday, he has no basis left for his persistent claims that he is not contributing to fear and anger. After yesterday, he has no credibility whatsoever.

Independent MP Tony Windsor was pooh-poohed when he expressed the concern that the anti-carbon price rhetoric was becoming so inflammatory that it might well spill over into violence directed at those politicians who supported it. Actually, it’s more accurate to say he was mocked – everyone from politicians to media to tweeters rubbished the idea.

After yesterday, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it?

Mr Abbott and his colleagues need to realise that sooner or later, violence may well erupt as a result of their lies and fear-mongering. And if it does, and all their protests of ‘free speech’ and ‘it’s not our fault’ will mean exactly nothing. They will have blood on their hands.

What’s truly frightening – and after yesterday, seems even more likely – is the idea that they know that already, and they simply don’t care.

AFTERWORD:

Two senior Coalition members chose not to attend the rally yesterday – Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, and former leader Malcolm Turnbull. Neither of them gave their reasons – perhaps it was political expediency, perhaps a recognition of just how inappropriate and damaging it would be.

What’s important is that they did not endorse, either by their presence or their words, the abuse, offensive language or threats of violence that occurred – unlike their leader and their colleagues.

For their common sense, they should be commended.


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