Tagged: Liberal Party

With a little empathy, Turnbull changes the tone

Whatever you thought of Leigh Sales’ interview with Malcolm Turnbull on The 7.30 Report last night, it had a defining moment; one that has the potential to recast the fortunes of his government. It was a moment of empathy, and empathy is a quality that’s become an endangered species in public life.

Turnbull recalled when he was a partner at Goldman Sachs in New York. Everyone, he said, was earning big money. But he queried the CEO about whether they were deserving of their good fortune, pointing out that in the streets below them, there were taxi drivers working far longer hours for a fraction of the rewards they were receiving.

I nearly fell off my chair. As someone who’d driven a taxi for many years – and who occasionally had to shrug off barbs from those who clearly regarded my line of employment as a reflection on my intelligence, as well as my station in life – this was an extraordinary thing to hear. Especially from a conservative politician.

Turnbull readily accepted Leigh Sales’ proposition that he’s been lucky. He has been gifted with high intelligence, a good education, good health, a beautiful family, and he’s been able to convert all of it into enormous wealth, which only a tiny few are able to do no matter how lucky they are, or how hard they work.

But Turnbull wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His mother had deserted his family at a young age. And perhaps that’s given him another gift: the emotional intelligence, as he called it, to have the imagination to walk in somebody else’s shoes. It was, he said, was the most important quality for someone in his line of work.

“The fact that we have to recognise is that much of our good fortune is good fortune,” he said. Such a statement must have burned the ears of many of his conservative colleagues. Turnbull is richer than most of them put together, but his words signalled a huge shift in rhetorical emphasis away from the brutishness of his predecessor.

Empathy has been in short supply in the so-called land of the fair go these last two years. It was what went missing when Peter Dutton joked about rising sea levels in the South Pacific. It was missing from his apology, too, for not realising there was a boom microphone over his head at the time.

It was missing when Joe Hockey said that poor people don’t drive cars, and if they did, they didn’t drive them very far. It was missing when he said the key to breaking into the housing market was to get a good job that paid good money. (Frankly, empathy was missing on most of the occasions Hockey opened his cigar-hole.)

It was missing when Christopher Pyne opined that women would not be disproportionately effected by changes to higher education, because most of them would only go on to be nurses and teachers anyway. It was missing from the Abbott government’s attitude to same-sex marriage.

It was missing when the government attempted to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. All of the government’s empathy on that occasion was reserved for the very white Andrew Bolt. It was missing when George Brandis said people had a right to be bigots. It was missing when Bronwyn Bishop took that chopper to Geelong.

Symbolically, this collective lack of empathy can be summed up in Tony Abbott’s words: “Nope. Nope. Nope.”

Inevitably, this lack of care for others has spilled over into other aspects of our national life. The incessant booing of Adam Goodes. The continuing degradation and dehumanisation of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. Where once we found the phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” we instead find fault.

The proof, of course, will be in the policies the Liberal Party takes to the election and, in the longer term, their outcomes. But with just a little empathy, Turnbull has changed the tone of the national conversation. It’s the first step towards saving his party from the sort of ideological drift – unhinged from the vicissitudes of life that effect ordinary people – that’s turned the US Republican Party into an unelectable circus.

The price of outrage

Sometimes a story moves so fast it’s hard to keep up with. Such has been the case with the saga of Alan Jones. I wrote an open letter to 2GB on Saturday evening, shortly after news of Jones’ intemperate remarks to a gathering of Young Liberal students in Sydney broke. I then slept in on Sunday, prior to working my night job.

By the time I’d woken up, I’d already missed half the fun. Jones’ press conference yesterday, purportedly to apologise to the Prime Minister, has already been much discussed, and derided, for its transparent insincerity. To say Jones “doesn’t get it” doesn’t cover it. I shook my head, went to work, and after getting home at six in the morning, I slept late again.

While I was blearily shoving cereal down the hatch at midday, a petition launched by change.org to remove Jones from his duties was collecting over 30,000 signatures. I would guess that very few of them listen to 2GB, but that didn’t stop sponsors from withdrawing from Jones’ program: luxury car maker Mercedes-Benz; supermarket oligarchs Woolworths; tea-makers Dilmah; Freedom Furniture; the list goes on. The moral question for them now is whether or not they’ll resume their support for Jones when the opprobrium abates.

Jones has, of course, been pilloried from all quarters and all sides of politics, though, again, there’s been discussion about the timing and tenor of the condemnations: compare Malcolm Turnbull’s brisk and unequivocal condemnation to Tony Abbott’s relatively tardy and tame one. That’s all grist for the mill for commentators, and for the Labor Party. I’ll leave that there and return to the central theme.

Jones’ remarks would have created outrage at any time in any context. Outrage is, after all, part of his stock in trade. Nonetheless, it’s the timing here that’s really pushed his career to the limit; that forced him to “man up” (and note, even his apologies are gendered: the subtle implication throughout was that Gillard ought to do the same if she wanted to mess with the big boys).

Once, Jones would have scoffed at the most timid suggestion that he apologise. This time it’s different. It’s not just the sheer vindictiveness of what he said; it’s that it marks the symbolic bottoming-out of our public discourse that has been an increasing topic of debate essentially since Tony Abbott assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party.

