Corporate tax cuts do no create jobs. It is important to understand this very simple, very obvious fact no matter what #alternativefacts you see.
The Liberal government, and their owners in the CEO-union, the Business Council of Australia, are revving up a PR campaign to spread their lies, the likes of which we haven’t seen since billionaire miners stood on the back of utes wearing pearls, pretending like they’d met their workers before. And it’s up to us: you and me and everyone you talk to about this very fact, to refute this claim until we’re tired of refuting it, but we’ll keep going because it’s seriously important to all of us.
Let’s make something clear. The Liberals and the Business Council know they are lying when they say tax cuts create jobs. That’s a given. But they have to come up with some excuse for this policy other than campaigning on a platform of more-yachts-for-CEOs. So they lie.
When you think about it for more than a millisecond, it’s not hard to see why a tax cut puts more money in the pocket of business owners and executives, but certainly does not create more jobs. Nor do tax cuts increase wages. They could increase wages if employers chose to divert the money left over from paying less tax into higher wages. But that’s like saying a dog could break their bone in half and give the other half to the cat. Possibly, but never happens.
In order to give you a real-life example of why tax cuts neither create jobs, nor encourage bosses to give their workers a pay rise, I will use the ready-made example so helpfully provided by the Business Council of Australia’s clearly out-of-their-depth PR people:
This young bartender, who incidentally is apparently working at The General Havelock in Adelaide, supposedly looks forlorn at the thought that there will be ‘fewer job opportunities around here because of high company tax’. I’ll give you a moment to compose yourself from laughing before reading on. In fact, Australia’s company tax rate is ‘not markedly out of line with the G7 countries’, but you already know the Liberals and the Business Council lie, so we’ll move on.
Let’s assume the bartender is worried there will be fewer jobs in the bar because the owners of the bar have to pay too much tax. We’ll break this idea down. Hypothetically, let’s imagine the General Havelock owners get a 2.5% tax cut, as promised by the Liberals in their Enterprise Tax Plan. That means, at the end of each month, when their accountants add up how much revenue has come through the till from selling alcohol and food, and emptying tens of thousands of dollars out of their pokie machines, and then take out the costs, which include wages, they then have a look at their profit and take out 27.5% to give to the ATO, rather than the 30% they used to pay. The accountant says to the owner, ‘good news, you’ve got more to take home this month because less has gone to the tax man’.
Now, I’m sure you can see this scene in your minds eye. You can see the accountant handing the owner the piece of paper to show the extra cash that is coming into the bank. How realistic is it to think this scene will choose-it’s-own-adventure down the path of the owner pocketing the extra cash and spending it on his own private consumption, such as a new luxury vehicle, another set of golf clubs, maybe put it towards a holiday home or an investment property. Or, will he turn to the accountant and say, ‘gee, I’m so pleased with this tax cut, I can now finally afford to hire two extra staff and grow my business’. Let that one settle for a second.
Even in this strange parallel universe where the General Havelock owner puts his 2.5% tax cut into the pay checks for new staff members, in this la la land that doesn’t exist, think about it, why does he need those two extra staff members? Why, if his bar is already running smoothly, making him enough profit that he noticed a 2.5% tax cut, and there are enough people working behind the bar like this glum looking girl, pouring beers, and there are enough cooks in the kitchen, and security guards on the door, and staff to make sure the people in the pokie lounge never get tempted to go home, why if all that’s working fine, would a tax cut go into hiring more staff? And if there was a need for more staff, because there were more customers in the bar than the bar staff could possibly serve, why hasn’t the all-knowing business owner already hired more staff to meet this demand?
Still not convinced? When was the last time you saw an ad for a bartender, maybe on Seek.com.au or on a little sign behind the bar, which said ‘bar tender job available, spending the tax-cut, enquire within’? You didn’t see this sign, because it never happened. What you do see, in reality, is the obvious reason for a job ad to exist: ‘bar tender job available, enquire within’ and when you enquire within, the job is available because a) there are too many customers (demand) and not enough people to serve them in order to make profit for the business, or b) the bar tender who used to do the job no longer does.
This is the reality for a reason. Because CORPORATE TAX CUTS DO NOT CREATE JOBS. Say it with me. Thinking otherwise is either a massive misunderstanding about the fundamental relationship between worker, boss, profit and tax, OR is a bald-face lie. So which do you think the Liberals and the Business Council will more likely own up to?
