A voice in the Australian political wilderness

Cameron Magusic, joint culture editor

It is safe to assume we have all done our fair share of streaming this year, but one show released in 2020 before we descended into this seemingly-unending morass is more prophetic than ever.

The Commons, which appeared on streaming platform Stan in January this year, tells the tale of the protagonists in climate-affected Sydney in 2026, roughly the mid-point between now and when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need to have reduced global carbon emissions by 45 per cent.

The show made headlines because of its premiere in the aftermath of widespread national bushfires, but there are other dimensions to the show that are prescient.

For example, an introductory scene shows a checkpoint that drivers from regional New South Wales must pass to enter metropolitan Sydney—easily comparable to the so-called ‘ring of steel’ between greater Melbourne and regional Victoria that has been initiated by the state government in its extended response to the pandemic.

Another germane comparison is the dash to find a vaccine to a highly-infectious disease—Chagas disease in the show. The Commons depicts scientists at the fictional National Institute of Science going on anti-Chagas patrols and reducing points of infection in hotspots.

As we Melburnians in particular have found to our detriment, former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s famous dictum in 2009 that the ‘great neoliberal experiment … has failed’ has never been more correct. It’s a shame that we have to leave to fiction what should have been standard policy responses by Australian governments across the ideological spectrum and in different jurisdictions. Instead, casualised workers in the precariat have faced the impossible choice between a day’s wages and safety from infection. The only winner here is the managerial class deriving income from what is assumed to be extremely non-infectious home offices.

The Commons envisaged what ‘disaster capitalism’ might look like, and while we are not entirely there yet, it is easy to imagine using this aspect of the show as preparation if societies keep going down the same track of ever-increasing global warming—notwithstanding the slight dip in carbon dioxide emissions this year due to reduced plane travel.  

 It is in such a context that progressive icon and quiz king Barry Jones has written What is to be done: political engagement and saving the planet (Scribe), which has been published about a month after his 88th birthday.

While Jones served as science minister in the Hawke government and was involved with Labor policy for some time thereafter, he provides numerous examples of being managed by head office in the mini-memoir at the start of the book—most notably in the barren Beazley opposition years. Even the late Bob Hawke as prime minister was apparently prone to fits of jealousy or felt a threat to authority by denying or delaying other governments’ requests for Jones to represent Australia on the world stage.

What is to be done, which has been written in a similar revolutionary style, if not substance, to Vladimir Lenin’s novel of the same name, can been seen not only as an extension of Jones’ 1980s book Sleepers, Awake! Technology and the Future of Work, in which he argues for the need to prepare for a move to the services-dominant economy we see today and, as he tells Catalyst in a follow-up interview, in which he “correctly predicted the digital revolution”, but also a 2015 article in The Conversation, in which he lists several ‘wicked problems’ and provides an attempt at solving them. 

Whether you refer to them as ‘wicked problems’, ‘adaptive challenges’ or ‘clock and cloud problems’, it is important to continue engaging the system rather than take cheap shots from the sidelines or become nihilistic or cynical.

This itself is problematic, as Jones writes in the book and tells Catalyst: he asserts that four Australians (Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest, and Clive Palmer) “have far more political influence than GetUp’s one million followers” (p. 327), even individually.

The book, which Jones tells Catalyst, took a total of “one year to the day” to write, is quite up-to-date with the pandemic and provides analysis based on statistics until the end of August 2020.

Jones makes the astute observation in the book that the pandemic has given us a small taste of the damage climate change will do to our global systems if left unchecked and elaborates further with Catalyst by referring to the potential for conflict brought about by ethnonationalist militias coming into contact with climate refugees—one of those pesky vicious cycles, as Jones illustrates in the book (p. 314).

While there are lessons from the pandemic for governments and citizens alike, the unfortunate reality, Jones tells Catalyst, is whatever support for evidence-based responses to the virus (which have struggled, to say the least, in the face of extended isolation measures) has not translated to support for evidence-based responses to climate change.

Jones addresses political short-termism—the tendency for governments to focus only on winning the next election—in the book and with Catalyst. Again, there are no easy answers—it is not as if the UK House of Commons’ five-year (maximum) terms have resulted in more of a focus on the future, although successive governments on both sides are taking responsibility for the environment. Fixed electoral terms could work better than a specific number of years in a term, if we are looking at Australian states.

What change-makers should do is make short-termism work for them. According to the Behavioural Insights Team, one of the world’s leading behavioural change organisations, “We are disproportionately more motivated by costs and benefits that take effect immediately than those delivered later … because the present is tangible but the future is abstract and hypothetical” (p. 40).

If nothing else, the book does a fantastic job of providing a mini-bachelor of arts (Jones writes about Wikipedia and its intellectual ancestors, Denis Diderot and Jean-Baptiste d’Alembert, and himself is up to the seventh edition of his Dictionary of World Biography) before once again reminding us that whatever happens in the next ten years will go a long way in determining what humanity’s future looks like after that.  

If we decide we don’t want the status quo, we would be extremely smart to follow Jones’ instructions in the last chapter and take up his ‘Gettysburg address for 2020’ (pp. 352-353).

But we can’t wait until the last minute to do so.     

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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