Bushfire Bill struck a respondent chord when he argued the case that the Liberal Party had earned the label ‘The Grumpy Old Party’. In commenting on this piece, Bilko said “...a pervasive state of denial afflicts the Coalition”, and Michael said the same when he wrote “...their grumpy army can still NOT BELIEVE that the Coalition was voted out.” HillbillySkeleton said something similar “Their criticism of 'Debt and Deficit' appears predicated on a complete denial of the intervention of the GFC into the economy over the last couple of years (an almost farcical, 'Don't Mention the War' posture), and the subsequent actions of the Rudd government, by going into Deficit, to ameliorate the worst effects of it on our country, appear to them to just be a socialist government showing its true colours.”
Denial seems to be a central component of the Liberal mindset. This piece suggests it underlies the ‘grumpiness’ that Bushfire Bill described so well.
I have written several times on TPS about this attitude of denial, and I’m not referring just to the current theme of denial of climate change. It permeates the thinking of many senior Liberals. In several pieces I’ve argued that Tony Abbott was, and I believe still is, in a state of denial about the validity of the election of the Rudd Government and the Coalition’s defeat in 2007. “We were such a good Government”, Abbott laments, the implication being that it did not deserve to be thrown out, especially during such prosperous times. He still has not grasped the essence of the defeat, acknowledging only longevity of the Howard Government, WorkChoices and the Coalition’s attitude to Climate Change as the prime factors, and now that he’s leader he’s even resurrecting elements of WorkChoices, despite proclaiming the title dead, and his climate change position continues to reek of denialism.
A 'denialist' is defined as 'one who excessively denies the truth.' That descriptor seems to fit the Liberal Party. And it’s not a recent thing; it’s chronic. ‘Denialism’ is defined as ‘choosing to deny reality as a way to avoid 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.’
In his book To the Bitter End, Peter Hartcher points to the layers of denialism in the Howard Government leading up to the 2007 election. Despite the gathering evidence, to the point of it being overwhelming, “Howard used every moment before election day to shake up the sense that the outcome was a foregone conclusion, to demand that voters reconsider. He tried every possible device and stratagem, thrashing around in a desperate series of twists and turns, prepared to try anything to win. Anything, that is, short of breaking solidarity with George W. Bush [about not signing Kyoto and on Iraq] or handing power to Peter Costello.” Howard, perhaps understandably, was denying the inevitability of defeat, but more significantly was denying the negative impact on the voters of his unshakable allegiance to George W. Bush.
Ideologically driven, Howard continued to deny the negative effect on voters of his WorkChoices legislation, until, when it was already too late, he introduced the ‘Fairness Test’ in an attempt to assuage the anger of the electorate. The voters saw it as the cynical exercise it was. Likewise, when facing defeat in his own seat he started to pay attention to his electorate, his denialism showed again. He turned up to events, such as the Granny Smith Festival, that he had never ever graced with his presence. The electors saw him as ‘on the make’. Again, as was his habit, he tried to buy votes with massive handouts ‘in the national interest’ which too often were nothing more than pork-barrelling. His state of denial obscured the fact that his actions were no longer effective – the people saw through them. But he persisted.
With the Reserve Bank continuing to raise interest rates, even during an election, an event Howard in his mind denied could or should happen, as Hartcher put it, “Howard misread the changing times – he misread the economics, he misread the way the Reserve Bank would react to the economics, and he misread the politics.”
His obsession with holding onto his Prime Ministership, his denial of the adverse effects of this on his party, hastened his downfall.
Enough of Howard’s denialism – he’s gone – what about his ministers, many of whom still adorn the Opposition benches? Howard seems to have instilled in them the same denialist mindset.
Tony Abbott, the new leader, is denialist-in-chief. He still bridles at the reality of the Coalition’s defeat by a sleepwalking electorate. He still believes that the electorate will sooner or later wake up to the 'hollowness' of Kevin Rudd – 'all talk and no action' – and will return the Coalition to its rightful seat of power.
In the lead up to the election Howard ministers denied the adverse influence Howard was having on their election chances. Even those who saw this put it aside and took no effective action to replace the man inexorably leading the Coalition to defeat. The debacle around APEC time where several ministers thought Howard should go was another example of denialism, or at least the gutlessness of some of them to insist that he went. Denialism in the sense: ‘How could this man who had led them to four successive and increasingly strong victories lead them to defeat?’
