Denialism is destructive 28. February 2015 Ad astra Opinion pieces/current affairs (8) First, let’s work from the same page and establish what ‘denialism’ means. Rational Wiki says: “Denialism is the refusal to accept well-established theory, law, fact or evidence.” Wikipedia says: “In human behavior, denialism is exhibited by individuals choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable truth… It is the refusal to accept an empirically verifiable reality. It is an essentially irrational action that withholds validation of a historical experience or event." Those definitions are unambiguous. We see denialism in many arenas. Perhaps the most notable contemporary example in science is denial of anthropogenic global warming. What we are seeing from our federal government during these past weeks is denial of the catastrophic situation it faces in its leadership, stewardship and governance. The level of denial has reached pathological proportions. It has sown the seeds of its own destruction, and now the bitter harvest is about to be reaped. It is common practice for politicians to make light of the problems they face, the mistakes they make, and the flaws in their number. Reasonable people expect that. So long as the magnitude of their denial sits comfortably around the middle of the bell-shaped curve, they can accept it as ‘normal’ for politicians. But when denialism becomes an outlier on the curve, when it exceeds the bounds of credibility, reasonable people become skeptical, cynical and disbelieving. This is the electorate’s view of our federal government right now. It’s hard to know where to start, but let’s focus first on our prime minister, temporary though he clearly is. Voters elect the PM! In the face of recent leadership tensions, our PM insisted that it was the voters who selected the prime minister, and only they could, and should, remove him. This is not so. The Westminster system delegates this responsibility to the party room of the elected party. How many times did John Howard say that leadership is the gift of the party room? There is no room for argument about it. Yet Abbott denies this, repeatedly. He is either in perpetual denial, or is simply lying. Once again, this week we had Joe Hockey lecturing his radio host and audience that it is only the people who can remove a PM. But on another station on the same day Scott Morrison insisted that it is only the party room that can, adding: “those who believe otherwise are kidding themselves.” When the PM and his senior ministers cannot agree on such a basic principle, and when after all the discussion that has taken place about the matter, some are still spouting the ‘voters are the only people who can decide’ mantra, such denial of reality has reached dangerous levels, and is destructive for the government as its credibility sinks out of sight. It’s only a flesh wound When the call for a leadership spill first surfaced a couple of weeks ago, Abbott passed it off as inconsequential. He insisted that he had the full support of his ministry and the overwhelming support of his backbench. Ministers joined the chorus. History has shown how delusional that assumption was. Thirty-nine of his party room indicated that they would prefer an empty chair. Even among the 61 who supported him, it was known that some were very unhappy with Abbott’s performance. He was put on notice. Once the spill motion was defeated, Abbott tossed it off. It’s over he insisted, but he was chastened and would change. Although he conceded that he had had a ‘near death’ experience, he wallowed in denial when he indicated that the vote was behind him and that was that! As his denials of the new reality reached new heights, he resembled the dismembered Black Knight, blood spurting from his severed limbs, denying his dilapidated state. Arising from his fall from grace was the imperative that he do something about his authoritarian PMO and chief of staff. This was ignored, and his confidence in them was restated. Since then, nothing has changed. Libspill 2 – ‘Just insider Canberra gossip’ Leadership uncertainty emerged once more this week as backbenchers told ABC journalists that Malcolm Turnbull now had enough support to mount a challenge to Abbott, and he should. Slipping instantly into denial mode, Abbott declared: “This is just speculation”, just “Canberra insider gossip”. He insisted “he and his government were undistracted”, that he was ”getting on with the job as the people expected”, and that he ”enjoyed the full confidence of his colleagues” and indeed “his party room”. Julie Bishop affirmed that what Liberals were telling journalists was “just speculation”, and that she ”hadn’t heard any rumours”. Scott Morrison said that a few backbenchers were doing ”a bit of political bedwetting”, presumably over nothing. On The Drum though, Liberal Kate Carnell, ACCI CEO, was realistic enough to admit that it was "a disaster for everyone". On ABC radio Greg Hunt enthusiastically embraced Abbott’s denialism when he maintained that all was well. Every question that probed the Abbott leadership was met with denial that anything was wrong. In fact he detailed all the government’s amazing achievements. Josh Frydenberg extolled Abbott on ABC radio, saying he’s had a lot of ”great achievements”, and has “a plan for the future”. Barnaby Joyce spluttered that he was sure that ”the matter had been dealt with”, and that he had ”complete confidence in Tony Abbott”. Today, Andrew Robb labeled the leadership speculation as ”confected by malcontents”. Confected? Denialism writ large. No matter who the journalists asked, Abbott’s men all certified that Abbott is doing a great job and has their full support. They are either lying or deluded. The adults are back – good government has started Voters, businesspeople and industrialists, all of whom have been waiting for the Abbott government to do what it said it would, must have been relieved to hear from Abbott that 16 months into his first term, good government had at last begun. He did not elaborate on what his government had been doing all this time except to reiterate that it had ‘stopped the boats’, ‘axed the taxes’ and was ‘building the roads of the 21st century’. For a grown up government of well over a year, it is astonishing to reflect on its progress. Economic growth is sluggish, needing interest rate cuts to get it going; consumer and business confidence are low; as the mining boom subsides, one alternative, manufacturing, is faltering, and manufacturing jobs are being lost; revenue is down and debt is rising; deficits are forecast for ‘as far as the eye can see’; and unemployment is rising inexorably. In 2015, 780,000 are officially unemployed and many more are underemployed. 