Facts alone won't save Australia's fatuous political agenda


In the midst of widespread disillusionment with Australian politics, there is suddenly hope for improvement. Contest is a vital ingredient of democracy, and the ALP's recent change of leadership has suddenly made the party competitive during this year's federal election campaign. 

In a further surprise, the contest is likely to be enriched by a standard of truthfulness that we have not seen in many years. This is the promise of new fact-checking websites, including The Conversation's Election Fact-Check, former Fairfax editor Peter Fray's PolitiFact, The Australia Institute's Facts Fight Back, and the fact checking reports to be presented by journalist John Barron on ABC news and current affairs programs. 

But while the fact checkers will promote a new element of rigour in the campaign, the quality of debate will remain compromised by a lack of scrutiny on what determines the political agenda, which is the necessarily limited range of topics that are debated. It is one thing to be able to trust facts that we are presented with, but another to know that they are relevant to our wellbeing as a nation. 

It is pleasing that PolitiFact is able to demonstrate that foreign minister Bob Carr's claim that boat people 'are not people fleeing persecution ... they are coming here as economic migrants' is 'mostly false'. But even if Carr's claim was mostly true, how does discussion of the comparatively small number of economic migrants justify its place on the agenda, compared with issues such as the mental health of Australia's youth? 

Which of these two issues has more bearing on our future wellbeing? While mental health has largely fallen off the agenda, others — such as inheritance taxes — are kept off the agenda. It has to be asked whether this is by design, and whose design it is.

The formation of the political agenda should be the result of a rational and orderly process that is transparent and based on good argument and solid evidence. But more often it's either ad hoc, or determined by popular media and various lobbies and sectional interests. We could use a 'PolitiAgenda' website, which would undoubtedly demonstrate the fatuous nature of what makes up much of the national agenda. 

We would set ourselves up for a better future if we allowed academic researchers to become more influential, as they are able to challenge old assumptions and set out blueprints for new possibilities. Popular media, on the other hand, too often hold us back.

We only need to compare the list of articles in The Conversationset up to communicate university research findings — with the rundown of Ray Hadley's morning show on radio 2GB. Hadley's agenda is no doubt informed by the 'common touch', which in itself is a positive. But it is not equipped to map the nation's future in the way the academic research is.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

True/False image by Shutterstock.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, politifact, Bob Carr, economic migrants, agenda, politics, research



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Existing comments

As Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan put it: "You may be entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts."
Walter P. Komarnicki | 15 July 2013

We should remember that it was Kevin Rudd who started the people smuggling support policies which killed hundreds of people! It is time that people in all countries start to stop corruption, nepotism and start building up their own nations. Bad economic situations are created mainly by corruption and hatred based on religion and ethnic origin. The Government need far tougher rules to stop the deadly people smuggling industry.
Beat Odermatt | 15 July 2013

What does the term 'economic migrant' really mean?
Mary Lancaster | 15 July 2013

Pride, envy, tribalism and ignorance have from time immemorial obscured truth and fact in the achievement of a personal agenda. Our modern politics is but another example of this ancient art. Both political leaders are expert proponents thereof - the pity of it all! The quote above is an elegant statement of the power of human pride and self-delusion hallmarks of the modern world. Unfortunately, Michael, I suspect it is highly likely that the informed standards of truthfulness of which you speak will be accessed by a very small percentage of the electorate and will have no effect on outcomes.
john frawley | 15 July 2013

Thank you, "...how does the discussion of ...economic migrants justify its place on the agenda, with issues such as the mental health of Australia's youth?". Few consider the question "How can we work to have a surplus while our acutely ill die from lack of funding?". Victoria's 2012 population was 5.75 million. The World health Organisation states that 2.5 to 3 persons in every 100,000 of the global population suffer from a severe mental illness [SMI]. Minimally, then, according to the WHO statistics, Victoria has some 151,000 SMI, About 10% receive private care; Victoria, then, has some 136,000 SMI who depend upon State care. The state Mental Health System has, for the last 10 ten years, not cared for more than 61,000 clients. So Victoria has some 75,000 SMI who are receiving NO specialised care. And we will continue to argue as to whether our immigrants have money, or none, or should be left to drown, as the tragedy of two days ago suggests. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Those who are severely mentally ill get to die prematurely... from the physical ill effects of some antipsychotic medications or from despair and suicide.
Caroline Storm | 15 July 2013

Only five comments on a topic of fundamental importance to Australia's progress as a democratic pluralist society. Doesn't that say something, Fr Michael? Same-sex marriage gets scores of comments. Interestingly for me this is a subject on which I would expect more input from academics. But "academic research" seems to be holed up in an Ivory Tower.Is the fear of having funding cut that stops academics, especially in the social sciences from speaking out. Or maybe they do and our media commentators are too intellectually challenged to discuss it. Take Q&A for example. It is just a conflict of opinions.
Uncle Pat | 15 July 2013

With over 6 million people coming to Australia every year and hardly ever mentioned by anyone, why on earth do the media obsess endlessly over the refugees who come by sea as if they are vermin? Everyone has the right to seek asylum - that law does not exclude Australia yet anyone would think we were exempt from the law.
Marilyn | 16 July 2013

Beat, he did not. Not one law was changed in the last 60 years and it has nothing to do with people smuggling. If people fleeing the Taliban can't get transport they die, why is it a crime to get them to safety.
Marilyn | 16 July 2013

To Marilyn: I cannot think about any other event in recent history which caused as many death as Kevin Rudds pro-people smuggling policies.
Beat Odermatt | 16 July 2013

How about the invasion of Iraq, Beat? All 'justified' on trumped up lies.
Ginger Meggs | 18 July 2013

Mary Lancaster asks 'what does the term 'economic migrant' really mean?' May I suggest Mary that it refers to the millions of poor and disadvantaged Europeans who, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, migrated to the 'new worlds', pushed the indigenous peoples off their own land, plundered the environment, prospered and multiplied, and whose descendants are now, 100 to 200 years later, seeking to deny other would-be economic migrants the same opportunity.
Ginger Meggs | 18 July 2013

We have people living in a world far removed from reality. They want to change the world with other peoples money instead of looking at the root causes of all the tragedies in today’s world. If people in some countries decide to hate and fight each other, then all the goodwill from all the good people in the world is worth nothing. The “open door” policy was started by Kevin Rudd to give some meat to his continuous criticism of an effective coalition policy. He knew he was wrong, but it took Julia Gillard finally trying to stop the flood. Kevin Rudd is now finally trying to put the genie back into the bottle as he knows that ordinary Australians have other priorities then supporting a modern trade in humans. Slave traders had an interest in keeping their “cargo” alive, people smugglers have not.
Beat Odermatt | 19 July 2013


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