Back when I was writing for Planning News, I wrote an editorial about Justin Madden’s handling of the Windsor Hotel debacle. My point then was that politicians are not well served by the over-manipulation of their communication, which ends up alienating the public and cutting politicians off from legitimate sources of feedback. It has therefore been great to see that the new Victorian Planning Minister Matthew Guy has kept up with his twitter account and is obviously writing the posts himself rather than letting a media person do it.

So rather than the usual drip feed of press releases, Guy’s account is full of obviously self-generated content that a media adviser would have probably tried to talk him out of, such as salutes to Joh Bjelke-Petersen and amusingly childish baiting of Labor politicians. To his credit, too, he has been responding directly to various tweets sent to or about him.

All this is good, and an advance on Labor’s media management, which makes me somewhat reluctant to pick on things he has said. But this morning he re-tweeted this comment from the 3AW feed:

Neil Mitchell: I would take Bob Brown and put him in cage with the looters and scam artists and put him in a river .. he’s a dill

While a re-tweet isn’t necessarily an endorsement, there is no suggestion by Guy that he is posting it as, for example, an example of an unhelpful contribution to the debate. Where do we start with this?

There has been a lot of talk in the past week or so about the issue of incitement in political discourse, in response to suggestions that politicians such as Sarah Palin should share some responsibility for the tragic shootings in Tucson, Arizona, on the 8th of January. Such comments have been met with angry accusations that no link can be established and that such a tragedy shouldn’t be politically exploited.

Of course it’s true that Palin or other political and media figures shouldn’t be held responsible for the actions of a madman. But the point is that even if there’s no link at all between those events and the tone of the political discourse — and at the moment there’s no evidence that there is — it remains perfectly valid to point out that inflammatory personal attacks are potentially dangerous and should be avoided. (I’ve been terrified of Glenn Beck for some time now because his worldview and approach I think are perfectly pitched to spur crazy people on to hateful acts).

Lunatics do get fired up by politicians and the media, and public figures do receive threats from psychos out there. For Neil Mitchell to suggest a prominent politician should be “put in a cage with looters and scam artists and put … in a river” is bad enough. For the current Planning Minister to implicitly endorse such a call by re-tweeting it is disgraceful.

The other thing that bothers me about this is the innocuousness of the comments that have prompted this attack. The 3AW website has a story about Brown’s comments and Neil  Mitchell’s editorial response, which outlines Brown’s views as follows:

“It’s the single biggest cause — burning coal — for climate change and it must take its major share of responsibility for the weather events we are seeing unfolding now.

“We know that the oceans around Australia are at record high temperatures, and that’s causing the moisture in the air which is leading to these catastrophic floods. It is costing billions of dollars, besides the pain, the anguish, the loss of life, the destruction and it should not be left to ordinary taxpayers to bear the full brunt of that.”

He has also told Sky News: “(It) takes some guts to be able to speak directly about the causal factors in great tragedies like this.

“There’s very little doubt that the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for the hottest oceans we’ve ever seen off Australia, which in turn the scientists are saying very clearly is responsible for the quite extraordinary and harrowing floods that we’ve seen.

“We’ve just got the assessment that 2010 was both the hottest and wettest year recorded in global history. We can’t turn our backs on that reality. We as a mature society, a democratic society, have to look at that reality and ask ourselves, are we going to continue down that direction or should we change it?

“I believe that everybody should be doing what they can to help out in the flood emergencies, as with other great civil emergencies that we have in Australia, but I believe we also should be maturely debating the issue of cause and effect here.”

Guy addressed this argument directly himself yesterday when he tweeted:

Hard to believe Bob Brown could be so insensitive to QLD miners after many had their homes washed away.

We have seen the discussion of both the sensitivity and the scientific basis for drawing causal links between weather-related tragedies and man-made climate change before: I remember Clive Hamilton, for example, being lambasted for raising the issue of climate change in the days after the Black Saturday bushfires. But what’s the problem here? On the sensitivity front, the talk after any tragedy always turns to the causes, and does so quickly.

I don’t recall anybody querying the sensitivity of raising the role of overhead electricity wires, the stay-or-go policy, or land use planning practices, in the days after Black Saturday. People are already, quite rightly, asking whether factors such as subdivision of low-lying land may have contributed to the devastation from the Queensland floods. Why should discussing climate change be any different?

Guy argues that Brown has affronted miners who have lost homes. But it’s Guy that has made that connection: Brown wasn’t demonising individual miners, he was talking of the way an industry (and by implication, government energy policy) effects the climate. Is that a spurious link? Well, just as you’ll probably never definitively prove a direct causal link between provocative comments by politicians and acts of violence by crazy people, you’ll never be able to prove a link between any individual weather event and climate change. That’s just not how it works: extreme weather happens, and is never “caused” by any one thing. But climate change can be expected, overall, to increase the incidence of such events and their severity. So it surely warrants discussion as a potential contributing factor in the more general issue of what we should do to avoid recurrence of such events.

Perhaps the complaint is that it’s opportunistic to raise a political point at a time of tragedy. Yet that’s making the mistake endemic in political and media circles of considering “climate change” as akin to a political ideology that you can believe in and argue about, like  socialism or liberalism or libertarianism or the union movement. It is only in the political sphere (and the media coverage that surrounds it) that climate change  is seen this way, with a for and against camp that warrant equal reporting in the name of “balance.” In the actual world, outside of political debate, climate change is accepted by the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. Of course there is argument about detail and the odd dissenter — especially likely once the issue has been politicised, since scientists have political leanings too — but this does not amount to any serious debate. It’s in this context, where climate change is accepted as something that is probably occurring right now and is a grave risk, that it becomes simply foolish not to talk about it as a possible factor in bushfire and flood events. Of course, the political debate should be sensitive to  those affected by the disaster, but no flood victim is well served if we define sensitivity so broadly that it precludes us from examining some potential contributors to the problem.

Guy himself has already been a participant in the debates surrounding such events. Before the election, he was very critical of the previous government’s approach to planning for sea level increase in places such as Lakes Entrance; we asked him about both this issue and the planning industry’s response to bushfire risk in our interview in the November 2010 Planning News. Quite rightly, he questioned the approach of Justin Madden and the Victorian Government to these issues, and I agreed with a lot of what he said. These are complex issues and we tried, in our limited time, to get some of the details out of him that aren’t normally allowed for in the general media’s discussion of politics, which by necessity deals with broad expressions of view and short-term political point-scoring.

As we argued in Planning News, Madden became a captive of that political cycle, and ultimately both he and the Brumby government paid the price. Things like social media can help someone like Matthew Guy avoid that trap and engage in more nuanced and genuine debate. He could clarify what his position on climate change is. He could explain what he’s going to do to guard against flood damage. He could explain how the cost burden of these measures will be shared out. He could explain why certain responses are supported and others are rejected. For that matter, he could explain exactly what about Bob Brown’s comments was so offensive. Alas, this is not what he has chosen to do in this instance.

Matthew Guy has learnt half of Madden’s lesson by refusing to let his ascension to government cut him off from the direct interaction twitter allows. But he wastes that insight if he can’t move beyond the lowest forms of political discourse.

This was originally published at the blog Sterow.

Peter Fray

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