Bill Shorten’s speech at the National Press Club today laid a solid roadmap for a future Labor government. Although the speech covered many policy topics, its main focus was on a narrative which can be short-hand referred to as the ‘Labor’s with you’ story. In many ways it was a clever speech. This is why:
He acknowledged the ‘out-of-touch’ elephant in the room
Shorten acknowledged that the political class, which he quite rightly told the press-club audience included them, is perceived as out-of-touch with voters. It is at this point in a speech when a politician will usually lecture voters about the silliness of this misconception. However, Shorten didn’t do this. Instead, he said that voter distrust, anger and declining loyalty is understandable in a political system which has too many scandals (ping Susan Ley) and when campaign donation laws have meant it has taken 7 months for the public to find out how much Turnbull donated to his own campaign (apparently us punters get this figure tomorrow. My money is on $2 million. Pocket change).
To try to rebuild some trust, Shorten promised to establish another parliamentary inquiry into a national integrity commission and to support Turnbull’s transparency reforms.
Sticking with the theme of ‘Labor’s with you’, Shorten also interestingly promised to keep up his hectic schedule of town-hall meetings as he did throughout 2016, but in 2017, rather than answering questions from the floor, he will be asking the audience for their policy ideas about how to fix things. This might seem like text-book political engagement stuff, but the point is, you can’t fault Shorten’s desire to turn political talk into walk.
Jobs and skills create growth
There are two reasons Shorten’s ‘jobs and skills’ focus is a clever move. The first is that, in a political environment where every person and their dog is claiming Labor doesn’t have a purpose, it doesn’t hurt to remind people what the Labor Party is: the political arm of the Labour Movement. Yes, Labor also has come a long way in recent years in understanding the legitimate political needs and wants of what I call the ‘identity politics’ movement. But it’s impossible to ignore the very real fact that traditional Labor voters, those people who once were rusted to Labor, but now swing dangerously close to either the Liberals (Howard’s battlers) or even One Nation, are the key to Labor’s electoral fortune. To put it bluntly, if you’re a progressive who wants to see your identity politics outcome come about, you have to get on board with Labor’s appeal to traditional working class, suburban voters. And this appeal must be centred on jobs.
The helpful thing about a jobs message is it is not just about jobs. As everyone with a job knows, you can’t segment your jobs away from the rest of your daily existence. And once again, this is where Shorten has been clever. Jobs is also about being qualified for the jobs that are available. This is where Labor’s emphasis on apprenticeships and funding to vocational training became relevant. It also links to his promise to reform the 457 visa system so these visas aren’t used to bring in cheap labour, which reduces job opportunities, undermines wages and conditions and gives no incentive for companies to train Australian workers to do the same jobs. It further links to childcare, all levels of schooling education and of course, Medicare. Because if you’re not healthy enough to work, you don’t have a job. All tied up in a neat narrative bow.
He argued against Liberal ideology without attacking them
It is not true that Shorten didn’t mention the Liberals, he did. But, as if following the rules of George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant framing textbook, Shorten didn’t fall into the usual trap of arguing against Turnbull’s Liberal policies. Instead, he took the smarter path of implying the inappropriateness of Liberal policies by laying out why his alternative plan is not just one of opposition, but of a completely different view of the economy and how jobs are created.
As an example, rather than spending ten minutes explaining why Turnbull’s pet-policy corporate tax cut doesn’t ‘trickle-down’ and is just a ‘gift to overseas investors’, Shorten took the high ground by explaining that the problem with the economy is that wage growth is at historic lows. There’s a reason such an idea resonates with voters. It’s because it is true. It’s now more difficult for Turnbull to now come out tomorrow and say ‘Shorten is wrong: wage growth is not a problem, the amount of tax corporations pay is a problem’. Turnbull can and probably will of course try, but his argument has already been refuted by Shorten who argued, correctly, that it is money in workers’ pockets which creates growth and in turn jobs, and that the government should do whatever possible to increase wages in order to keep the economy driving forward for everyone, not just the executives who benefit from a corporate tax-cut.
And the media struggled to respond
The press-club members struggled to respond to Shorten’s speech for one simple reason. Relating to the point above, Shorten didn’t offer the usual adversarial, oppositional rhetoric that they’re used to copy and pasting into a ‘he said, she said’ electoral two-horse-race narrative which is basically just a lazy prism through which all of them write about politics.
This struggle was most evident in Sabra Lane’s question, when she asked if Shorten was opposing Turnbull’s refugee deal with Trump. Shorten had not, in fact, even implied he was opposed to the deal, and had rather just stated that there was no need for Turnbull to hide away from commenting on Trump’s Muslim ban out of fear of destroying the asylum seeker resettlement deal, as Trump had already confirmed the deal would go ahead. It was almost as if Lane wanted to put words in Shorten’s mouth to conjure a policy dispute for a headline, when such a headline would, in reality, completely misrepresent Shorten’s entire speech.
