A Response to Greg Barns: what makes a story a good story?

Aug 20, 2021

Greg Barns has evidently found Pearls and Irritations a suitable venue for exercising his skills as a barrister – that is, making a good case for someone (or something).  One of these skills is, of course, ignoring the factors that don’t support your argument.  This doesn’t matter in court, where there is another barrister employed to put the opposite argument, but readers of Pearls and Irritations have to work out for themselves what the corrective might be, and what they would conclude about the argument.

In his piece published on the 12th of August, Barns insists that a liberal would not be opposed to public health measures to control the Covid outbreak, since no individual has the right to harm others, as long as they included ‘nuance’ and ‘protection for individual rights’.  It is not clear how this would affect Covid restrictions, but appears to mean the inclusion of ‘opt-out’ clauses.

But the key fact about Covid (and particularly the Delta variant) is that it can be asymptomatic.  In other words, you may contract the virus, and harm others by passing it on to them, without even realising that you have the virus and that you are spreading it to others.  So the appropriate public health measure is for everyone to wear a face mask when in contact with others, so that they do not spread the virus un wittingly.

There is a demand that governments make this obligatory – and this infuriates some, who see it as an infringement on their liberty.  Presumably Greg Barns would argue that the people who don’t want to wear a mask should be able to ‘opt out’ of this requirement, and retain their previously-unchallenged right to make other people sick – not that they put it like this.

What would make more sense for Barns to argue is to accept (with JS Mill) that people do not have the right to infect others, and should not go into public places (like streets, shops, or bars) unless they can be sure that they won’t – by masking, testing, or vaccinating.  If they don’t want to take these steps to guarantee that they’re not harming others, they can do their shopping on-line, have it delivered – and make sure that everyone else in the household observes the same rules.  This is perfectly practicable, but people don’t like it because it restricts their freedom – and they want to have freedom without taking responsibility for what they do with it.  What does Barns say to them ?

A week earlier (5 August), Barns had commented on Grace Tame’s criticism of Scott Morrison’s decision to appoint Christian Porter Acting Leader of the House in the absence (Covid-induced isolation) of Peter Dutton.  Tame had focused on the symbolic significance of the appointment: what message was conveyed to women by the appointment, as leader of government business, of someone accused of a sexual assault ?  Barns managed to misperceive this as a demand for discrimination in employment (Porter was already employed, and this continued).

Barns implied that Porter was somehow a victim, since he had not been convicted by a court.  Well, this often happens – e.g. Jake Davison, who shot five people (including a three-year-old) in the UK last week before shooting himself.  Sometimes, the killer is shot by police.  In any case, we manage to work it out without as court decision.  The reason Porter has not been charged is that his alleged victim, after years of anguish, took her own life.  But the coroner is still inquiring into the case, so it has not disappeared from view, nor has the problem it raises for governing

Barns also failed to mention that the appointment was unnecessary: David Gillespie had been appointed Deputy Leader of the House and paid for this; he could presumably deputise for Dutton, particularly with the IT at his command.  But Morrison, who thinks of little other than partisan advantage, decided that giving Christian Porter a little boost might appeal to the hard right in the coalition, and to voters inclined to vote for One Nation.  So Tame was correct: it was about political messaging, not discrimination in employment, and she was right in discerning the message for women (and anyone who cares about the place of gender in governing).

That Barns can’t see this might be explained in two ways.  One is ambulance-chasing: as a barrister (i.e. a small businessman), he can see that where there’s an anti-discrimination case, there are fees.  The other is collective advocacy (as a Criminal Justice Spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance): if you want justice, you need lawyers – and you then get stuck with whatever the lawyers say is just.  If a court (i.e. the lawyers) can’t conclude that it happened (because the victim killed herself), then it didn’t happen, and the man is ‘innocent’.  (Scottish courts are a bit more canny: they can conclude ‘Not Proven’.)  But in Australia, you’re in the clear.

After a carer studying governing, that’s how I see it.  But everyone has to decide how it makes sense to them.

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