Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
We need tough love, not bad parenting
With surprising frequency, I get calls and emails, often from really smart people, insisting that this or that politician is more honourable, intelligent, sophisticated than he or she is painted. The pollies in question are usually late-joiners, in the Sartor-Garrett-Turnbull mould, with some pre-politics colour in their cheeks. Some claim to be thinking animals, as opposed to the insipid career-type bottom-sitting election-fodder that bulk up the political norm.
The argument, as put, is not only that these pollies are secretly quite nice people – which, let’s face it, why would you care unless you’re snowed in with them for the weekend. But that, on the hoo-ha issue of the moment (be it art, fuel or climate change), they don’t really believe what they say. Quite the opposite, poor sweethearts. They are cruelly gagged by the whip system and forced into agonised self-betrayal, bravely doing what they can to distance themselves from the Morrises and Kevins and Brendans without being chucked out on their pretty tin arses. Lions, you might say, led by donkeys.
To which I say, phooey. Enough with the handkerchiefs already. They’re big boys, chronologically at least. They knew the party system before they joined it. And anyone who refuses to stand publicly for their beliefs, especially in troubled times, should scarcely call themselves citizen, much less leader.
Our primary schools reward what they call citizenship, a series of behaviours ranging from helping a hurt friend, to finding the scissors for teacher, to not sticking gum under the desk. What they don’t teach is the morality of citizenship; the web of rights and obligations that cling to the right, or obligation, to vote.
Our schools, and our systems, teach the necessity of keeping your head down. Of not being the person to dob on the ministerial pedophile. Not fessing up to being the boss of Beth Morgan, the lowly Wollongong planner found to be corrupt, but whose decisions must have been ratified by any number of now-invisible superiors. Not carrying the can.
But in the moral cowardice department, our truly adept practitioners, our mentors and role models, are at the top. Note, after the first stupid fuss, the abject political silence on the Henson case. They know nudity isn’t pornography, but they tuck their honour behind their populist tut-tutting and stay low. More urgent and abysmal still is the fuel-price fiasco. Kevin Rudd’s obvious riposte is that one promise broken is actually another promise kept: what looks like abandonment of the fuel-price promise is actually adherence to the climate-change promise. High fuel prices are the best thing that could happen to us. The higher the better. Rudd knows it, but he won’t say it.
The truth is that fuel is like food. Our capacity to suck calories from nature began as survival but custom and convenience have made us wildly, self-destructively profligate in this pursuit. Of course, food is fuel. It is no accident that food and fuel prices are now soaring, together and in parallel, across the globe. Peak oil and population pressure, long dreaded, are here. Fossil fuels, even in the production of food, worsen climate change, making food harder to extract, requiring more fuel and so on. Vicious circle.
But it’s not Kevin Rudd’s doing. Nor, sadly, is it in his power to fix. The entire fuel-price fandango over levies and leaks was so completely beside the point as to suggest some diversionary conspiracy. If only they were so clever, right?
Which is why Michael Pollan’s latest book, In Defence Of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, is so seductive in its subversion. Pollan says we must “pay more, eat less”. Fat is only part of the reason. There’s also the longevity effect of calorie reduction, and the fact that preferring quality to quantity benefits both the environment (better soil, fewer chemicals, no GM) and the body.
In the US, in four decades, household food spending has halved, while food-related disease – from “the Western industrial diet” – has rocketed. Why? Cheap food is calorie-high but nutrition-low. You need more of it just to get fed. Same with fuel. For too long we’ve sucked too many fossil-fuel calories too easily and paid far, far too little for the privilege. Now, as change looms, do we accept peak oil as an answer, not a problem? Do we make “pay more, use less” our fuel motto? No, we continue, brat-like, to demand more for less, threatening tantrums should any leader deny us.
So climate change, as the former international oil executive Ian Dunlop notes, is “the ultimate tragedy of the commons”. This idea dates back at least to Aristotle: “What is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. Men pay most attention to what is their own.”
And maybe that’s just human nature. But human behaviour can change, and be changed by tax. So we must reject the bad parenting our leaders pathetically offer, demanding instead the tough love we need. Demand, for our own sake, the increased fuel prices that can make change smooth, not catastrophic. That’s moral courage. That’s citizenship.