Pick a fight, ignore the facts … the triumph of ‘rage-shame’ politics in the Australian climate change debate

In response to yet another report finding that the evidence overwhelmingly links climate change to human activity, those of us who accept scientific evidence can take some comfort from the Australian government’s establishment of a trading scheme to try and reduce emissions. This scheme is not a traditional ‘darling of the left’; as noted by Ross Garnaut, it follows the lead of almost every other country taking action to reduce emissions in using market-based mechanisms to set the most efficient price on carbon. This constitutes a distinctly ‘small government’, non-regulatory approach with neo-liberal elements, designed to address a problem often described as a ‘market failure’. Ostensibly (and politics aside), it is hard to see why a party that professes to support rational, evidence based decision-making steeped in the ideology of markets – such as the Liberal National Coalition – would be against such a policy. Indeed, the Howard Government went to the 2007 election promising to introduce an emissions-trading scheme.

And yet, the fury of the Coalition’s objections to climate change is of a bewildering intensity. The Coalition aggressively opposes Labor’s neo-liberal trading scheme, and has a history of its prominent figures – including Tony Abbott – publicly challenging the evidence on climate change. Much of their vitriol is reserved not for the policy itself, however, but for the policy-makers. The Coalition has used every kind of hyperbole in attacking the trustworthiness of the ALP on issues of taxation and budget responsibility in relation to climate change. It is doubly ironic that the Coalition’s preferred ‘direct action’ plan has been condemned by environmental groups and conservative economists as inefficient and costly, and yet the traction gained from the emotional sloganeering about ‘Labor’s mismanagement and lies’ on climate change are likely to win the next election for the Coalition.

So how did the agenda shift from evidence-based decision making to ‘slanging matches on lies and taxes’? Discourse analyses of Hansard records of parliamentary debates on climate change at the time of the introduction of the Labor governments’ emissions trading policy is telling. Analysis shows that debates on climate change are dominated by emotional accusations of shameful behavior, and angry denials and counterclaims. Such debates exhibit the dynamics of what University of California Sociologist Thomas Scheff calls ‘rage-shame cycles,’ where downward, negative spirals of emotion and personal insults replace reasoned dialogue about the evidence behind an issue.

However, the analysis suggests that this is a deliberately evoked (rather than a natural or random) phenomenon, largely at the instigation of the Coalition. Accusations of Prime Minister Gillard’s “lie”, “breach of the democratic process”, “damage to her reputation”, and “disappointing” behaviour are repeatedly introduced and rehashed in the debate. These exchanges from the second reading of the series of Clean Energy Bills (2011) demonstrate the Coalition’s great discipline in avoiding any discussion of climate change evidence whilst repeating the mantra about the Prime Minister’s ‘lies’:

The majority consensus statements of our climate scientists have been ignored or belittled by members of the opposition and the opposition leader himself.” (Garrett, ALP)

There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead. That is what the Prime Minister assured this country just six days before the last federal election … ” (Christensen, Liberal Party).

The advice from the world scientific community is very straight forward: global temperatures are rising and the cause is carbon pollution ….” (Elliot, ALP)

 “The Australian public have been misled time and time again … the position of Prime Minister in Australia has been tarnished. Irreparable damage has been done.” (Haase, Liberal Party).

As the debates draw on in 2012, the Coalition succeeds in ‘goading’ the ALP into angry retaliation. Notable exchanges include Mark Dreyfus making what becomes a typical attack on the Coalition’s ‘backward views’, ‘shameless deceit’, and ‘false claims,’ and Barnaby Joyce and the normally implacable Penny Wong engaging in a heated furore about ‘having a bad day at the office’ versus ‘being a tough guy’.

I would argue that the Coalition’s persistent inducement of shame and anger towards the ALP normalises the use of personal attacks and moralising claims, where the need to retaliate comes to dominate reasoned public debate. This diverts public attention away from the ‘inconvenient’ evidence on climate-change towards the emotional drama of politics, which benefits the Coalition politically in several ways. First, it undermines any credibility that the Labor Government might draw from acting on the evidence on climate change. Second, it undermines the Government’s credibility as a calm, reasoned and ‘statesmanlike’ manager of the country. Third, it marks a revival in conservative pride and anger, and provides a cathartic release from the ‘shame’ of being the ignorant party that ‘didn’t get’ climate change, serving to unify the conservative base in opposition to progressive climate change polices.

The result is an ethically questionable practice of distortion of evidence and public opinion, and poorer policy outcomes. It is also a poor result for Labor. There is nothing inevitable about anger, shame and personal attacks in politics. The manipulation of such phenomena by one party relies on the other side taking the bait. There are a number of good reasons as to why Labor should fight the upcoming election on climate change, but they should do so in a proactive and rational, rather than reactive and emotional manner. It is disheartening to think that the ALP is likely to suffer an election-loss tomorrow for being ‘suckered’ into a fight they might not have had today.

Posted in Emotions.