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The Emperor’s New Truth

So there’s been another boat.

Never mind that Peter Dutton, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison have been insisting for years that “the boats have stopped”, now, during a contested election that’s not all going the Coalition’s way, suddenly the people smugglers have started up again. Bit of a coincidence, that.

One might be tempted to suspect that perhaps the boats had not stopped at all. As all knowledge of such matters falls into the Coalition’s “on-water” black hole, there’s no way we would know. Reasonable people may entertain the glimmers of doubt about the information we’re being fed. But the Coalition’s latest announcement is not aimed at reasonable people.

On any reasonable metric, the Abbott/Turnbull Coalition government has been an abject failure since 2013.  On the domestic issues, whichever your primary priority – economic success, reduction of the deficit, unemployment rate, government spend as share of GDP, real wages, broadband speed, and even general standard of living – every metric has declined since Abbott toppled the Gillard/Rudd government. If you turn your attention to the “moral” issues – those that have no immediate, material impact on the national economy – the Abbott / Turnbull government is similarly unimpressive. From environmental protection, to action on climate change, to refugees and immigration – both in how we “stop the boats”, and in how we treat those who have reached our shores – Australia’s performance over the past three years has dropped from substantial to dismal. So why would people still choose to vote for the Coalition, with this litany of failures behind them?

The reason, of course, is that voters do not vote on the basis of performance and record. They’re voting on the basis of promise and expectation. But the promises of the Coalition don’t fare much better than their record of successes. Delving deeply into the government’s budget and forecasts, it’s reasonably fair to say that their entire policy platform rests on a single “innovation” – a $50bn tax cut for businesses.  In all other areas, they promise more of the same. More of the ineffective, expensive Direct Action plan – a plan which Liberal true believers still think is efficient, but which most of Australia has recognised as wasteful and well insufficient to the task. More attempts to implement the 2014 budget of cuts to health and education. More attempts to establish a co-payment by stealth, more attacks on Medicare, more invective directed towards those who haven’t been successful in acquiring one of the increasingly sparse jobs in our “exciting” economy. But thank goodness, no more of those juvenile “knights and dames”, so that’s okay.

For some, the pertinent measure of a good government is stability. For these voters, the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years were a debacle to be resolutely punished, and punished the Labor government was. It’s a good thing that the Abbott government is so committed to stability. Sorry, the Turnbull government. At least their policy platform is stable – it has barely changed since the 1950s, and the Coalition parties wouldn’t dream of proposing half-baked policy.

So if people aren’t voting on the basis of what the Government has done so far, and they’re not paying attention to what the Government is promising to do should it be returned, why then does Malcolm Turnbull stand a good chance of being reelected in his own right on July 3?

The reason is that voters are voting on the basis of a fiction. They’re playing a game of Fantasy Government in their heads and they’re voting for their imagined Good Government. Their vision of governance is informed by the established truths that attach to each of the major parties. For Coalition supporters, this might be the established truth that the Coalition is better at managing the economy and that Labor will put the country further into unsustainable debt. For Labor supporters, it might be that workers’ unions always act in the best interests of its members. Greens supporters cling to the belief that the party is above normal politics, and every action and position is taken on the basis of the best outcomes for the environment and social equality rather than grubby vote-grabbing. All of these established truths are at best open to debate, but to the true believer they are sacrosanct.

To someone with an interest in politics and attention to the actual facts and statistics, it can be eye-gouging to watch voters in critical electorates responding to voting intention questionnaires with platitudes about Labor’s debt and the Coalition’s savings. On this site and others, the usual suspects may be relied upon to always populate the comments section with their opinion on any political topic of the day, and their opinions are always the same and undented by being shown proven, empirical evidence that what they’re claiming just isn’t true.

It is well known that people seek out and pay credence to evidence and opinion that matches or reinforces their own beliefs. Confirmation Bias is a phenomenon recognised sufficiently to warrant its own term in psychological textbooks.  However, it doesn’t work alone. Recent research shows that attempting to debunk a political rumour – or an entrenched belief – may have the contrary outcome of making them stronger.  Possibly, this is due to the believer discounting the efforts of the debunker because of perceived bias. Once Fairfax media acquires a reputation as a left-wing outlet, nothing printed in one of its mastheads is likely to change the minds of a conservative voter and may instead reinforce perverse beliefs in the face of published evidence.