Without having read commentary on the speech, since this commentary is no doubt being written as I type, I can already predict that Shorten will be framed as having crafted his rhetoric in reaction to Trump’s electoral victory, ensuring the same rust-belt result doesn’t undo Labor at the next election. Again, templated journalism will be at play here which frames politicians’ only motive in life as finding a popular electoral angle, and never, low and behold to, for example, do something about low wages in order to improve economic conditions for the entire country. If someone writes anything from a different perspective, please be sure to include it in the comments below, because I would love to be pleasantly surprised.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised by Bill Shorten today. His speech, and his off-cuff questions showed how much work Labor has done on refining their policy agenda to address the real concerns of voters. I look forward to this Labor agenda continuing its onward march to defeat the Turnbull-fizza at the next election.
Remember when you were a child and you used to ask your mum for a new toy and she’d say ‘you have plenty of old toys that you hardly ever play with, why don’t play with them?’ Sometimes you would. After going through the old toy box, you’d rediscover an old favourite – a Game Boy that just needed new batteries, or a skateboard you’d forgotten about over winter which just needed a dust off and could entertain you for hours. That’s what we need to do with the progressive narrative. We need to dig it out of the back of the cupboard, brush it off, polish it up for modern day usage and all sing it from the roof tops. We don’t need a new one. We just need to up-cycle the old one.
I have read so many articles recently by fantastic left-wing voices and by impassioned people who care deeply about defeating dangerous ideologues like Donald Trump who will make the already bleeding wound of inequality hopefully not irreparably worse. Owen Jones asked the question: ‘Can the US left craft a populist alternative that convinces the millions of Americans who are angry and despondent about a society rigged against their interests? The future of the American republic is uncertain – and it may depend on the answer to that question’. Rutger Bregman suggests that too often it ‘seems as if leftists actually like losing’ and that the old-school underdog socialists are ‘Dull as a doorknob. They’ve got no story to tell; nor even the language to convey it in. Having arrived at the conclusion that politics is a mere matter of identity, they have chosen an arena in which they will lose every time’. Even though Bregman has some fantastic policy ideas, as usual, he hasn’t answered his own question: ‘what will this progressive story look like?’. So, once again, we’re all left feeling around in the dark for a unified thread to hold all our well-meaning ideas together.
In Australia, a divided progressive movement is hampering progress. Rather than fighting for and with Labor, the party of the working class, many of the more privileged progressives, who mostly live in inner cities and don’t identify as working-class, nor see any point in joining a union, have leached away to a new toy: The Greens. This leaves progressives fighting amongst ourselves with the battlelines drawn over identity politics versus labour movement priorities, and the old progressive narrative discarded by the side of the road.
I read with a mix of amusement and annoyance that ‘200 of the most exciting young people’ who were invited to attend the ‘Junket’ conference are not just fed up with Labor, but are also fed up with their newer toy, The Greens, and instead showed ‘strong support for some kind of new organisation, potentially even a political party… to channel the frustration felt by young people, and other sections of the population’. Maybe I’m just tetchy that I wasn’t invited, because I’m clearly not young or exciting enough, but the idea that young progressive Australians aren’t content to join the Labor Party and make it their own, or even to join the Greens (because that’s less work than changing the Labor Party), no, they are now wanting something brand new again, to wipe the slate clean, yet don’t seem to be able to actually explain what it is their new party would be except that it would ‘un-fuck politics’ (their words not mine). Well, that just shows how we got into this mess in the first place, doesn’t it?
Anyway, this article is not going to be yet another contribution to the ‘progressives need a new narrative’ debate without giving you my concrete suggestion about what that progressive narrative is, because that would be hypocritical. No, as I said, we already have a narrative which is perfectly useful and relevant to all of us – the inner-city-lefties, the working-class-suburbanites, the rusted-on-Labor voters, the environmentalist-hipster-Greens and the even-more-hipster-too-cool-to-join-someone-else’s-movement progressives. We just need to be better at talking about it. And most importantly, we just need to be better at talking about it AS A UNIFIED MOVEMENT. IN SOLIDARITY! As a shorthand, we could call this narrative the Golden Rule. This is what it looks like:
Your rights are my rights. Your community is my community. Your environment is my environment. When you are better off, I am better off. When you are sick, I am sick. When you are poor, I am poor. We are all in this together. So, we need to work together to uphold each others rights: rights at work, right to be free from harm, free from discrimination, free from poverty, a right to a good education, good healthcare, a right to marry who we love, to live peacefully practicing any or no religion we like. When you have a job, I have a job. When your environment is safe, my environment is safe. When you are prosperous, I am prosperous. When you are happy and well, I am happy and well. We all do our bit and everyone benefits. I care about you and you care about me. The community is better off when the community is better off. That is all that matters.
