Published in The Weekend Australian on 25.01.14
Everything comes to an end. The Age of Reason that ushered in the period of the Enlightment is over. Public policy debate these days is conducted from preconceived ideological positions. To the extent that facts are used at all, they are deployed to bolster each side’s ideologically driven claims. Facts that contradict a position are dismissed as having emanated from a conspiracy of the left or the right. Australia’s society and economy have thrived on sound policy making. That, too, is coming to an end. Our country will be the poorer for it.
Asylum seeker hysteria and the climate change brawl typify the end of reason. Tragically, education policy – the initial impulse for the Age of Reason – isn’t far behind.
Present asylum seeker policy is being driven by a Prime Minister who describes boat arrivals as a “peaceful invasion.” Having assured Indonesia that Australia would respect its sovereignty, the government claims the navy didn’t know it had entered Indonesian waters at least five times despite being fully equipped with global positioning systems. The government refuses to say who ordered the navy into Indonesia’s waters. A successful Coalition candidate for a western Sydney electorate blamed asylum seekers for clogging up the roads into the city.
While these statements and actions deserve condemnation, asylum seeker advocates of the hard left admonish any policy effort to prevent asylum seekers from drowning at sea by deterring boat arrivals as flint-hearted.
The hard left despises Labor on asylum seeker policy as much as it despises the Coalition. Its view is that all asylum seekers arriving by boat should be granted permanent residency. But it rarely advocates on behalf of refugees in camps, too poor to pay the airfares from source countries to Malaysia and Indonesia and the people smugglers for the subsequent voyage to Australia.
Trying to reason with either side of the debate on asylum seeker policy is futile. Logical reasoning is considered unprincipled and either heartless (by the left) or weak (by the right).
Climate change is no different. Imagine finding someone from the hard right who accepts the science of climate change and another from the hard left who is sceptical about it. Actually, it’s unimaginable.
Despite an overwhelming body of evidence supporting human-induced climate change, the right selects only that which seeks to refute it. Equally, anyone asking questions about the science of climate change is howled down as a denier or sceptic. In the Age of Reason “sceptic” was not a derogatory word. It is now.
Similarly, we know the national school curriculum contains a left-wing bias because the government and some right-wingers say so. The curriculum ignores the basics of literacy and numeracy because the hard right says so. The only evidence they need is that it was developed when a federal Labor government was in office. That five Coalition state governments were in office when the curriculum was accepted is but an inconvenient truth to be quietly cast aside.
The Coalition has railed against the so-called Age of Entitlement, announcing it will target unemployment benefits and the disability support pension. But it tried to block every bill of the previous government to pare back middle-class welfare. And it is proceeding with an extravagantly expensive paid parental leave scheme while opposing tighter means testing of family payments for higher-income earners. Why? Because it chooses to label payments to the poor as welfare while those to the better off as "tax justice." There's no logic, no reason, just ideology.
A society that spurns the power of reason is a society in decline. That’s where we’re heading. Fifteen-second sound grabs repeated ad nauseum are replacing reasoned argument.
Increasingly, the media is identifying the ideological disposition of its core audience and pandering to it, broadcasting only the news and views its audience wants to hear. Debate about alternative viewpoints has been superseded by abuse. The audience feels vindicated by the hostility of its favourite commentators and editors towards alternative facts and opinions. Debates on these pages involving contributors with different perspectives, such as those of Maurice Newman, Brian Schmidt and Ian Chubb on climate change, offer a glimmer of light in the gathering darkness of the end of reason.
It is said that you can have your own opinions but you can’t have your own facts. But that, too, is changing. Regardless of how incorrect or selective they are, ideologically motivated commentators cite their chosen facts to validate predetermined positions.
Middle Australia would appreciate dispassionate analysis of policy issues in order to be better informed. Everyday Australians were always amenable to policies in the national interest when their reasons were properly explained. While mainstream Australians are receptive to reasoned argument based on facts and evidence, the bitter partisan and media divide that has been imported into Australia from the United States is depriving them of this valuable information.
Politicians and the media might gain from the end of reason but in the end it’s the reasonable people who lose.