One could only marvel at the transformation of the minor matter of the regulatory powers of the Clean Energy Regulator and the ACCC in relation to the carbon pricing package into yet another cri de coeur for the armed struggle against climate-change action.

Strangely, while insisting that there is a problem with international carbon permits because foreign governments don’t vet them properly, the Coalition has been confecting “carbon cops” as the next threat to our civil liberties. Central to this is the suggestion in the media and from the Coalition that private individuals will be targeted by the regulator, rather than business producing emissions. Observe how Joe Hockey does it:

This is a government that is addicted to bureaucracy, more carbon cops, more carbon regulation, more carbon laws, more red tape for everyday Australians.

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Before “carbon cops”, busting down your front door and scaring the kids in pursuit of unauthorised emissions, had been invented for the purposes of being demonised, the Coalition had also insisted the government was going to “gag small business” from explaining price rises causes by a carbon price with threats of $1.1 million fines.  “The Gillard government’s plan to use the ACCC to gag small businesses from informing consumers of price increases due to the carbon tax is a further attack on the struggling sector,” insisted the Liberals.

I haven’t googled but I’m sure I don’t recall Liberals jacking up when the Howard government gave the ACCC a specific new power relating to “price exploitation” to enable it to prosecute businesses using the GST as a pretext for jacking prices up.

This time around, the ACCC won’t have any new powers to “gag” small business. They‘ll have the same powers they currently have to deal with false and misleading conduct, and require substantiation of prices, under the Australian Consumer Law. That was introduced earlier this year after two consumer acts passed last year that replaced the old TPA with the Competition and Consumer Act.

The Coalition supported both bills.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott has added chemistry to his areas of expertise — hitherto confined to climate science and economics — courtesy of his description of carbon dioxide as “invisible, odourless, weightless, tasteless”, a strange description of something he proposes to spend billions of taxpayer dollars buying by the tonne.

So, for the sake of clarity, the Coalition climate change policy appears thus to be to buy tonnes of something that has no weight, with no one to check whether anything has been purchased at all, and the ACCC is not to prevent businesses from falsely claiming it has increased their prices,  using powers the Coalition happily voted for.

Really, public policy debate in Australia appears to be rapidly falling to the level of a talkback radio call, free of facts, logic or evidence.

On the face of it, this is a peculiar development. Australia has a highly educated population, with an education system that compares favourably to others in the OECD. Decades of economic reform under both sides of politics has been accompanied by a vigorous but well-informed economic debate; nowhere else in the world has a senior politician complained about the resident galah talking about microeconomic reform. Yet public discussion of an economic reform that was embraced by no less than John Howard is teetering on alfoil hat stuff.

Part of the responsibility can be sheeted home to an opposition that, since it regards its opponents as illegitimate, feels no constraint about its campaign to remove it from office. If you’re prepared to talk down the economy and suggest foreign investors take their money elsewhere, skipping the need for facts and consistency is neither here nor there.

And part falls to section of the media, most particularly several shock jocks and News Ltd, who have campaigned against climate change action with an aggressive disregard for facts. Indeed, it might be useful to adopt some sort of measure such as a Jones Unit — named after Alan Jones and the Telegraph’s Gemma Jones — to describe the astronomic distances by which their claims about carbon pricing diverge from reality.

Beyond that, one moves into the sort of chicken-and-egg territory traversed by Lindsay Tanner in Sideshow —  who dumbed down first — the politicians, the media, or the audiences? Did audiences tune out, did the media trivialise debate, did politicians resort to spin first?

The reliance on spin and tight messaging in politics is important. In this context, “spin” is any of the set of tools used to keep politicians relentlessly on-message and in control of the media cycle. The set is quite varied, but readers will be familiar with most of the tools — the reliance on a steady stream of meaningless announceables, the structuring of communications around a specific and carefully planned messages, the treatment of media events not as actual exchanges but as platforms for disseminating talking points.

Let’s try this theory: when you spin, truth and consistency are of no more importance than other features of messages, such as cut-through or simplicity. The lack of truth of any message, or the inconsistency of one message with a previous one, is not necessarily problematic.

This doesn’t go unnoticed by the people with whom you’re communicating. In essence, politicians have for years been telling voters and journalists that truth and consistency aren’t important in public debate. And this becomes a sort of political variation on McLuhan’s maxim that the medium is the message. McLuhan was suggesting — I await a Crikey reader producing him from off-screen to tell me “you know nothing of my work” —  that the impact of the medium itself wrought far greater long-term change than the content delivered, and that the delivered content was itself a medium for other content.

As it happens, political spinning, despite its multimedia nature, fits reasonably well into that. Not merely is the delivered content of spin — the talking points uttered by the politician, the photo op — itself a medium for a specific political message, but if you expose voters and the media long enough to the view that truth and consistency are unimportant, it eventually shapes public debate along exactly those lines.

In this, Labor has no one to blame but itself, not Tony Abbott, not News Ltd, just itself. Labor occupies both ends of spin spectrum — it was elevated to a fine art under NSW Labor in the Carr years, but under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard it has been inept and painfully transparent. The Howard government was a brilliant media manager — although it’s easier to manage the media when they’re in your camp — but Howard himself always retained a capacity to communicate directly with voters. He may have carefully parsed his words, but he was able to communicate without relying on a page of talking points, a capacity now almost non-existent in Labor ranks since Lindsay Tanner bailed out.

An environment in which the alternative prime minister can utter patent nonsense and it be regarded as barely worthy of note is, thus, partly Labor’s own creation, never mind how inept this particularl government might be at getting its own message across. They’ve spent decades signalling to us that facts and and consistency don’t matter, and the rest of us have acquired a taste for exactly that style of debate. We’re all spinners now.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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