So it seems that propaganda exists in two phases. The first phase is the implantation of an idea. Think about it in terms of “brain ownership”: once you’ve acquired someone’s loyalty, it’s extremely hard to dislodge. Political strategists know this. There is strength in the approach of lying with impunity, in order to seed a belief in the understanding that it will become a new truth. Tony Abbott’s government was a master at this technique, but really it’s been a modus operandi for conservative politics for decades.

Once seeded, repetition is the fertiliser that helps it to flower. Repetition of an idea plays directly into confirmation bias, and every repetition makes it harder for a contrary idea to cut through.

Finally, once the idea has been seeded and watered and has taken root in the desired electorate, it is important to discredit all potential sources of contrary information with allegations of bias. This explains why Gillian Triggs has been represented as such a threat. Her empirical report into offshore processing camps had to be discredited, and the best way to do that is to taint the figurehead with allegations of bias. The Coalition succeeded in creating this impression, and from that point on any reference to her report simply reinforces the Coalition’s position of the necessity and tolerability of those camps.

This is why a boat has suddenly appeared on our borders for the first time in years. Logically, both things cannot be true: either the boats have stopped, or the people smugglers are still “trying our resolve” and sending the boats. But voters don’t think about it in this manner. The Coalition is having its cake and eating it too. For those who wish to believe the Coalition’s policies have been successful and should continue, the Boats have Stopped. For another part of the electorate, fear of the incoming hordes is the stronger motivator, and the news of a new boat reinforces that fear. Both things do not have to be true; one of these things simply needs to be accepted as true for the Coalition’s stance to be justified.

So how can a propaganda-driven New Truth be combatted by those with facts and data on their side?

First, it is important to be – and to be perceived to be – impartial. Opponents of the inconvenient facts will attempt to discredit them as biased. If possible, it is best to lead people to discover the facts on their own, rather than simply telling. Contrary to normal argumentative rhetoric, it may be most effective to find out first what sources of information would be regarded as acceptably impartial before presenting any facts at all.

A single instance of leading a horse to water may not be enough to make them drink. The second component of re-education is repetition. You can never allow a statement of New Truth to pass unchallenged. Much of the time this is a recipe for frustration: New Truth will regularly be spouted in the media and there is no immediate way to respond to this. But on a one-to-one basis, in daily communication with your friends, family and workmates, a response is possible – and indeed, the only ethical choice.

Whether you’re interested in the virtue of truthfulness and data rather than lies and misinformation, or you’re concerned for the future governance of the country, or if you just want to prevent the next generation being implanted with New Truth before they’re old enough to make up their own minds with the evidence, we must respond. We must do so carefully, without reference to the information resources we ourselves find so convincing. But respond we must. Otherwise the New Truth will live on to poison the next election – it’s probably too late for this one.


33 comments

  1. Steve Howton

    Have the boats stopped or have they stopped telling us about them?

    Not sayin’… just askin’…

  2. David1

    ozfenric …..why no mention of the current Immigration Dept/Border Control Visa scandal? It appears to be huge and going on for years, since this ‘stop the boats’ policy.

  3. Fed up

    When will people understand that the majority of Australians are sick of these boats of illegals coming to Australia. They are killing our Welfare system depriving our own people of help they need. I’m sick of listening to do gooders out there that think Australia can keep on taking more and more of these people without thinking of the long term consequences for this country!

  4. Michael Taylor

    Steve, the boats never stopped, but they have slowed down.

  5. Kate M

    Interesting article Oz.

  6. Kaye Lee

    On the contrary Fed Up. Our migration has been one of our greatest economic assets. Almost half of newcomers are aged 20-34 years versus only one in five resident Australians. Migrants are mainly young and at their prime working age.

    In November 2013, the ABS released a survey on the characteristics of recent migrants. Of those who obtained Australian citizenship since arrival, the labour participation rate was 77 per cent, which is above the national average rate of about 65 per cent. Claims that migrants are a net pressure on welfare payments do not stack up. Migrants are likely to be working.

