Suppose someone asked you to look around the developed English-speaking world over the last 3 or 4 decades and name the most incompetent government of that time. Who would you pick?
Until recently I’d always reckoned that the Joe Clark Tory government in Canada won this prize hands down. Sure, Ted Heath’s UK Tory government might get an honourable mention, as might US President Jimmy Carter. But the Joe Clark Canadian government of the late 1970s was pretty much beyond parody it was so inept, indeed so bad it made Gough Whitlam’s team look competent in comparison.
But no record lasts forever. I now say that for pure, unadulterated incompetence in the task of governing in a democracy that our Gillard-Greens-’2 rural socialist pseudo independents’ government has taken away the title. At long last Joe Clark can point to someone else in the anglosphere as more incompetent than he, and sigh a mighty gasp of relief.
Here’s the thing though. I think we can encapsulate the ruination of the Gillard government in the single word ‘up’.
You see the problems started when the political agenda of this government started to sound remarkably like the agenda of the far left special interest group ‘GetUp’. It’s not just that this confection of Labor and Greens shared GetUp’s desire for a republic, and that its Attorney-General was a fellow traveller in its liking for a Bill of Rights. Those pretty much go with the territory of a Labor government.
No, I’m thinking about things such as the other-worldliness when it comes to designing rules to deal with those who claim to be political refugees, and the naiveté that seems to suppose that people who are desperately poor don’t respond to incentives.
I’m thinking about the ‘tax it so we can spend more’ ethos as a motivating first principle.
I’m thinking about the worldview that allows you to believe that democracy is a sufficiently malleable principle that you can barefacedly lie to the voters and not pay a big price. (And by the way, how many billboards have you seen that self-styled protector of democratic values, the GetUp organisation, pay for condemning Ms. Gillard for lying to the voters? That would be zero, right?)
And I’m thinking about the arrogance and stupidity of designing a carbon dioxide tax that creates myriad new bureaucracies; that makes bizarrely other-worldly (and false) assumptions about what the US, China, Canada and others will be doing in the next few years; that will be open to EU-type gaming; that churns and churns and churns taxpayers’ money; and, most egregiously of all, that accomplishes absolutely zero in terms of slowing temperature change, some minute fraction of one degree at best.
Sure, GetUp has put out newspaper ads in favour of this carbon dioxide tax. But I suspect I’m not revealing any state secret when I say that the political policy positions of GetUp – however reeking in po-faced pieties and ‘We are the World’ platitudes – are distinctly minority ones. If this becomes your core support group as a government then you are in big, big trouble.
And Ms. Gillard is in big, big trouble.
But then, after clothing itself in GetUp attire, the Gillard-Greens have recently flirted with adding some ShutUp accessories. Apparently the thinking is that we have too much free speech here in Australia. Maybe we ought to pick up on the great democrat Bob Brown’s musings and go back a few centuries so we can regulate what the press says. You really can’t be against ensuring that only proper, acceptable views get disseminated can you? I mean, it works in Cuba and Iran and Venezuela doesn’t it?
Or if you decide to display your independence from Mr. Brown, to show voters who really is boss, you might just opt to bring in new privacy laws that allow new ways to sue other people.
But putting all the Siren Song supporters of privacy laws to one side (and we can all await with eager anticipation the next GetUp billboard in support of this latest thought bubble policy creation), here is what is at stake.
Any new privacy law regime will make inroads on what people can say. It will take some speech off the table. There is an inevitable trade-off between free speech concerns and privacy concerns. If you shift the goalposts in favour of more privacy then by definition you place more limits on free speech.
And I think that’s a terrible idea. First off, our current laws are already easily sufficient to handle phone hacking situations of the sort engulfing the UK at present. So that’s a red-herring, plain and simple.
Secondly, more aggressive privacy laws work not simply by allowing people actually to sue. They work also by creating an atmosphere where people censor themselves because they are afraid of being sued, precisely in the same way that our terrible hate speech laws at present over-reach.
Just look at France, which has strong privacy laws. You had an atmosphere there, no doubt also culturally influenced, where the past exploits of Dominique Strauss Kahn came as a surprise to most people save reporters. Do you think those exploits, and I explicitly assume that the New York City charges against him will collapse, but do you think his behaviour might influence whether some people voted for him?
Mr. Abbott should have no part in this ShutUp agenda. In any contest between free speech and privacy I think long-term best consequences much more often favour the former. Certainly our present status quo needs no rebalancing in favour of more speech restrictions, and that’s true even if it’s sold under the banner of some human right to privacy, with a few perfunctory references to international treaties.
Amazingly, however, our present GetUp/Gillard government seems to think a new ShutUp agenda might help it out with the voters. You have to wonder what planet it inhabits.
Meantime we can all only watch this train wreck of Gillard incompetence with incredulity. From GetUp to ShutUp, the whole thing has been one giant ****Up.
But Joe Clark has never been happier.
A shorter version of this essay was published in The Australian.
Kieran Morris on “Inside GetUp and the New Youth Politics”