Every time Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott or Joe Hockey uttered the ‘debt and deficit’ mantra they were denying the reality of the GFC and the need to take radical action at the time, even if it incurred debt. They must have believed that repeating that mantra often enough, Goebbels-style, would wake up the electorate to the Government’s 'profligacy'. Abbott’s and Hockey’s unwillingness to give appropriate credit to the Government for its actions, actions that just about every unbiased observer now accepts saved Australia from recession, rapidly rising unemployment and business failure, is denial at its most flagrant. And the Government’s contribution to consumer and business confidence and retail sales too is denied. Even The Australian, which has not been a conspicuous supporter of the Government, this past weekend named Kevin Rudd as its ‘Australian of the Year’, and cited his efforts in combating the effects of the GFC as the main reason for its selection.
Joe Hockey is in denial when he asserts that the three interest rate rises in the last few months are not due to the buoyancy of the economy and the threat of that to inflation, but instead due to the Government’s ‘reckless and unnecessary spending’.
The sustained attack on the Schools Stimulus program by Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey, Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne and just about any other Coalition member who could get a word in, was an unseemly exercise in denialism. The fact that only about sixty problems arose in the 24 000 projects in 9 500 schools was enough for the Coalition, and it must be said parts for the Murdoch press, to deny the beneficial effects to thousands of schools, the children and their parents.
Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison and many others are in denial when they discount the ‘push factors’ that have influenced the recent boat arrivals, insisting that it is only the ‘pull factors’ – ‘Rudd’s failed border protection policies’ – that are operative.
Just this morning Peter Dutton, talking about the Government’s ‘failure to deal with the nation's ailing health system’, said “That's the crazy part about Kevin Rudd's spin on health - he just keeps promising the same thing over and over again but he delivers absolutely nothing." ‘Absolutely nothing’ mind you. Dutton thereby completely denies the existence of the Rudd Government initiative – the most comprehensive report on health care in Australia for decades, prepared by the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission. The report was the culmination of ‘16 months of discussion, debate, consultation, research and deliberation by a team dedicated to the cause of strengthening and improving our health system for this and future generations of Australians.’ It contained over a hundred recommendations. The Government insists implementation of them will begin this year.
Climate change of course is a hotbed for denialism in the Coalition. Tony Abbott’s ‘absolute crap’ comment about climate change is likely close to his real beliefs, not that it’s easy to dig them out as he oscillates from ‘pass the ETS and get it off the table’, to fighting it tooth and nail in the Senate, to his declaration that he’s always been an environmentalist and wants a Green Army, to his promise to devise a scheme that will effectively mitigate Australia’s carbon emissions without a ‘Great Big New Tax’, a mantra faithfully followed by his ministers. All this is camouflage for not wishing to address climate change frontally, which would require him to confront the denialism of Barnaby Joyce, Ron Boswell, Nick Minchin, Wilson Tuckey, Dennis Jensen, Andrew Robb, Cory Bernardi, and many others in his party. Abbott and Co deny that the ETS is a tax on the polluters, not the public, most of which will be compensated for any resultant increase in costs.
They deny the need to do much about climate change, and the need to do it soon.
When a Liberal as senior as Nick Minchin was prepared to state his highly sceptical position on climate change on last year’s ABCs Four Corners program, how can Tony Abbott, wearing his own scepticism, his own brand of denialism, like an albatross around his neck, ever be taken seriously by the public when he talks about the need for carbon mitigation, and his plans for it.
Denial is just across the road from untruthfulness, the stock in trade of many politicians. Sometimes it’s hard to know which is which. Sometimes the two blur into each other. Sometimes denial leads to untruthfulness, sometimes it’s the other way around.
Whatever its genesis, I trust the examples given above will support the thesis of this piece: that denialism is the root cause of the Coalition’s demeanour, of its grumpiness, of its ill temper. Thus the extension of Bushfire Bill’s label to ‘The Grumpy Old Denialist Party’.
Until the Coalition collectively, and members individually accept the stark reality of its defeat and more importantly the reasons for it; accept the reality of its current parlous state and the reasons for that; until denial is put aside as an almost reflex response to every Government initiative; until rational thought, deliberation and balanced dialogue is substituted for it, it will continue to languish in the polls and in the eyes of the electorate. Denialism is political death.
What do you think?