Stupidity is on the rise in our age of enlightenment

Illustration: John Spooner.Stupidity is on the rise in our age of enlightenment

SINCE Gough Whitlam’s time, Australia has undergone a serious decline in the quality of debate on public policy – and the same phenomenon has occurred in the US, Canada and Europe. British journalist Robert Fisk has called this ”the infantilisation of debate”.

Currently, we are by far the best educated cohort in our history – on paper, anyway – but it is not reflected in the quality of our political discourse. We appear to be lacking in courage, judgment, capacity to analyse or even simple curiosity, except about immediate personal needs.

Debates on such issues as climate change, population, taxation, refugees, mandatory detention and offshore processing, plain packaging of cigarettes, limitations on problem gambling and access to water have been deformed by both sides resorting to cherry-picking of evidence, denigration of opponents, mere sloganeering, leading to infantilisation of democracy, treating citizens as if they were unable to grasp major issues.

Both Whitlam and Keating emphasised the importance of high culture. Other than Malcolm Turnbull, nobody does now. There is a strong anti-intellectual flavour in public life, sometimes described as philistine or – more commonly – bogan, which leads to a reluctance to engage in complex or sophisticated argument and analysis of evidence, most easily demonstrated in the anti-science push in debate about vaccination, fluoridation and global warming.


Media – old and new – is partly to blame. Revolutionary changes in IT may be even more important, where we can communicate very rapidly, for example on Twitter, in ways that are shallow and non-reflective. Advocacy and analysis has largely dropped out of politics and been replaced by marketing and sloganeering. Politicians share the blame.

The politics (that is, serious debate on ideological issues) has virtually dropped out of politics and has been replaced by a managerial approach. The use of focus groups and obsessive reliance on polling and the very short news cycle means that the idea of sustained, serious, courageous analysis on a complex issue – the treatment of asylum seekers, for example – has become almost inconceivable.

For decades, politics has been reported as a subset of the entertainment industry, in which it is assumed that audiences look for instant responses and suffer from short-term memory loss. Politics is treated as a sporting contest, with its violence, personality clashes, tribalism and quick outcomes. The besetting fault of much media reporting is trivialisation, exaggerated stereotyping, playing off personalities, and a general ”dumbing down”. This encourages the view that there is no point in raising serious issues months or years before an election. This has the effect of reinforcing the status quo, irrespective of which party is in power and at whatever level, state or federal.

The 2010 federal election was by common consent the most dismal in living memory, without a single new or courageous idea being proposed on either side.

In 2010 the assertion that Australia’s public debt was getting out of control was largely unchallenged – although figures confirmed we had the lowest percentage in the OECD. Similarly, nobody pointed out that we run 46th in the number of refugees arriving unheralded on our shores. The largest factor is community withdrawal and disillusion. The tiny numbers of people in major parties confirms this.

By any objective measure, Australia has been more successful than any other OECD nation (Canada comes second) in coping with the aftershocks of the global financial crisis. Recent strong praise by the IMF ranking Australia as first in the world was described by the opposition, perversely, as a ”warning shot across the bows” and a conclusion that we must do better. However, Newspoll and the Age/Neilsen poll indicate that of all sectors of government, economic management is regarded as the area where the opposition is strongest and the Gillard government weakest. It flies in the face of common sense but must be recognised, however irrational, as a political reality.

The High Court’s recent decision that Commonwealth funding for school chaplains was unconstitutional was immediately bypassed by a cross-party love-in, hurriedly passing new legislation to nullify the court’s judgment.

This is a classic example of how a fundamental principle – the separation of church and state – is abandoned for fear of offending powerful interest groups and losing votes.

In 1860 in New York, Abraham Lincoln began his campaign for the presidency with a very complex speech about slavery. All four New York newspapers published the full text, which was widely read and discussed. In 1860, the technology was primitive but the ideas were profound and sophisticated. In 2012, the technology is sophisticated but the ideas uttered in the presidential contest so far are, in the most part, embarrassing in their banality, ignorance and naivety, much of it fuelled by rage or ignorance.