That’s the story we should be telling. Try it on. It goes with everything you want and everything I want too. And if it sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re already using it and just didn’t realise it was right there in front of you the whole time. Now, let’s stop wasting time looking for it and get to work using it.
Watch this space for more suggestions of how this narrative works in practice.
How do I know with certainty that Trump will fall off the rails, crash and burn and then disappear like an ugly pimple on a Clearasil ad? Because I’ve seen this movie before – Australia endured Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. The day he was elected, I thought the world had ended. But we survived. Abbott’s tenure as PM, though painful, was only two years long and was a relatively unproductive two years at that. For those unfamiliar with this story’s plot, here are the key reasons Trump will share the same fate as Abbott:
1) Negative campaigning instead of leading gets old fast
Abbott’s always-on campaign of negativity worked like a charm when campaigning. But once in power, the pessimism, sniping and constant put-downs wore thin very quickly. Just like Trump, Abbott remained in negative attack-dog campaign mode once he became Prime Minister. When people were looking to him for assurance, for confidence, for leadership, they found him bitching instead. It’s easy to criticise everything and everyone when you’re not responsible for fixing problems. But when the country needs solutions and all you have is a whining toddler saying no all the time, opinion polls go south very quickly.
2) Rudeness and weirdness become embarrassing on a national stage
When I say rudeness, Abbott was just like Trump in that before he was elected, he was a well-known sexist and also like to flame racism to cover up for a lack of policy direction. It used to infuriate me that Abbott got away with doing and saying just about anything, no matter how offensive, and how bullshit, because people just shrugged and said ‘oh well, that’s just how he is, at least he says it like it is’.
There was also always a weirdness about Abbott and bizarre decisions which quite frankly could only be put down to a very limited mental capacity. For instance, when he decided to bring back Knights and Dames, and then proceeded to Knight Prince Philip who is married to the Queen of England. Or that time he ate an onion on the TV news. Face-palming at the Prime Minister soon became a national pastime.
It’s like that guy in your group of friends who sets his farts on fire for attention, but then when his bum causes a bushfire, those who used to laugh are embarrassed to be seen with him. It got to the point in Australia where you literally could not find a single person who would admit to voting for Abbott.
It might seem like Trump gets away with rudeness and weirdness on a monumental scale, but once Abbott became the leader of Australia, all his character flaws and faults were like dirty linen aired in front of a world audience. The electorate suddenly realised that having a buffoon representing us in national conversations wasn’t so good for our international reputation. National dignity was at stake. Be patient. It will happen.
3) Broken promises will come back to bite
Days before Abbott was elected Prime Minister, he went on national television and promised ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS’. Just like Trump, it was obvious that Abbott would make any promise necessary to win votes and damn the consequences. Then, predictably, in Abbott’s very first budget only a few months after winning the election, he took a sledge hammer to these promises.
I note Trump has done the exact same thing – after promising in a tweet that there would be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid, his Republican counterparts are already busily taking health insurance away from millions of Americans. Many of these people voted for Trump and when it occurs to them they’re worse off because he lied, they will retaliate. Who is paying for that wall again? Watch and see.
4) He won’t grow into the job
There was a common narrative around the election of Abbott, particularly from his right-wing supporters in the media (yes, our media is controlled by Murdoch too!), that he would mature into the job of Prime Minister and would leave all his tomfoolery and lack of policy talent behind, to be the statesman-like leader the country expects. Nope. Never happened.
Abbott, like Trump, was emboldened by winning the election and refused to listen to anyone except a very close circle of advisors (his chief of staff in particular who did her best to rein him in, but even obsessive micromanaging of his every move didn’t cover up his obvious lack of credibility or suitability for the job).
When Abbott was campaigning as Opposition Leader, the only people pointing out his total incompetency in every area and fact checking his bullshit were writers like me in independent media and left-wing politically engaged social media users. We all said the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes and we were all written off as partisan hacks.
But, then, like a snowball, journalists in the mainstream media began to realise that all was not well with the Abbott project and the wheels started falling off the bus amongst his colleagues too.
When his polls continued to dive to new and electorally disastrous lows, his colleagues did the only thing politicians know how to do when their ship is taking on water – they jumped off it to save their own skin. That’s how we got rid of Abbott in two years, which was a shame really looking back as I regret that the country didn’t have a chance to take our displeasure to the polls. But either way, every day without Abbott as Prime Minister was a good day (until we realised the guy who took over from him was the same pig, just wearing nicer lipstick – but don’t worry yourself about that as getting rid of Trump is your first urgent order of business).
