As the planet prepares to flunk its latest performance review in Glasgow, Australian politics is threatening to reach peak bullshit with its cynically curated “towards net zero” kabuki dance.
After spewing toxic climate emissions into our civic ecosystem for over a decade, the Murdoch press is proselytising the need to act, the business lobby is modelling a clean energy future while the prime minister resolves to tether his nuttier outliers to something approaching reality.
Climate inertia is a totemic output of the bullshit industrial complex, an unhealthy alliance of the big tech gatekeepers commercially driven to privilege feels over facts, a fourth estate desperate for audience and a political class schooled in doing whatever it takes to win.’
This machine diminishes science and nuanced policy to assuage the urges and biases of the audience, turning science into muck, weaponising even relatively benign climate measures such as electric vehicles into a war on the weekend.
“Climate action” is but one of a steaming pile of policy the Coalition is fermenting as it prepares its case for re-election. There’s its integrity laws, the blame-shifting on hospital funding and, if all else fails, a face-off with China.
Politics has always run on artifice, controlled by a professional class schooled in the relativity of student debating clubs and culture war theatrics to argue for any point, regardless of its merit. Hawkie was the good bloke, Howard was the every man, Rudd the fiscal conservative.
But our current prime minster is deploying the full repertoire of old and new media tools to transform himself from a puritan careerist from the eastern suburbs into ScoMo, the Sharkies-loving beer-guzzling bloke of simple means.
Now, in an unlikely twist, the same man who proudly fondled a lump of coal to prove his fossil fuel cred is being forced to respond to the reality of a global consensus that action can no longer be delayed and a local public who have now been through one bushfire season too many.
This week’s Guardian Essential Report shows the majority of Australians are done with the climate bullshit, although there is a stubborn rump in the PM’s own backyard and, notably, to his right flank, continuing to luxuriate in the muck.
Pointedly, in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic, science appears to be fighting back, with the majority of us choosing not to indulge in faux culture wars in the face of an existential public health threat.
For all their noise, the number of people who say they will refuse to get vaccinated continues to fall, those holding out in the face of growing evidence that they will be in the Covid kill zone at least showing the courage of their convictions.
What stands out in both these tables is the views of those who vote outside the established parties: the “Others”: One Nation, United Australia parties and assorted fringe players. Significantly more likely to reject both climate and vaccine science, they are fodder for the bullshit industrial complex’s wormholes and filter bubbles.
But the majority cut through the spin when the experts are given the conch; politicians lock in behind them; media accept a baseline truth and the conspiracy theorists are forced to play off Broadway as the social media platforms act on the danger of virus and vaccine disinformation, giving lie to the proposition that they lack the capacity to manage dangerous content on their networks.
Last week’s testimony in the US Senate by Frances Haugen, the whistleblower who worked in Facebook’s civil integrity unit, until it was closed down post-presidential election, shows that what the platforms actually lack is the will to take responsibility for their own behaviour on an ongoing basis.
Haugen’s broader testimony and scathing critique of Facebook showed the extent to which the bullshit industrial complex is being driven by an algorithmically induced cycle of anger and division shown to maximise to profits even when this is seen to harm the user.
Like tobacco executives, the decision to turn a blind eye to evidence of product danger demands a coordinated response from regulators and legislations in any country that wants to hold on to liberal democratic principles. Demanding transparency on the anger algorithm, the way a car’s engine needs to meet engineering standards, is surely a necessary first step.
Unlike its record on climate, the Morrison government has, to its credit, been ahead of the global curve. It has created an e-safety commissioner with world-leading powers to order takedowns of materials deemed dangerous; its limited but significant remit to focus on child safety now being expanded to cover trolling more broadly.
A review of privacy laws is also working its way through to the attorney general’s desk, the first major overhaul since 2014, with proposals to expanding the definition of personal information, create secure “no go” zones online where users activity can’t be monitored and contemplating an enforceable right to privacy.
As media journalism becomes more enmeshed with digital platforms as a result of the government’s other big tech initiative, the news media bargaining code, there seems a new urgency around addressing the platform’s lack of accountability that goes to the very essence of their business models. The recent high court ruling that the trolling of Dylan Voller in comments on news posts on Facebook could amount to defamation by the media companies creates a burning legal platform.
It’s into this policy cesspit that Barnaby Joyce dived last week, incensed his daughter was being subject to anonymous trolling and itching for a blue with the billionaire barons: “You make money from their noise, their ambit scratchings on the back of a lavatory door,” he blustered. “The platform must be held liable. If they enable the vice, they pay the price”. In this instance, Joyce is spot on.
Morrison has backed him, suggesting wholesale defamation law reform that would redefine the rights and responsibilities of media companies and the digital platforms. Handled properly, this could be a moment of global leadership to give facts and civility a chance.
It’s easy to be cynical about the motivations of these players, but like coalminers embracing climate change, you can’t change the system until the primary beneficiaries of a toxic pipeline recognise the status quo is no longer tolerable.
A bipartisan consensus to disarm the bullshit industrial complex would transform Australian politics and give us a fighting chance of clearing out our public sewers and meeting our broader responsibilities to the future.