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Talking the talk, walking the walk

By Katy Barnett - posted Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The more I see, the more I’m disappointed with KRudd’s government. I confess that I had high hopes at the start, which was probably a mistake. One should never invest politicians with hope.

There were a few things that really worried me from the start about the government - the love of “spin” over substance was the main thing. Basically I’m a deeply practical person. Symbolism can be important (as Noel Pearson has argued) but if it’s not followed by real practical change I get irritated. Big symbolic gestures are ultimately pretty hollow if there isn’t anything backing them up.

From my point of view, the first serious disappointment was the reaction of the KRudd government to the insulation scandal. As I said at the time, I was deeply distressed that Garrett tried to pass the buck on the deaths of workers, and it seemed to be contrary to the history and origins of the Labor party. Yes, the greedy installers were to blame too, but the system was set up in such a way as to allow rorting to take place, and it wasn’t remedied even when the government was advised of the risks. Wasn’t the point of the Labor movement to protect workers from unscrupulous employers?


Then there was the school building stimulus package which had also been set up in such a way that it could be rorted, but again no one had done anything. I must confess that when KRudd started going on about coming in and taking over the hospital system, I wondered whether his government could be trusted, or would they just hurriedly set up another system which had a creditable aim, but which allowed people to rort it?

Added to that, there was the about-turn on the ETS. Now, I must confess that I was never convinced that the ETS would be the best option. I note that the EU carbon trading scheme has been beset with allegations of widespread fraud and corruption. On this one, I felt that perhaps a carbon tax might be the better course of action (such that companies had to pay the real costs of fuel consumption).

Contrary to most lefties of my acquaintance, as I said at the time, I wondered if we should wait until Copenhagen to see what everyone else did, because there’s no point making a gesture and causing the Australian populace a lot of pain if we’re the only country in the world to do it and the practical impact on global emissions is therefore minimal.

(Personally, I think it’s overestimating our importance to think we’d provide any kind of example to other countries apart from New Zealand and Oceania, and even if they followed us, the impact would still be minimal. Nonetheless, something will have to give eventually with regard to fuel consumption.)

Still: if you say (as KRudd did) that climate change is the “great moral challenge of our generation” and that action could not be delayed regardless of what other countries did, how can you suddenly turn around and put off doing anything? Which is of course, what the Rudd government just did. If you really believe something is a great moral challenge, you don’t just roll over like that. As they pointed out at Larvatus Prodeo, I wonder what little Gracie thinks of KRudd now?

And then there’s other U-turns, like the recent decision to run political advertising on the resources tax. Apparently it’s a state of emergency so that justifies running taxpayer funded advertising in favour of the resources tax.


Clearly policy is not being driven by what the government believes is best for us; it’s being driven by opinion polls. It’s all about style over substance, not principle. Let’s just throw money at things - it doesn’t matter if the scheme is hasty and provides incentives for shonky operators - as long as it looks like we’re doing something. The government won’t do anything which may be unpopular in the short term, but good for us in the long run - a symptom of the obsession with opinion polls.

Then there’s actions like expelling an Israeli diplomat for passport fraud. I saw this as a very cynical decision intended to dispel attention from other problems. (It’s always easy to have a go at the Jews and pander to prejudice. Poor Jews, they’re everyone’s favourite scapegoat.) And the decision to set up a hotline to “dob in an Asian” with respect to foreigners buying Australian property - even though data later revealed that there wasn’t a problem. That’s just dogwhistle stuff.

Anyway, I have to say that I sighed a huge cynical sigh when I saw the latest announcement in the newspaper:

The Rudd government will launch an international legal case against Japanese “scientific whaling” next week - but there is no guarantee even a successful action will stop whales being hunted in the Antarctic.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Japanese “scientific whaling” is a disgrace. There’s no way it’s scientific, it’s all about hunting whales for food. I don’t think they should be allowed to do it. But the question is whether this action is really undertaken because the government wants to stop Japanese scientific whaling. My suspicion is that it’s undertaken because they want to look good, and so that they can say they didn’t backtrack on at least one promise. It’s not initiated because they think they might actually achieve anything with it. I’m sure I’ll get people in comments saying, “Oh, but it’s important symbolically”. Hmmm, thinking like a lawyer, if we lose, it might actually backfire and convince the Japanese that their actions are legitimate and allowable.

I’m also sure I’ll get people saying in comments, “But the Liberals are worse”. The thing is that I naively thought these guys were better than that, and that they would act in a principled manner. This is why I have a real sense of betrayal and disappointment. Nonetheless, while I am very disappointed in the KRudd government (and have come to dislike KRudd intensely), I can’t countenance any of the alternatives. For me, it’s a question of whom I hate least. Gee, that’s a sad state to be in.

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First published in Skeptic Lawyer on May 30, 2010.

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About the Author

Dr Katy Barnett is a lawyer, blogger and lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She lives in Melbourne, Australia and blogs at Skepticlawyer.

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