Now, before I let you go away confident in the knowledge that Trump will not prevail, there is one last thing you need to know:
5) You’re going to have to help Trump on his way
I know you’re already doing your best in this respect, but you’re going to have to do better. Keep writing, criticising, pointing out his absurdity, sharing and posting about his failures, calling him out for his lies and bullshit, organising and generally uniting in a fierce wave of Trump-opposition.
I’m not just talking about social media. Take to the streets. I know there were protests when Trump was elected – and good on you for that. But the most success we had in Australia marching against Abbott came not when he was elected, but when he started to announce policies which were deeply unpopular in the electorate. We had a string of national March in March events which brought together tens of thousands of like-minded anti-Abbott marchers, and really helped to solidify the country’s dissatisfaction with Abbott’s policies. Here’s a link to my speech at the first March in March in front of 6,000 South Australians. Abbott was elected in 2013. The marches started in early 2014. He was gone in 2015.
I promise you that Trump and Abbott are beasts of the same breed and that the fate of Abbott awaits Trump. You’ve got mid-terms in two years to work towards. Go for it. We’re all counting on you. And if you could get rid of him before he starts World War III that would be a major bonus too. Good luck.
One of the few positive outcomes from the car-crash of Brexit and Trump is that political leaders are finally realising that wealth inequality is not a democratically maintainable situation. Voters in most western democracies have started to resent the growing gap between their livelihoods and those of the richest few, and this resentment is causing mass disaffection with establishment politics.
The problem is that this resentment, so far, has been channelled into counter-productive outcomes such as Brexit and Trump, both of which will do nothing to solve wealth inequality, and quite likely will make it worse. In Australia, our neoliberal-merchant-banker-off-shore-tax-haven-Point-Piper PM has started throwing a few mentions of wealth inequality into his spin cycle. But this rhetoric is laughable when held next to the reality of Turnbull’s pet-policy of a $20 billion tax cut to big business which I can guarantee you will not trickle down and will instead grow the wealth of a few bonus-laden-executives at the expense of everyone else.
One of the reasons wealth inequality has managed to cause mass resentment amongst those losing out from rampant neoliberalism, yet hasn’t benefited the electoral fortunes of progressive political parties is because the language used to talk about wealth inequality has absolutely no relevance to people’s lives. Although there are vague notions of wealth inequality being a problem, progressives don’t have a common narrative, a story of why their policies will make a difference in anything other than a theoretical sense.
So, where the Democrats failed to make the case for universal healthcare and its benefits to reduce wealth inequality, Trump strode in with simplistic ‘I’ll make everything great’ slogans and stole the show. Where Labour UK failed to explain why another term of Conservative government would grow wealth inequality and push everyone-but-the-already-rich further behind, they left the door open for the Conservative deal-with-the-UKIP-devil which brought about Brexit through a back-lash against establishment politics; a backlash which should be electing a Labour platform. And even though Labor in Australia got within striking distance of Turnbull’s neoliberal second term, their primary vote is still being crunched by anti-establishment also-not-going-to-fix-wealth-inequality parties who benefit from wealth inequality resentment.
So what needs to happen? Progressives need to learn to talk about wealth inequality in a way that makes it real for people. The villain of wealth inequality needs a name and the wreckage this villain causes, the unsustainability of this situation, needs a relatable description.
The first thing we need to do is to stop using statistics to explain the problem of wealth inequality. Unless you’re a statistician talking to other statisticians, I promise the minute you start using percentages and ratios to describe a political problem, the audiences’ eyes glaze over. So stop it.
The next thing we should do is to use an analogy to replace any talk of money. The reason for this is that money is a loaded concept. People who don’t have much of it are usually blamed for their circumstances by people who have plenty of it. They’re framed as lazy or just unfortunate. People, conversely, who have a huge amount of money are revered in our culture, looked up to, and are aspirants. So when we talk about those at the top of the income percentiles doing much better out of economic growth than those in all the other income percentiles, peoples’ minds can’t help but avoid equating massive wealth with unhealthy greed, and instead think that wealth is deserved and earned, and therefore should be respected, not questioned.
I would suggest one simple strategy is to swap out money with the analogy of oxygen. Wealth inequality would then be described like this:
People need oxygen to survive. If they don’t have enough air, they will be desperate for every gulp and won’t be able to think very far into the future past their immediate need for the next breath. Only when they reach a certain level of oxygen comfort, can they settle into life and feel able to think long term about buying their family a house, settling into a community, finding a good job or starting a business and ensuring their whole family has enough oxygen to stay alive. As a society, it makes sense to ensure that everyone has enough oxygen to breathe comfortably so that they think long term rather than short term.
