Reason in a polarised world

At a recent conference I attended, an argument was put forward that it was important for apolitical individuals and the institution of the public service to attempt to embed reason into polarised debates. I thought this was highly topical given the current political environment Australia is in but on reflection, perhaps the Australia political scene has been this way for a long time. Paul Keating and John Hewson had perhaps one of the most polarising election campaigns in Australian history despite coming from a similar economic background. Similarly, the period from 1998 through to 2005 were highly polarised times.

In this context, I find it extremely hard to remove myself from the political environment and focus on what makes ‘reason’ and, if having discovered what it is, how would one even start promulgating it into an argument not based in reality and fact? Hysterical claims and counter claims attach themselves to headlines, rolling news tickers and twitter feeds.

This came home to me most vividly when listening to Jon Stanhope talk about public transport in the ACT. Now Canberra as a city is wealthy, safe, pleasant and prosperous. Yet as soon as people begin talking about public transport, there is a lack of understanding and pandering to the easy solution. Buy more buses, build more roads, have more car parks, build a tram network. The answers are many yet the solutions are few. It is a highly polarised environment, and while lacking in the vitriol or the perhaps the passion of other current debates, it is one in which ‘reason’ is perhaps absent from the public’s antenna. For instance, I was a member of the light rail brigade, especially when I was living on campus at ANU. But simple maths and budget forecasts should put this idea to bed. The annual budget of the ACT is approx. $3bn. The estimated cost to build a sustainable light rail network in the ACT is approx. $3bn. As a percentage of total revenue, this option seems completely anathema to ‘reason’. Yet it is a common discussion point when talking about public transport in the ACT.

Now I don’t know why I didn’t know these facts before. Maybe I don’t read the Canberra Times closely enough. Maybe the Government doesn’t want to tell this version of the story in public. Maybe the ACT Department of Transport has a different agenda. But after a full six years living here, I would have thought that I would know these basic facts about possible options. It stands to reason.

This is an imperfect example of a polarised debate using a very ‘first-world’ problem. Traffic isn’t really an issue in Canberra relative to other parts of the country. The buses are clean, cheap and relatively efficient by global standards. Yet even with these qualifiers, the debate is surrounded in unknowns.

Moving onto bigger issues, such as the Carbon Price and the future of the war in Afghanistan, it is little wonder that reason has trouble making itself known to members of the debate. These might be talk back callers, bloggers, journalists or even conversation groups. The ‘facts’ are open to interpretation and two sides bitterly engage in a struggle to define what transforms quickly into a broader narrative. Going back to the war in Afghanistan, do we know why we are fighting? If the answer is something to do with terrorism and not cutting and running, does the next logical question ever get answered? How, apart from the fairly simple (by comparison) training of the Afghan army, are we changing the society to be able to deal with terrorism when we leave? This to me is the reason within the debate. I would hesitate that any apolitical individual or institution has the resources or inclination to answer these questions. I hesitate that the Defence Department should answer these questions.

I believe that the facts should be immersed in a debate, even a polarised debate. I do not believe that this an easy thing to achieve or that at the political level there is any will to attempt this. In a polarised debate, it is much easier to stand on one side and show the opposition wrong than show why your own side is correct.

I have a small glimmer of hope that the Carbon Price argument put forward by the Government when more details get released will be grounded in fact and fought through a positive message. My hope almost fades though that this message will be able to cut through into the main stream media and into the homes of Australian society.

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