175,200 are long term unemployed, up from 154,900 last year. In January, there were 533,00 people on Newstart. Where are the 2 million jobs promised over the next decade? We should have seen at least a quarter of a million so far. Despite such a cluster of failures, government commentators insist that much has been achieved; the economy is doing fine; the future is in good hands. Denial of the stark reality of economic torpor is rife. There is denial of the fact that the hugely unpopular and unfair 2014 budget remains in limbo. But as the gifted economic managers are in charge again, all must be well. The most realistic comment came today from John Hewson, who asserted that ”changing the jockey won’t help if the horse is crook”. And everyone can see that the horse really is crook. Hewson indulged in no denialism; he simply laid bare the facts. Denialism is dangerous and destructive, especially in matters economic. Pesky polls The polls have been awful for Abbott and the LNP for well over a year. A fortnight ago, the LNP was 14 points behind Labor in Newspoll, a result that sent shivers through those in marginal electorates. This week it was 6 points behind, as it is in most other polls, still a disastrous position. Abbott’s men were enthused though with this magnificent boost in the polls. However, they failed to mention that Abbott’s popularity rating was virtually unchanged: minus 44 had become minus 43! Instead, they focused on the fact that Shorten’s rating had slipped from plus 2 to minus14! The way LNP ministers and supporters presented these numerical facts was yet another example of denialism of gross proportions. ‘A storm in a teacup’ Rumbles about the Prime Minister’s Office and his chief of staff Peta Credlin have been around since the government was elected. Abbott was supposed to attend to this, but once more this week it flared again. An email from the party honorary treasurer bitterly complaining of the dysfunction of the PMO was leaked to the media. Abbott’s reaction was classic denialism – it was, he said, simply ”a storm in a teacup”; he stood by his staff absolutely. Nothing will change. Abbott, out of loyalty, or simply because of his denialism, will not move against his office, from which he receives his daily marching orders. The MSM is in denial too With all the renewed talk of another leadership spill, it would not be unreasonable to expect our media to reflect that. I had to leaf through 38 pages of Friday’s Herald-Sun, the largest selling Murdoch tabloid in this country, to find any reference to federal politics, and that story was about Bill Shorten, ‘the hollow man’! At least the front page of The Age was devoted to politics, but to the Gillian Triggs story, not Libspill 2. It seems that much of the mainstream print media is also steeped in denialism, ignoring completely the emerging stories of the push for another leadership spill. Perhaps they needed a day to catch breath! It came as a surprise then to read on Friday evening that John Hartigan, former News Corporation chief, had called for Tony Abbott ”to step aside in the nation's best interest.” Asked if the Prime Minister could turn around his political fortunes he said: “No. I think his opportunity is gone. Even his strongest supporters are now detractors.” A dose of reality, but from one no longer in the Murdoch camp. Postscript At last The Age has caught up with the story in its Saturday edition with a front page splash by Mark Kenny: Big end of town turns on PM, and his page four 'Analysis' that pulls no punches. It simply states that Abbott's position is terminal; it is only a question of when he will be replaced, and of course by whom. The Herald-Sun has now joined in with an article by Ellen Whinnett: Ministers hold nerve amid pressure from backbenchers to oust the Prime Minister, which is generally sympathetic to Abbott. It begins with words of support from Andrew Robb: “Speaking this morning to Sky News, trade minister Andrew Robb backed Mr Abbott to lead the government at the next election." "He has earned the right to take us to the next election… That is usually the disposition of people when they vote a government in, that they would expect the prime minister to be given the opportunity to play out his program.” Same old denialism about who selects the PM! So there you have it – rampant denialism from every quarter. What good does it do? It may give some temporary comfort to the perpetrators, but if the people don’t believe what the denialists say, they have forfeited their credibility. The people have seen though them. They are seen as deluded fools, who believe their own rhetoric. They destroy their integrity, their standing, and their authority. Denialism is destructive. Those who deny reality destroy themselves and all they claim to stand for. Why do they let denialism swallow them and their party with them? Ad astra is a retired medical academic who is dismayed at the continuing leadership chaos and the ineffectual governance it is promoting. More about Ad astra here.