OPINION PIECE – SHOUT LESS, LISTEN MORE: LET’S MAKE THIS OUR NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION – MONDAY, 30 DECEMBER 2019
Here’s a great New Year’s Resolution. Let’s all strive to be more tolerant. As 2020 dawns, this nation – and many others – seem to be paralysed by division. The emergence of social media and the 24-hour media cycle have significantly altered the way people relate to each other and the way political discourse is conducted.
Debate has been replaced by shouting. Facts are trumped by dogma. People are stuck in the rut of culture wars, unwilling to alter their views on issues such as climate change despite the science being clear and the evidence being demonstrated in devastating fashion.
Intolerance is everywhere. Social media platforms allow people to exist in echo chambers where their views are constantly reinforced and never challenged. Many of us no longer have much opportunity to engage with people who hold different views.
When I was privileged to become the Labor Party’s 21st leader in June, I observed that Australians were suffering from conflict fatigue. I pointed to the growing number of people who vote in elections for a minor political party that can’t possibly form government. Back then, I said Australians were sick of people shouting at each other and tired of the venom and hatred of social media trolling. More than six months into the job, this remains my view.
I have travelled widely and met many people. I am now more convinced than ever that Australians crave leadership that is inclusive and collaborative, that puts the public interest first. That’s not to say that passionately arguing your case can’t be constructive. It is sometimes essential. The problem is when the argument becomes the end in itself.
Saying no to everything was the hallmark of the Coalition opposition led by Tony Abbott. It was a handbrake on progress. In 2007 both Labor and the Coalition went to the election promising an emissions trading scheme to deal with climate change. But the negativity of Abbott’s leadership and the absolutist approach of the Greens prevented progress and led to years of inaction.
Australians respect there are differences between political parties – as there should be – and some are irreconcilable. But they want fewer arguments and more results.
To earn the trust of the Australian people, Labor needs to relentlessly pursue our values, not with lies or shouting, but with facts and respectful persuasion. Such an approach is aimed at engaging the millions of Australians whose conflict fatigue has drained their faith in the political process.
Consider the push by a group of former fire brigade chiefs who want more action on climate change.
Their message is that the bushfire season is getting longer and more intense because of climate change. Prime Minister Scott Morrison refused to meet them. He was simply not willing to engage with people whose informed opinions and experience threatened his implacable refusal to do more to reduce carbon emissions.
As the fire chiefs continued their public advocacy, some media reporting presented them as members of the cultural elite seeking to impose a weird view on the rest of the world. This itself is bizarre. They are not political activists. Between them they have centuries of fire-fighting experience. Their only motive is to make Australia safer – to protect people’s lives, our economy and our natural environment. But their concerns run second to an entrenched political position. That is how bad things have become in this country.
The media plays a role, too. In the past decade, as technology has reduced the profitability of traditional media outlets, some have moved away from balanced reporting and towards partisan commentary – a sort of bias-as-business-model. That’s not good for democracy. Nor is the fact that news rooms can be so poorly staffed that even some of our biggest media outlets don’t have enough reporters to attend press conferences of politicians to ask questions.
Opinions can be interesting. But facts help Australians understand issues and form independent judgments.
The problem is amplified on social media, where users can actively choose to ignore views that they don’t like or to deride people for daring to disagree with them.
So let 2020 be the year of advancing tolerance and more respectful debate. Let it be the year in which Australians talk to each other, discuss and debate and expose themselves to a wide range of opinions.
Above all, let it be a year in which facts and truth return to the centre of public debate. This is particularly important for politicians. If we want to be taken seriously, we should not treat Australians like mugs by misleading them, avoiding scrutiny and refusing to compromise to achieve outcomes in the public interest. If we shout less and listen more, Australians might start to listen again.
Anthony Albanese is the Leader of the Australian Labor Party.
This piece was fist published by The Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, 30 December 2019