Thursday, 12 December 2019

Only after retirement do public figures say what they really think

This survey ran for almost four months: from 14 August to 5 November. Times used are Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) except after 6 October, when they are in Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT).

I started the survey because it really gets my goat when public figures come out and say controversial things – things that they actually believe in – only after they retire from their jobs. Why don't these people have the courage of their convictions and say something when they have a chance of making the changes they, evidently, want to see? Or are they hypocrites?

The truth is that people follow the herd and politicians are no different from the rest of us. They stick to the approved script because it is in their interest to do so, and because it is human nature to do so. We are social animals and our survival has always depended on our ability to conform to the values of the collective. The standouts – the artists, and inventors – have therefore always had a hard time of it.

I started this survey with the case of Julie Bishop – the former foreign minister under the Liberals – who was quoted by the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) on 14 August. The story includes this:
Former deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop says women need to take up 50 per cent of federal parliamentary seats before the toxic misogyny she witnessed during her 20-year political career ends.
Her party, which is conservative, had signally failed to appoint female ministers to its cabinet under a series of prime ministers. They had also poo-poohed the Labor Party and its calls for quotas for women. The Liberals had always insisted that people would be promoted based solely on merit and this had led to a low proportion of their party room being women, let alone their cabinets.

A former federal government department head named Martin Parkinson got a piece in The Conversation on 27 August about inequality. In it he deplored the number of generations during which some families in Australia remained poor. Parkinson had been in office under the Liberal party, which had signally failed to help the disadvantaged and who had, indeed, introduced a draconian program in the department responsible for welfare payments. Under the program, the recipient’s records were compared with data from the tax office, but this matching was done by software, leading to a large number of people being falsely accused of ripping off the government. Some had even suicided due to the pressure resulting from receiving a letter from the department.

Then there was the enduring matter of climate change. On 5 September I saw a tweet from Asher Moses, a former Sydney Morning Herald journalist, who said, “Former Head of the Australian Coal Association Ian Dunlop tells it like it is about the upcoming collapse.” The tweet came with a link to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) News web page that had a clip from an episode of the evening current affairs program ‘The Business’. The guest for the interview was the person Moses had mentioned in his tweet. In the interview, Dunlop called for businesses to take a firmer stand on climate change, saying that if nothing is done then the risks are extreme.

The idea of someone from the coal lobby campaigning for renewable energy was rich, but others were getting in on the act as well, including John Hewson, a former Liberal politician. On 11 September at 4.42am the Guardian tweeted a story with the comment, “John Hewson urges Liberal conscience vote on climate emergency motion.” At 6.17am Denise Shrivell, a person who routinely criticised the media, retweeted this with a comment of her own, “Anyone else think we missed a good PM here?” The idea of Hewson – who is a serial offender in my books, always nowadays coming out with some canard to throw at the conservatives he used to support – backing renewables was rich in the extgreme.

Hewson was back in the news on 10 October at 9.47am when Stephanie Dowrick, a prolific tweeter and a progressive, tweeted, “’PM turns his back on ordinary Australians.’ Exceptionally strong comment from #JohnHewson - surely now most cogent, best-informed commentator from the once-‘Liberal’ side of politics. @smh @theage This quality is what we want far more of.” Dowrick’s tweet came with a link to an opinion piece on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH; like The Age owned by Channel Nine, an Australian media company) that attacked the prime minister over his relations with Donald Trump and with China, and the government’s lack of action on climate change. He also wondered aloud about the likelihood of being dragged into further conflict in the Middle East. The first paragraph went:
Prime Minister Scott Morrison would have us believe that he is putting Australia "first", and is governing primarily to reflect the values and aspirations of the "quiet Australians" he would also have us believe gave him his "miracle" election win.
It is always hard for me to work out whether Hewson in his little sallies is being ironic or not, considering his past performance in office. The narrative that he seems to be peddling is that the Liberals have gone over further to the right since Hewson left office, and the current PM is a symptom of this trend. I don’t really see much evidence that this is the case, but many people in the community agree with him.

If you can credit it, I also saw a former diplomat (named Bruce Haigh) campaigning for refugees. He tweeted on 9 September at 10.33pm, “#QandA #Biloela Administrative Appeals Tribunal stacked with LNP supporters/sympathisers. Other courts looked only at the law and not the merits of the claims. Zed [Seselja] you are ill informed and a dope. I say this after this after 25 years in [the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade] and 6 years on the [Regulatory Review Tribunal].”

This comment was made in relation to a family of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka the government was trying to return to their country of origin. The case caused an uproar in the public sphere and it was discussed widely on TV shows. The Liberal and Labor parties had both adopted, after decades of debate in public about refugees who arrive near the coast of the continent by boat, a policy that mandated offshore detention.

