NOEL TURNBULL. Who cares about scandals, incompetence and corruption?

Recently the New Daily ran two Michael Pascoe pieces exposing a $2.5 billion regional grants program rort 25 times bigger than the sports rorts. Forwarding it on to someone elicited the surprising response: “Who cares?”

Illustration by Alex Anstey

The person wasn’t being dismissive but rather making a comment on how the succession of scandals, incompetence and corruption in seven years of Liberal National Party Governments had caused only limited outrage and didn’t impact on their re-elections beyond narrowing their winning margin.

Who does care about the governments track record and if they don’t why not?

Just a brief refresher on the track record ought to start with the denial of one of the world’s most significant existential risks (after nuclear war) climate change; and the continued disgrace of Indigenous policy. The latter is pertinent in the Morrison dismissive response to the George Floyd murder and Indigenous deaths in custody. Equally he evaded, in typical fashion, answers to questions about Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 45,000 year old site which ought to have been the World Heritage list.

But after that you can make up your own list. Slashing $783 million from the ABC since 2014; the NBN fiasco; the huge waste of money revealed in 2018 at Senate estimates that, in 2016–17 alone, the Australian government spent $4.06 billion, including $1.57 billion for onshore compliance and detention and $1.08 billion for its offshore prisons; the Robodebt cruelty which, yet again, the Prime Minister dismissed and refused to apologise for; the progressive erosion of civil rights and expansion of surveillance under Peter Dutton; ongoing IT failures such as the recent use of MyGov by scammers; and the never-ending attempt to hobble industry superannuation so that private funds can gouge members more freely.

Throw in the secret prosecution of East Timor whistle-blowers; persecution of universities (other than the four private ones who got access to JobKeeper); the failure to legislate for an integrity commission; subsidies to companies which exacerbate climate change; callous disregard for the sufferings of casual and contract workers affected by the pandemic; persistent refusal to act on banking industry exploitation and dishonesty until the tide of opinion and divisions within the Coalition forced the government to act; callous neglect of the bushfire calamity; savage cuts for the arts and other perceived ‘enemies’; and, the fact that during this lockdown – thanks to Coalition policies there is a digital divide in which 2.5 million Australians don’t have an internet connection.

So why don’t people care?

Gary Wills in his book, Papal Sin talks about Thomas Aquinas’ concept of ‘cultivated ignorance’ or ignorantia affectata which Wills describes as “an ignorance so useful that one protects it, keeps it from the light, in order to keep using it.” Wills goes on to suggest that: “Certainly in a time that demands intellectual honesty ……. to remain oblivious of the most basic questions concerning dishonesty is to disqualify oneself for serious exchanges with one’s peers.” Wills was discussing, from the perspective of his Catholic faith, how the structures and attitudes of the ‘church’ (ie the Pope and the Curia rather than the body of its adherents) consistently creates ‘structures of deceit’ around issues just as the Morrison Government does on so many issues so that specific world-views and specific structures cultivate ignorance.

The media, rather than being a solution, is a big part of the problem. While the print media is in decline the dominance of the Murdoch media in print in so many capital cities still provides a welcome cushion ensuring that Labor, Green or progressive policies and actions are denigrated and demonised while Coalition policies and actions are praised or, if disastrous, conveniently ignored or explained away with techniques a medieval scholastic would be embarrassed to use.

The media’s obsession with doom and disasters also diminishes the relevance and significance of other events. If it bleeds it leads philosophy creates cultures which can safely ignore analysis of government malfeasance as insufficiently arresting.

Political journalists (who, with a few notable exceptions, probably should still be called reporters simply because they mainly report what people spoon feed them) are obsessed with political tactics, leadership and pointless speculation about what might happen next rather than pausing to analyse what just happened.

Politicians have also become expert in smothering issues in a never-ending, constantly changing stream of sound bites and noise which is not about communication but anaesthetisation. This constant chatter is in contrast to the French President, Charles de Gaulle, who was a master of using silence rather than verbiage. Although Morrison may have something in common with De Gaulle. In a Le Figaro cartoon which captures De Gaulle’s media conference tactics (described in a Mark Mazower review of Julian Jackson’s new De Gaulle biography) of inviting questions and then ignoring them to talk about what he wanted to talk about. In the cartoon De Gaulle says: “I believe I heard from the back of the room someone failing to ask me the question I will now answer.”

Then there is social media, more fittingly described as the world’s largest echo chamber, where like talk to like while Russians, conspiracy theorists, Trump supporters, anti-vaxxers, climate change denialists and the radical right peddle disinformation.

The public’s role in all this is not to be overlooked. Years of politicians mouthing talking points; parliamentary debate becoming a sad joke; secrecy; broken promises; lies and the refusal to ever apologise or explain have bred deep cynicism in much of the public. True believers on all sides reinforce the current situation while others despair or retreat into apathy.

In his book, The New Despotism, the democracy theorist John Keane talks about how citizens surrender political life. Reviewing the book in Australian Book Review (June-July 2020) Glyn Davis writes: “In particular, argues Keane, the middle class proves fickle about democratic principles. It can be bought with good services, cash payments and being left alone. Older political theory expected a prosperous middle class to demand representation. Yet any assumed link between a bourgeoisies, capitalism, and democracy is fairly disproved around the world.” In Australia – consistent with this theory – negative gearing, franking credits and similar policies keep the middle classes fearful of threats and compliant.

The words of neither the Vladimir Lenin text – What is to be Done? – or those of the John Lennon lyric Imagine – provide answers but at least provide calls to action about the ‘who cares’ despair many feel.

Meanwhile, we are not the first to confront these problems. Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico’s fresco series, Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government, raised many of the same questions 690 years ago even if it is rather depressing to be still addressing issues raised by an artist in the 1330s.

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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