On the other hand, the way things are, there are too many people who have more oxygen than they really need and are hogging it all. These people are storing away their excess oxygen in places which benefit no one but themselves, and even sending it overseas where it leaks out and is lost forever. The problem is, these people who have far more oxygen than they could ever need, are also unfortunately the people who control the oxygen supply for people who don’t have very much.
When you go to work each day and the guy who decides how much oxygen you’ll receive for the skills and expertise you contribute is hogging it all, only sharing it out amongst the oxygen-rich-executives who already have more than they can possibly use, and you don’t have enough to keep your family in breathe-easy comfort, it’s no wonder you start to get upset. For one thing, how are you meant to keep turning up to work each day, helping him to earn more oxygen, if he keeps so much of it for himself that you’re too out of breath to keep working? And how can the people who store away all the excess oxygen not see that it’s problematic for their businesses if all their would-be-customers are struggling to breathe and certainly don’t have excess air in their lungs to go shopping?
This is just one example to show why, when you take percentages and the concept of ‘money’ out of the wealth inequality conversation, and use an analogy to show the flow-on effect of a widening gap, the situation is vivid, understandable, clearly unsustainable, and also an urgent problem that needs immediate action to solve. You’re welcome.
I will preface this post by apologising for its elitist, condescending tone. I understand how unhelpful it is to metaphorically look-down at Trump supporters, and that part of the reason they are Trump supporters is because people like me looked-down on them for so long that they are now revolting against elitist snobbery. But I don’t see any way to discuss this issue in a way which doesn’t fit the elitist narrative. And besides, I know most of my audience probably fit this elitist mould just as much as I do. It’s important we know why the parallel anti-expert-post-truth world Trump created is so attractive to his supporters if we’re going to defend against it in Australia, so although I’m sorry for the condensation, I don’t apologise for the discussion.
Today I want to look at the post-truth social and news media echo-chamber which managed to put Trump on its shoulders, carry him to a pedestal, and place him unquestioning atop of it. Now that this raging machine have put their man in their White House, they have not stopped their effort to defend their King. They have not put down their keyboard, content at their victory, assured that they have been vindicated in their opinions and are now happy to go on their merry way helping Trump to apparently ‘make America Great again’. No. They’re still busy either crowing about their victory on social media (the popular line seems to be them mocking liberal tears), or attacking their King’s opponents. As a movement, they’re still working hard to ensure that everything Trump says and does is protected against fair scrutiny by the giant wall of anger and resentment Trump very cleverly built around himself and whenever anyone dares to criticise of even question Trump, his keyboard supporters pile on as a unified army.
This post-truth world might just be the scariest part of Trump’s ascendancy. That is why I think it’s important to take a closer look at how it came to be.
Every individual tweet which includes news about the US election has responses that perfectly represent the two polarised camps that have formed in the post-truth world. Those who argue with facts, and those who argue with stubborn opinions that are cemented in stone. It is not fair to characterise these camps by saying the stubborn camp sided wholly with Trump, and the facts camp with Clinton, because that is a simplistic analysis which isn’t fair or helpful. Either way, it only takes a cursory scroll through the two types of tweets to see exactly how dangerous the post-truth community has become. The reason for this is because they’ve learned to be cynical and untrusting of what they term to be ‘elites’, to the point where they latch onto a conspiracy and without any critical analysis of whether their opinion reflects reality, they whip up a fire-storm of hatred against the elite which is completely impervious to reason or attempts to contradict it. Here is an example.
Jill Stein, leader of the US Greens, who is currently heading a campaign to raise funds for recounts in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan tweeted this comment, complaining about the cost and bureaucratic headache of organising the recount (a statement which is, ironically, very anti-establishment).
Now look at some of the responses to this tweet, and note how many shares they have received in appreciation. Quickly, a conspiracy theory has flared up accusing Stein, and in turn, Sanders, of raising funds for the recount which they are then going to apparently keep for themselves by committing fraud and therefore deserving to, just like Hillary, be ‘locked up’.
I know there have always been, and probably always will be, conspiracy theorists on the internet. But Trump supporters have turned conspiracy theories from a fringe game to a mainstream electoral movement.
I have no doubt that many of these people have every justification for distrusting the establishment government and what they see as a ruling-elite. They feel they let them down. They have seen their jobs disappear, their towns lose all sense of community, they’ve been sent to unnecessary wars and America hasn’t lived up to their expectation of being the land of opportunity. But, and this is where I’m going to receive howls of ‘you’re an elitist and part of the problem’, there is also a problem here with these people’s ability to reason and to critically judge information. This problem occurs when they bypass a healthy cynicism – a necessary second-look at establishment practices – and instead jump straight to angry, stubborn cynicism, mistrust and hatred for only those they disagree with to come up with, frankly, quite nutty campaigns that are illogical and self-defeating.