It comes barely a fortnight after The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper with more than its own share of print-version shock jocks, launched a war on Twitter trolls. That it was a journalist from the same newspaper that broke the yarn (along with, it should be acknowledged, Twitter user @greenat16) is a wonderful irony.

As I wrote to 2GB, I wasn’t sure where they drew their own lines in the sand. But Australians, as I predicted, have drawn it for them, and sent a reminder to our political classes: the level of bile in public debate is starting to make us all sick. And, in this case, it’s social media users that stood up to the real trolls in our society. Not the twerps on Twitter; the ones with real power and influence.

Alan Jones is as entitled to his views as the rest of us. All of us occasionally say things that transgress the bounds of good taste, and nothing Jones said to a private gathering of young Tories was, as far as I can tell, defamatory, discriminatory or an incitement to violence. The same can’t be said of many of his previous utterances.

At the end of the day, the real question is why Jones and his ilk – Sandilands, Jackie O, Ray Hadley and the rest – should be afforded the continuing privilege of a microphone. That’s something that only their audiences, and the advertisers that enable their careers can really answer, but on the weekend they were reminded, again, that outrage cuts both ways – and trafficking in it comes at a cost.

Misogynists and nut jobs need to turn down the volume

Last Friday, I saw something that disturbed me greatly: a young man wearing what appeared to be a home-made T-shirt featuring a caricature of Prime Minister Julia Gillard. She had a bullet in her head.

That sort of thing, unfortunately, will be of little surprise to Gillard, who the day before had called out the “misogynists and nut jobs” on the internet, where calls for her assassination, both veiled and overt, proliferate.

They proliferate on talkback radio too. And it’s not just the callers. Alan Jones infamously suggested – on five occasions last year – that Gillard ought to be “put in a chaff bag” and dumped at sea.

Mysteriously, the broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, found in June that Jones’ comments did not incite violence or hatred – at least, not violence or hatred based on the PM’s gender. That was a relief, wasn’t it?

Let’s now look at the reality of last week’s events.

At the beginning of Gillard’s presser – the same one where she poured scorn on the nut jobs bent on her destruction – one of them strolled past security, entirely unchallenged, to personally deliver her a message on the dangers of “mind control”.

The day before that, a 52-year-old man avoided jail after threatening to kill Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and state Labor MP Jill Hennessy at a public function. He was highly agitated; both women were justifiably frightened.

Security is now being upgraded to the homes of MPs, as well as presumably being reviewed at Parliament House. We can be grateful that that’s all, for now. In the meantime, we desperately need to turn down the temperature of political debate.

Everyone, on both sides of politics, inside and outside the parliamentary chamber, needs to just stop for a moment. Step away from the computer, away from forums and comment threads and and Twitter. Don’t turn up your radio. Turn it off.

Go outside. Get a little air. For Pete’s sake, get a sense of perspective. That’s what’s lacking in Australia at the moment. The language is of catastrophe. Wrecking balls, python squeezes, crisis on our borders (mostly Kiwis coming by plane, as it happens).

True, those phrases come from the federal opposition. Tony Abbott has, in anyone’s estimation, been an opposition leader true to his pugilist past, vowing from the moment of his ascension to the job that opposition leaders were there to oppose.

He’s certainly a big reason for the relentless partisanship of our national debate. But he’s far from the only one, helped along as he is by the shock jocks and shit-stirrers and hate-mongers who have heaped vilification on our first female PM from day one.

Labor can play that game too, especially when it comes to tipping a bucket on themselves. If we’re to believe Wayne Swan, the only thing worse than a Tony Abbott-led Australia is one led by Kevin Rudd. The venom on all sides is astounding.

Gillard made an astute comment last week about Tea Party-style interventions perverting the tone of our politics, where even the hardest facts take a distant second place to a kind of rolling frenzy of vituperation.

She was right to observe that, with information bombarding all of us constantly, it’s becoming more and more difficult to parse that information effectively. And lies, repeated often enough, will always become truths to those predisposed to believe them.

Political debate, as we all know, has been mostly reduced  to sets of stock phrases, repeated ad nauseam to penetrate minds dulled, perhaps more than anything, by volume: not just of information, but the decibels with which the message is delivered.

It all reaches boiling point in the online environment, where the conspiracy theorists, the politically disenfranchised, and the manifestly unstable find themselves most at home.

Australia’s democracy has been distinguished by moderation. Bipartisanship is more common that frequently supposed, as both the Labor and Liberal parties have mostly tried to lay claim to the centre of political life. It’s an important factor in our stability.

Compare that to the current direction of US politics, where fear seems to be the guiding principle, and even the mention of gun control by a candidate from either major party is considered tantamount to political suicide, if not worse.

We can thank John Howard for delivering some of the tightest firearms restrictions in the developed world in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. Unfortunately, no one can legislate for sanity.

It will only take one aggrieved soul with an axe to grind and sufficiently deluded conviction in his righteousness to change the way politics in this country is conducted forever. Let’s all take a deep breath, and hope it never comes to that.

First published in The Age, 28 August 2012