In regard to refugees, the former head of the Immigration Department’s media named Sandi Logan (Sandi is a man) was getting hot under the collar. On 18 September at 9.37am I saw a tweet from Dowrick that included this, “The big muzzle: how a Govt turns information into propaganda.” The tweet came with a link to a story on the website of Crikey, a news outlet owned by Melbourne company Private Media, that had that as its headline. The article was by Bernard Keane, whose work I like. It included quotes from Logan. The story included this:
“Increasingly, Coalition governments are seeking to impose muzzles and very short leads and sometimes impose complete regimes of silence on their departments, and specifically on their department’s media teams,” Logan says in his distinctive Canadian accent, “and we’re really in trouble.”
The irony here of course is that the Immigration Department had been very solid in cracking down on employees who veered from the approved line. In fact, a woman named Michaela Banerji had been sacked from her job in Logan’s work unit for voicing publicly opinions at variance with the department’s official line on refugees.

Former cops were also getting in on the act. On 17 September a story appeared on the website of the Sydney Morning Herald about the former police commissioner of NSW, Andrew Scipione. He retired in 2017 and was being reported now as calling for the decriminalisation of amphetamines and ecstasy, saying “the system isn't working”.
He … had personal experience when he tried to find a treatment facility for a friend's adult son whose addiction had spiralled out of control and he was in trouble with police. 
"I saw this man, who was a good man, change overnight," Mr Scipione said. When they tried to find a room, there was nothing. 
"We couldn't get one. I couldn't get one. I am the commissioner of police. And what does that say for others ... that's an indictment. 
"It should be easier to get help than find a drug dealer," Mr Scipione said, borrowing a line frequently cited by Dr Alex Wodak, a leading campaigner for decriminalisation of drugs.
Also on 18 September an article appeared on the website of Ten Network by a former Australian Federal Police commissioner named Mick Palmer. The article was in favour of pill testing at music festivals and concerts. His profile page on the website describes him as a spokesperson for the Take Control campaign for safer, saner drug laws.

Journalists who, for decades, had lived high off the fat of the land now professed to have a sense of right and wrong. On 20 September at 6,11pm former journalist Mike Carlton tweeted, “Yes, I’m old and cranky. 50 years a journalist. Done Canberra, Indonesia, Vietnam, London, Washington. And more. Done the White House (Reagan). So I’m gonna be extra cranky about suckholing ‘journalism’ on this wanky Morrison odyssey.” The reference was to the visit by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Washington to see the US president, Donald Trump.

Then on 7 October, starting at around 6.30pm, the ABC’s ‘The Drum’ account tweeted words from Stephen Duckett, a former secretary of the federal Department of Health, that had been spoken on-air during the evening’s broadcast. His comments follow below.
“The rebate for private health insurance is about letting someone in the public health system have shorter waiting times for elective surgery.”  
“There’s a handful of greedy doctors who drive the private health excesses… roughly 7% of doctors account for 89% of all out-of-pocket costs.”  
"Unlike any other insurance, if you take out private health insurance, you have more out-of-pocket expenses."  
“If I had cancer, the pathway I'd want is the public system. I know I might have to wait an extra week or two, but I think in the end the quality of care would be better.”  
"If a 25-year-old could accurately predict their use of private health insurance, their premium would be half what it currently is."
Globally, leaders are exactly the same as they are in Australia. Does anyone else think that Mikhail Gorbachev in calling for nuclear disarmament is being just a tad hypocritical? On 5 November at 1.31pm Tim Wright, treaty coordinator of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, tweeted, “The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev urges all countries to declare that nuclear weapons should be destroyed.” The tweet came with a link to a video on the BBC’s website with the kicker, “The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has warned that current tension between Russia and the West is putting the world in ‘colossal danger’ due to the threat from nuclear weapons.”

All of these things were summed up for me by a couple of tweets that I saw around this time. I was listening to the ABC’s news channel on the TV on the morning of 8 September when a man started talking about how organisations that reward loyalty invariably become oligarchies. I looked this up online and found a page on Wikipedia titled ‘Iron law of oligarchy’ that talks about the theory of a German sociologist named Michels. The theory dates from 1911.

So corruption is inevitable as long as people are involved. The mob rules. The individual is crushed. In this vein, on 8 September at 8am I saw a retweet from a US account that regularly posts about the media and politics. The tweet she had sent was from a person called Ken Montenegro from Utah and it said, “The most dangerous silence is the silence people keep until it's ‘safe’ to break it.” ‘Nuf sed ..

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