I say illogical because it’s just ridiculous that these people believe that Stein and Sanders are going to raise funds for a recount and then give up on the recount so they can scamper off with the profits. That’s just not going to happen. Even if you believed Stein and Sanders to be so corrupt that they would want to steal this money, there is no logical process by which the money can be transferred from the recount fund into Stein and Sander’s bank accounts. To believe it could happen is beyond cynical and is instead dangerously gullible. What this gullibility also reveals is that the mistrust and disrespect shown to experts of any kind, who are thrown in the elitist bin along with anyone else they deem to have wronged them, has extended to a mistrust and disrespect for facts. Experts provide facts, experts are wrong, therefore facts are wrong. And any person with a keyboard has an opinion worth believing, as long, of course, as you agree with that opinion. See why I’m scared?
I say self-defeating because, actually, there is no harm done to Trump supporters through the vote recount campaign – it’s not their money, it’s come from donations from people who support the recount. And you would think all Americans prefer to be sure that their election system is not rigged, as Trump complained it was for weeks on end. The rigged part, apparently, they only agree with if Trump says it, not one of their opponents. In actual fact, there are many elements of the American political system which do, justifiably, make it feel like the elites, the rich, have rigged the process in their favour; but the irony of all of this is that Trump is one of those elites who had serious power in the electoral process through his donations to both sides of politics, and regularly used this power to benefit his business interests, to give himself more power, to the point where he had enough power to run for President by saying the whole system is rigged. We need a stronger word for ironic.
Although you might think I’ve finished with my elitist put-down, unfortunately, I haven’t. The post-truth world didn’t happen by accident. I’ve read thousands of words during and since the election which try to explain the demographic and value-driven voting behaviour of Trump versus Clinton voters, and there is one that stood out to me. Perhaps it stood out because it was a fact which fitted my preconceived opinions – which are the best types of facts don’t you think? This one was a pretty credible fact though, if we’re having a debate about which fact is better, which we’re not because we are trying to deal with a post-truth world where facts are apparently the enemy. Anyway, back to my arsenal of facts. This one is from credible-big-data-pollster Nate Silver, who found that education levels were a bigger predictor of voting behaviour than income. Silver suggests that the catch-all term ‘elites’ may actually just be a proxy for people with a post-high-school education. He says the Trump voters were much more likely to only have a high-school education, whereas Clinton voters were much more likely to have a post-high-school education. Again, this might just sound like I’m putting Trump voters in the ‘too stupid to vote’ category, but I’m not doing that. I’m trying to help. Honestly.
What do we learn at university or in vocational education? Apart from learning a specialised set of skills to set us up for a profession that requires particular expertise which is particularly useful in a post-globalisation world where manual jobs are disappearing. Apart from learning to respect our peers and teachers for their contributions in specialised fields, to respect their expertise, their experience, and their imparting of useful facts. Apart from all that, we learn how to think. We learn how to reason. We learn how to critically assess information and to draw rational conclusions. Every assignment, every class, every discussion at post-high-school level builds these competencies. These competencies are, sorry to sound elitist again, a massive asset in life. To be able to see real events happening in front of you, and to question them, to think about them, to recall past events and compare them, to make reasoned and eloquent arguments about what you think, and to do this in a civil and productive way, is important, not just to individuals but also to the success of whole societies.
The post-truth world, if it has any of this type of thinking, doesn’t have nearly enough. Where a debate between people who hold different, informed positions is healthy, rejection of facts from experts because expertise and experience are deemed to be automatically untrustworthy is not. Where cynicism is healthy, stubborn-unthinking-partisan-cynicism is not. So, as much as I know this sounds like a pie-in-the-sky when we need a much quicker and easier fix for the post-truth world, really, the answer is more accessible and better education for all.
Those who feel left behind by the establishment, who hate that they’ve been left behind, aren’t going to be convinced by your reasoned arguments that they’re voting against their best interests when they are unable to assess the information in front of them and draw logical conclusions. When they’ve wedded themselves to Trump and they believe everything he does is wonderful and everything his opponents do is corrupt and immoral, they’re not going to be convinced to listen to your point of view, to your rational analysis of why they are mistaken. Your dot points of facts is going to bounce right off them. This is not about Trump supporters being dumb. This is about them being uneducated. You want to make sure Trump doesn’t get elected again? Then educate the masses. Not just the privileged people who can afford it.