We live in the age of the information revolution, but it is also the age of the cult of management. Education (like health, sport, the environment, law, even politics) is often treated as a subset of management, with appeals to naked self-interest and protecting the bottom line.

At its most brutal, the argument was put that there were no health, education, transport, environment or media problems, only management problems: get the management right and all the other problems would disappear. Coupled with the managerial dogma was the reluctance of senior officials to give what used to be called ”frank and fearless” advice – and replacing it with what is now called ”a whole of government” approach. This is not telling ministers what they want to hear – it is actually far worse, a pernicious form of spin doctoring.

Paradoxically, the age of the information revolution, which should have been an instrument of personal liberation and an explosion of creativity, has been characterised by domination of public policy by managerialism, replacement of ”the public good” by ”private benefit”, the decline of sustained critical debate on issues leading to gross oversimplification, the relentless ”dumbing down” of mass media, linked with the cult of celebrity, substance abuse and retreat into the realm of the personal, and the rise of fundamentalism and an assault on reason. The knowledge revolution ought to have been a countervailing force: in practice it has been the vector of change.

In Britain in the Thatcher era, and in Australia after 1983, there was a growing conviction that relying on specialist knowledge and experience might create serious distortions in policy-making, and that generic managers, usually accountants, or economists, would provide a more detached view. As a result, expertise was fragmented, otherwise, health specialists would push health issues, educators education, scientists science, and so on. Sport has become very big business. Political parties are managed by factions, essentially a form of privatisation.

Departments contract out important elements of their core business to consultants. A consultant has been defined as somebody to whom you lend your watch, then ask him to tell you the time. Consultants, eager for repeat business, provide government with exactly the answers that they want to receive. Lobbyists, many of them former politicians or bureaucrats, are part of the decision-making inner circle.

Generic managers promoted the use of ”management-speak”, a coded alternative to natural language, only understood by insiders, exactly as George Orwell had predicted.

The managerial revolution involves a covert attack on democratic processes because many important decisions are made without public debate, community knowledge or parliamentary scrutiny.

Under present arrangements in the ALP, there is no possibility Whitlam could have been preselected for a winnable seat unless he was a loyal factional member.

The central problem for the renewal of Labor is: how can a party with a contracting base reach out to an expanding society?

I have called this ”the 1954 problem”. That was the year in which membership of trade unions began to contract as a proportion of the total labour force. In the lifetime of this Prime Minister, the ALP as an organisation has become increasingly unrepresentative of the community at large, and even of Labor voters.

The party’s owners, people like Paul Howes, Tony Sheldon and (until recently) Michael Williamson, think that the priority is for them to keep control of their property. They were not unduly worried when the ALP’s primary vote in the New South Wales state election in March 2011 fell to 25.6 per cent. From the Howes-Sheldon perspective, all was well because they were still running the show.

They regard the opinions of voters outside their unions as totally irrelevant; after all, they haven’t met many.

The ALP must turn outward, embrace democracy and reject oligarchy, thinking in decades, not Twitter moments. We must all search for the ”shock of recognition” which enables us to find ourselves, expanding our understanding both of the universe and of each other, pursuing arts, science and music as avidly as we pursue sport or the cult of celebrity.

Barry Jones was Bob Hawke’s science minister from 1983 to 1990. He is a writer and fellow of all four of Australia’s learned academies. This is an edited version of a the Daniel Mannix Memorial lecture he delivered in Melbourne last night.

Illustration: John Spooner.

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About Darin Sullivan (1980 Articles)
Former President of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (2009-2018) and a professional firefighter with more than 30 years experience. I live and work on the NSW South Coast, Australia. I am a strong advocate for firefighters and emergency service workers with an interest in mental health issues and caring for those around me. I am a former Director on the NSW Fire Brigades Death and Disability Super Fund and work with charities including ‘The Movember Foundation’. As a leader and activist I have long been active in the campaign for action on climate change. I am a Station Commander in the fire and rescue service in NSW and have 30 years experience fighting fires, both rural and urban. I am passionate about highlighting the impact climate change is having on fire preparedness and fire behaviour in Australia, and the risks associated with inaction on climate change. I am also a spokesperson for the Australian Climate Media Centre.

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