Over the past few weeks I have been having drives and talks with my elder son, whose interest are like mine, though he is more interested in the philosophical aspects of politics than its day-to-day jousting. What follows comes from one of these talks we have had while driving through back roads in the bush, which we both enjoy.
There is an incompatibility in all human societies in terms of what we want from our society and its government. We want X, but don’t always realise that it almost certainly involves Y, which we don’t want. Take our treatment of illegal immigrants. How many times have I heard, or read, that it is disgraceful what we do them. They are in what for other countries we might call ‘concentration camps’. It’s wrong, and they ought do something about it. ‘They’, of course, is our government. That is the X of the incompatibility. The Y is what government might do about it.
Now we in Australia are fortunate in that we inhabit a large island, and sea and air are the only means of entry. The air entry is governable, though not one hundred per cent effective. Sea is easier, and our government has most effectively blocked the conveying of would-be immigrants from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. We should be helping them, cry the Xers, not turning them around. It’s awful. Maybe it is, but if we allow them entry, won’t that encourage others, and the ‘people smugglers’? I think it would, and before long there would be larger and larger numbers of arrivals. What we would do with them? What jobs would they have, and where would they live? Those of us who are not Xers tend to shrug, when we think of the issue at all. Yes, it’s a bad thing, but what else can we do? Australia is a prime target for those who are seeking another land to live in. We do take in a lot of refugees who live in resettlement camps, and we do look after them. And so on.
Our government is caught between the Xers and the sheer practicalities of the matter. So it says what it is doing, and keeps doing it. Yes, it will lose votes, but votes are not everything. It might well lose more if it abandoned turning the boats around. Much of the time I have great sympathy for those around the Cabinet table. So many issues are in practical terms insolvable, at least for the moment. Some are simply intractable, and have cursed humanity since it began to live in settlements.
Here’s another example, familiar enough for readers of this website. Here the Xers are climate-action people. They want climate action now, whatever it is they mean by that. They support global action and local action and some of them undertake personal action in some respects, by not driving cars, or eating meat. Now Australia is one of the world’s great mining countries, and our mines produce the raw materials for the world’s industrial activity. Coal is an especial item here, because without it there is no cheap electricity, and without that there is little industry or civilisation. Now the Xers tend to bypass Australia’s contribution to what the Xers see as the problem through the export of coal, iron ore and the like. If they were serious, they would be demanding that we stop all such exports.
On the whole they don’t seem to, because to do that would greatly reduce their own standard of living. So they demand climate action now, without saying what might be involved if their demands were taken seriously. They see greenhouse gas emissions (GGE) as the core of the problem, and those have to be reduced. Push that forcefully (always assuming that GGE are the problem), and you go back to a much earlier form of civilisation. Our government has no intention of ending the export of coal and iron ore, and simply says that we are doing our bit. The Xers say that’s not enough, and the government shrugs. So do those who are not Xers, like me. Maybe the world will continue to warm, though there’s not much warming about. But if it goes on warming, and the warming becomes a problem — it’s not at the moment — then future generations will have a better handle on it then we have now.
A third example, in a tightly focused domain, is that of the treatment of severely handicapped children in school. Here there are two different categories of Xers. XAers say that their child MUST be given his or her education in a mainstream school, and so must all comparably affected kids, while the XBers claim that their child needs one-to-one education, wherever it is and whatever it costs. These two desires are straightforwardly incompatible, and both partisans appeal to government. No, they do not appeal: they Demand. Because the core of the demands involves children the demands are passionate and loud. What does government do?
Well, it tries to placate. When that doesn’t work it finds a loophole somewhere. We didn’t sign up to this or that, in the UN document about the rights of the child, an ancient document, this one. Or it says, look, education is really a State matter. Why don’t you write to the relevant Minister in your State? And it takes some time to get the right language into its letters to the passionate citizens, and the government hopes that that one will go away, at least for a while. There may not be all that many of the truly passionate, but they can raise a clamour. It’s a tough life, dealing with the passionate, who know as well as anyone the power of writing through their local member to the government, and the way in which to attract local media to their cause, knowing that whatever they say will cause a local fracas, which means more interest in their cause.
It’s not always fun and power, being the government.
ENDNOTE I would like to start this year with a new and powerful rule. I don’t write these essays as an invitation to people to add in whatever they’re interested in. From now on, I will moderate Comments to exclude themes that have nothing to do with the subject of the essay. If you want to talk about Australia’s relations with China in the Comments to this essay, go somewhere else. Too many of the Comments lately have been about the favourite subjects of the Commenters, and I am getting sick of that. I fancy that other readers feel the same. The rule applies also to those who want to cross swords with whoever wrote the irrelevant Comment in the first place. NEW RULE: Keep it relevant!
PERSONAL NOTE: My lovely and much-loved wife died the day before Christmas Eve. We had been together for nearly thirty years, and she leaves a great hole in my heart. I now have to construct a new life without her. It will be hard.