    Australia has a relatively stable fertility rate of 1.9 births per woman, which is below the replacement level. That is, without migration, Australia’s population will inevitably dwindle. For a sustainable welfare system, Australia genuinely needs a young, hard-working skilled force. So Australia requires a sufficient intake of migrants to continually provide public care to all Australians.

    Capital infrastructure is high in fixed costs and low in marginal costs. Hence, it becomes cheaper in per capita terms to renew and expand our current levels as we grow in numbers.

  7. Don A Kelly

    Fed up….How can you tell if an asylum seeker is “illegal” if they are fleeing persecution? What do you think the long term consequences are for ‘this’ country?

  8. guest

    The Coalition is very keen to claim they have stopped the boats – but that was never true. What they cannot claim is to have stopped the rape, trauma and deaths on the gulag islands of Manus and Nauru.

    Nor do they think it is their problem in any way. The claim is that they do not administer those detention camps. That is the task, they say, of the New Guinea and Nauru governments. Nothing to do with the Oz government. Meanwhile, the NG government has declared Manus detention centre to be illegal and unconstitutional. What?

    As for debt, there is Cater of the Menzies Institute writing in The Australian today, moaning about Labor’s wasteful spending on the BER. He picks out a single school which closed in 2013. Now the school and hall will be re-developed for housing. Such a waste of money, he says Never mind that there were 9000 projects in the BER and most if not all are still standing as assets. Cater laments the spending of $16bn on schools. He then conflates the figure of debt to near $300bn without saying how at least half of that was racked up by the Coalition. $16bn out of $300bn?

    Nor does Cater say where the Menzies Institute gets its funding.

    The continuous stream of weasel words and obfuscation and plain propaganda we are fed is beyond belief. There is a kind of smugness of superior pretensions that is mind-boggling. When Turnbull speaks of “Jobs and Growth”, innovation, agility etc, do people really know what he is talking about? Such abstract talk sounds academic, but it is hard to see how it is to be realised in concrete reality.

  9. ozfenric

    Here we go… the usual suspects. Fed Up, how many times do you need to be told that they are not “illegal”? That they are entirely lawful to seek asylum and to do so by boat? Regardless of the semantics, boat people number in the scant hundreds. As others have mentioned, visa fraud and illegal entry / residence in this country are far higher issues, and they’re usually ones with more resources to start with, who can disappear into the machine, unlike the poor souls who turn up on Navy radar screens. Then there’s the 457 visas issue, systematically rorted, and directly taking jobs that could otherwise go to Australians. I think we’re more sick of these kinds of illegals.

    As far as boat arrivals go, if they’re actual refugees, then we need to process them and move them on, not keep them locked up in hellholes for the rest of their lives. We don’t know where to move them on? Well, we could start with some kind of regional solution, where any refugees coming into the system anywhere have no say in where they end up, but it will be a compliant and appropriate nation to receive them. Without this kind of a system, it’s hardly a surprise people aim for Australia and New Zealand. Allow people to pick their own destination, of course they’ll choose the best option.

    If they’re not refugees, they get shipped back. This already happens, which is why all of the current residents of our concentration camps on Nauru and Manus are either not yet processed, or have been found to be actual refugees. *We’re torturing the wrong people*.

    As it happens, refugee policy is not a high priority for me. New Truth operates much more effectively in the field of economics, because very few of the public actually understand it. If Turnbull and his whipmasters get back in, it won’t be because of their hardline policies on Little Brown People. It will be because people have believed the New Truth that somehow, despite doubling the deficit in three years, they’re better economic managers than Labor.

  10. FED UP

    They should all be stopped! Unfortunately there is no politicians in this country has the guts to do anything about it! It’s all about winning the next stinking election! Long term, this country has no hope!

  11. gee

    Fed up.. everything you said was the opposite of reality.

    There is a whole avalanche of facts and studies out there that just completely obliterate your statement. I suggest you look them up.

  12. FED UP

    Yes that’s right. Let’s all go back to our stats! How about you getting out there in the real world lady and start listening to the real people this is and will be affecting long term! You won’t be getting that information from a bloody computer! If you all have so many facts and figures then how about releasing them to the public to let them know what the real costing is for each and every one of these stinking migrants! I suggest you start looking them up Gee! You just might start thinking twice!