That’s right. On the day Paul Keating told the ABC they are letting Australians down, and on the day climate scientists warned uncontrolled climate change has pushed the Antarctic to a world-altering tipping point, Australian news organisations, who often complain that they no longer have the resources they need to go out and find stories, found enough resources to follow Pauline Hanson and her fellow One Nation climate deniers on a fun little day-trip to far north Queensland, to capture her swimming in a healthy part of the reef and to beam her climate change denying message to a national audience. I know ABC weren’t the only ones there, but I’m focusing on them because they should know better. I’m focusing on them because they covered this non-story not just on the evening news, but also gave it a full ten minutes on apparently-current affairs show 7:30.
Why on earth would any so-called-credible news organisation do such a thing? The answer to that is simple. Pauline Hanson is colourful and therefore newsworthy. When she says ‘I’ve got something to say’, the Australian media don’t expect her to earn the right to say it, on a national television screen. Instead, they follow along like lost puppies, giving her all the free publicity she could ever ask for, falling for her simple yet effective media strategy hook-line-wetsuit-wearing-and-sinker.
This simple strategy goes like this: the more ridiculous the comment, the more publicity it gets. We could call it the Hanson media strategy. Or the James Ashby, Hanson’s chief strategist’s media strategy. But that would be a bit inward looking. A bit, you might even call it, xenophobic. Because really, this strategy is not unique to Hanson. It’s not even unique to any of the One Nation nut-jobs (yes, I will call a spade a spade), or Cory Bernardi, or George Christensen, Eric Abetz, Peter Dutton or any other brought-to-you-by-the IPA or the HR Nicholls Society, or the Australian Christian Lobby or any other shady-funded-by-who-exactly-we’re-never-told shock-jock political-operatives. No, this strategy is global and it worked so well for the Trump-circus and the Farage-circus, it’s more than likely going to be adopted by political communicators the world over. Why not, when the media is so happy to oblige, and it works so well?
What was the point of Hanson’s reef visit? Journalists surely don’t think it’s newsworthy that she’s a climate change denier. We all know One-Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts was involved in the running of the Australian Galileo Movement who have been at the forefront of fighting against climate action in Australia for as long as there has been such a movement. It’s not newsworthy that there are still politicians out there who deny science, who deny experts, who deny that the world needs to do something about climate change before it’s too late. None of that is news. The angle Hanson was going for was that she was defending the Queensland tourism industry from falling tourist numbers, which are caused by, she claims, the false publicity that the Great Barrier Reef is being damaged from climate change, when really, she claims, the reef is fine. There is no logic here. There is no rational way in which a journalist can accept this clearly ridiculous argument with a straight face. And the key point is, there is no way this attitude, this media stunt is deserving of an audience. There are not two-sides-to-the-climate-change-argument because it’s not an argument. If I called a press conference to claim the sky is red, would I get 10 minutes on 730? No? By putting Hanson’s climate denial on our TV screens, and by not even trying to frame it as ridiculous, as un-thinking, as populism-against-experts-against-people-who-are-trying-to-save-the-reef, against the so-called-elite, a term now given to anyone who has the ability to think critically, the media is letting their audience down.
There is a phrase in public relations speak called ‘earned media’. Earned media is the opposite of paid media, the idea being that PR people lobby journalists to cover their stories by positioning those stories as newsworthy and as credible and as important to the audience, so that the space in the news section is earned, rather than paying for the message in the advertising section. My question to the ABC is this: what did Pauline Hanson do to earn all the free publicity she got on the ABC news and 730 last night?
I often hear the argument that Pauline Hanson received enough votes to get herself elected to parliament and that’s all she had to do to earn a right to a media pack following her around. But do all elected members of parliament get as much attention as Hanson? Do they all automatically have the right to say whatever they want, without fact-checking, without question, without having to come up with something that’s newsworthy, important, factual, credible and correct? Do they have to earn the right to be on the news, or can they say whatever they like and it will just be repeated, maybe fact-checked at a later stage on a different medium, but too late then because everyone has already seen the climate change denial and this is the only message they remember?
The media is letting us down alright, and it’s helping the likes of Hanson win more votes, scrutiny free. Until news producers are willing to turn down Hanson’s invite to the reef, until they are willing to follow her on her merry-little-publicity-seeking jaunts only under the condition that a climate scientists accompanies them to refute her anti-fact-statements right there on the spot, as part of the same news story, to show that she’s really got zero clue about science, and to put her off trying anything like that again, then they’re letting us down. Until we stand up and say enough is enough, there’s no reason they’ll stop playing this game. ABC complaints can be lodged here.