Ellis & Hamilton – defrocked priests muttering on the edge

I read the views of two men today that were diametrically different but strangely the same.

Both writers opined on issues of the day, and both were once considered high priests in their respective spheres. One was witheringly sanctimonious while the other was simply lecherous. One decried humanity while the other sought to excuse its depravity.

But my response to both men was the same – I concluded that they are embarrassingly out of touch with contemporary community views and perhaps even with sanity.

I don’t accept the suggestion that Bob Ellis’ appallingly misogynist piece was in fact a mirror held up to shock an Australian community desensitised by morally-bankrupt television shows and ethically-challenged paparazzi.

Nor do I accept Clive Hamilton’s denunciation of everyday Australians as an important wakeup call to those supposedly duped by shock jocks into changing their views on climate action.

I’m not going to declaim the many ways Ellis made lame excuses for voyeuristic and sexually predatory behaviour. He is more than adequately scrutinised here and here.

However it appears Hamilton’s latest sermon received much less attention. While it is not sexist like Ellis’ pontification, it is similarly disdainful if not bordering on misanthropic. And unlike Ellis, who seems only to want to put sexually-active women in their “rightful” place, Hamilton has upbraided the whole Australian community.

Hamilton denounces those who “have transformed themselves from a citizenry worried about global warming, and asking for something to be done, into an outraged mob indignant to discover that their noble desire to protect the future means they must pay a bit more for petrol and power.”

He accuses Australians of being selfish, superficial and environmental wreckers:

What do Australians want? The answer is clear. We want symbols of action but not action itself. We want to hear words that make us feel good about ourselves but none that ask us to make any sacrifice. We care about climate change, but we hate the idea of having to do anything about it.

Give us leaders, says the great Australian public, as long as they do not ask us to follow. So the public gets what it wants – hollow leaders who will go through the motions, massaging their sense of entitlement to make them feel secure.

So we may safely write the epitaph of this sad and flabby nation: “Built by resolve and stoicism; destroyed by self-indulgence and timidity.”

Both Ellis and Hamilton are out of sync with the Australian community.

As I have written elsewhere, Australians are motivated by winning, not by losing.

We are rarely motivated by guilt.

If indeed Bob Ellis was trying to shame the Australian community into facing up to its double-standards on the acceptability of certain sexual behaviours, then he failed dismally. All Ellis generated was derision and outraged rejection of his article.

Similarly, there is no point in Clive Hamilton trying to shame Australians into taking climate action. Telling us that we are the worst (per capita) climate polluters or flabby and self-indulgent will generate a reaction no less dismissive than that received by Bob Ellis.

In their different ways Ellis and Hamilton were once considered bold idealists and prophets; now they are nothing more than defrocked priests, muttering on the extreme edge of their respective congregations.

Both are out of touch and discredited. No-one should pay either of them any attention any more.

Voters don’t care about political lies

The Coalition and conservative media might as well stop flogging the dead horse known as JuLIAR. They’re wasting their breath because the public just doesn’t care if a politician is accused of, or even found to be, lying.

These days, lack of truth is what voters expect from all politicians: there’s no political capital to be gained or lost from one MP pointing an outraged finger at another.

Politicians are, however, taking a big political risk if their behaviour suggests they can’t be trusted to do what’s right for the country.

The public’s inoculation against political dishonesty seems to have started in the Howard years.

While voters were considerably unhappy with Keating’s broken L-A-W promise on tax cuts in 1993, and sent him to the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister, PJK was still able to drag that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders during his term. It’s clear this breach of faith nevertheless contributed to the wave of anti-Keating sentiment that swept him from office in 1996.

During the Howard years, however, it’s as if voters became accustomed to, and then unfazed by, political deceit. John Howard first swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister he successfully took such a tax to the 1998 election. Some would say Howard was not actually “successful”, having only secured 49% of the vote, but I’d argue that his success was measured by the two election wins that followed the GST. Howard also backtracked on numerous commitments made during the 1998 election campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises.

Even more memorable are the claims made against the PM in 2004 that he lied about children being thrown overboard by boat-bourn asylum seekers in 2001.

Political observers were puzzled at the time that this revelation did not cause voters to desert the Coalition. Newspoll’s tracking of how voters perceived Howard’s trustworthiness found that his rating had dipped only slightly from 60% in 1995 to 57% at the height of the furore.

Howard’s trustworthiness rating dropped further, to 51% at the time of his election win over Opposition Leader Mark Latham, whose own trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.

Almost counter-intuitively, Howard fought that election on a platform of trust. He announced the election with a direct call to voter values: “Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards?” “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?”

The ALP clearly thought they had an edge over the PM in the trustworthiness stakes. Latham’s response was to claim: “We’ve had too much dishonesty from the Howard Government.” “The election is about trust. The Government has been dishonest for too long.”

Unfortunately for Latham, he and the ALP did not differentiate between a voter’s trust in a politician to tell the truth and their faith in that politician to run the government responsibly.

Politicians as a group haven’t been trusted by voters for a very long time. The Roy Morgan “Image of Professions Survey”, conducted over the past 16 years, ranks state and federal politicians 22nd and 23rd out of 30 professions when it comes to perceived honesty and ethical standards. (Union leaders rank 24th and newspaper journalists 27th.)

An interesting print article on honesty in politics and the children overboard issue in 2004 quotes a pollster explaining the contrast between voters believing politicians and actually trusting them to do their job: “We have total faith in almost nobody, but we put conditional trust in each of our institutions to perform their function. We trust the bank enough to move our money from one account to another; we trust the politicians enough to run the country. It’s only when we think they are not taking any notice of us at all that we rebel and invent something like One Nation to get their attention. We basically trust them just enough.”

This argument applies equally today and goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Greens.

The article concludes by suggesting that “while leaders deliver on our core demands, it seems that we are prepared to live with their dishonesty ….. [yesterday’s poll] found 60% believed Howard had deliberately lied over children overboard, [but] only half that level – 29% – thought he should lose his job over it.”

This is why PM Gillard can privately dismiss current accusations of deception over the carbon tax. As long as she can convince Australian voters that she is running the government responsibly and making the right decisions on behalf of the whole community, as opposed to conceding to the whims of a few (that is, Green voters), she is inoculated against this attack.

This post also appeared at The Drum / Unleashed