  13. Klaus

    Hey Fed Up, why not sinking them 😉

  14. FED UP

    No just turn the boats around and send them back to where they came from!

  15. ozfenric

    Fed Up, the numbers and facts are readily available to the public, but they can be a little complicated. For instance, this Fact Check attempts to put some numbers to humanitarian immigrants in terms of employment and welfare costs (https://theconversation.com/factcheck-qanda-do-refugees-cost-australia-100m-a-year-in-welfare-with-an-unemployment-rate-of-97-54395). It must be remembered that these kind of numbers change depending on how long a migrant has been here. It takes time for a migrant to become conversant in English and to gain employment, presuming they are allowed to work (which, from 2013-2015 under Tony Abbott, they were not). Overall, as Kaye Lee pointed out above, over time migrants are vital for Australia’s economy to grow rather than contract, and to replace the Baby Boomer demographic as they leave the workforce, stop paying taxes and become net drains on social security. Arguably, if we were interested just in the economics, we could reduce our humanitarian intake and increase our professional intake, but these are questions of balance, not overall benefit.

    You say you’re listening to “real people”, but this is all part of the New Truth I was describing in the article. Migrants are a net benefit to Australia. Boat people make up a tiny pittance of truly desperate people. All of those we are detaining are deserving of our help and legally entitled to seek it.

    However, you’re obviously subject to the same conditions I described. So, I’ll follow my own advice. What sources of information are acceptable to you? If you’re not interested in the statistics held by the Department of Immigration, or the Australian Bureau of Statistics, what would you consider to be an appropriately knowledgeable and unbiased source of information on the costs, numbers and benefits of migration to Australia?

  16. ozfenric

    Other sources of information: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-04-21/carvalho-why-migrants-may-be-our-greatest-economic-asset/6409042, and government resource: https://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/01_2014/contents_exec_summary_and_intro.pdf (“The main conclusion to be drawn from this study is that the social benefits of migration far outweigh the costs, especially in the longer term. The evidence that is available overwhelmingly supports the view that migrants to Australia have made and continue to make substantial contributions to Australia’s stock
    of human, social and produced capital.”

  17. FED UP

    I’m sorry but I don’t believe in any of them. Like I said they tell you as much as they want you to know! Doesn’t matter which party is in office, they are all the same. Their truth is not my truth! EG – Children overboard?

  18. FED UP

    This may have been the case when Europeans first came out her with nothing, were giving nothing but their boat fare and made an honest life for themselves and their families. The ones that come out here today a totally different story! I think you and I both know that but unfortunately you are also blind to the truth!

  19. Don A Kelly

    One of John Maynard Keynes’s favourite quotes was “The difficulty lies not in accepting new ideas but in escaping from old ones”.

  20. Kaye Lee

    ” How about you getting out there in the real world lady and start listening to the real people”

    I am fairly certain that I have seen more of the real world than you Fed Up.

  21. ozfenric

    Addendum to the article: If your subject will not provide their trusted sources, or continues to deny facts despite being led to see them for themselves, then give up on them! Arguing further will only convince them more deeply that they are right and everyone else is wrong. As Matthew Henry said: “There are none so deaf as those that will not hear. None so blind as those that will not see.”

  22. SGB

    Fed up – your ignorance is appalling – I suggest you stop being so bad mannered and rude and try opening your mind
    SGB

  23. Athena

    “Claims that migrants are a net pressure on welfare payments do not stack up. Migrants are likely to be working.”

    @Kaye (and Fed Up)

    There are several migrants in my workplace and they all need to work a minimum of 0.8 FTE to keep their visas.

  24. Athena

    “This may have been the case when Europeans first came out her with nothing, were giving nothing but their boat fare and made an honest life for themselves and their families.”

    Fed Up, I think our indigenous population may disagree with you on that.

  25. Douglas Evans

    If I remember rightly there have been 28 boat turnbacks in the last 18 months not just one which showed up on the cusp of our election. This was widely reported. I assume this meant somewhere over 1000 disappointed asylum seekers – but at least they didn’t end up on Nauru or Manus Island. I gather that if their boat was rated as OK for the return journey they were simply towed back or turned around. If not they were put into a nice orange bathtub for their safety on the return journey. What a grand place is the land of the fair go. On poor Fed up or FED UP as she became in the course of this exchange (I think she used to Florence nee Fed up) – anyone responding is asking for it. I suspect her motivation is to hook in outraged commenters. She’s entitled to have her say. Don’t bother about her, or him – who can tell. You certainly aren’t going to change her mind by explaining to her the error of her ways.

  26. Douglas Evans

    Just noticed the following in the text of the article: “Recent research shows that attempting to debunk a political rumour – or an entrenched belief – may have the contrary outcome of making them stronger. Possibly, this is due to the believer discounting the efforts of the debunker because of perceived bias.” Don’t add to Fed up’s delusion.

  27. Athena

    I suspect Florence nee Fed Up is not the same person posting here as Fed Up.

  28. The AIM Network

    Athena, they are definitely different people.

  29. wam

    it is confusing howard/costello wasted the boom sold everything not nailed down, lied about WoMD, children overboard wheat board bribes and was only beaten by work choices and a loud mouth christian lemon with a good team.
    Gillard was sunk by a lemon, an old man’s media, an amoral viscous misogynist and her own party’s gutlessness to attack the character of the libs. Her and swan’s economy was world AAA class but billy is comfortable with keeping that secret.
    I am too dumb to see why labor isn’t squealing about the libs spending from a debt crisis. On that score always seems libs score goals by blaming labor.
    Douglas it is obvious that the only people to say the libs are economic managers are the libs the only people who say labor is not economic managers is the libs, Even with stiglitz praise echoed around the world what does labor say?
    still it is tempting to vote on july 3 but by then the copper slime will be in the lodge.
    There is a slim chance than labor will take my electorate from a lib but the best I am hoping for is no senate majority and pyne, briggs, roy and barnaby disappear from government.

  30. Wun Farlung

    The boats have most definitely not stopped
    I read a newspaper with an accompanying photo in The Nation (Thailand) last week stating that a fishing vessel with Sri Lankian refugees on-board was being repaired in Aceh to continue it’s voyage to Australia.

  31. Douglas Evans

    AIM Network, Athena and Florence nee Fed UP
    Sorry about that.
    wam
    Are you talking to me? Not sure what the question is. Are you asking about Labor’s position on Stiglitz’? If so I don’t have a clue but I reckon different Labor MPs would probably have different answers. I imagine Andrew Leigh would be somewhat of a supporter and that Chris Bowen would not.
    If you are asking me why I criticize Labor’s trade and economic policies for driving income inequality in Australia then I am persuaded by research that emerged from Australian Council of Social Services and the Australia Institute about the time Stiglitz came on the radar. This research was fairly widely reported I seem to remember in places like The Conversation and Inside Story.
    From memory this showed:
    Australia is not doing well with respect to income inequality – the poverty gap. We are above OECD average and increasing faster than most.
    The poverty gap has increased steadily for two decades under both Coalition and Labor governments.
    There are several causes of growing inequality and they are complex. But among them are trade liberalization (globalization) and middle and upper class welfare in the form of tax breaks.
    Labor MP and economist Andrew Leigh wrote a thorough paper documenting the history of the Labor Party since Whitlam as the driving force behind trade liberalization. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself but after a brief debate within the Party over whether to follow Sweden (which it seems reaped the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls) the Labor right-wing prevailed and the Party opted for the socially damaging path of neo-liberalism.
    With regards middle-upper class welfare – papers emerging from the Australia Institute showed that while it was Howard who implemented the doozy of them all when he abolished tax for superannuants, Labor under Rudd and Gillard were also guilty of this.
    Negative gearing – a Labor invention (which to its credit it is now trying to wind back) has also been a major driver of growth in the poverty gap over the last two decades.
    Hope that answers your question and that my memory is not failing me too much. It is a couple of years now since I became aware of all this.

  32. Flogga

    “Long term, this country has no hope!”

    Irony?

  33. FED UP

    I’m with you Flogga. This country has no hope. It’s just a matter of time before a bombing happens here! Wonder what all the bleeding hearts will say then? Oh I didn’t see that coming?

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