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19 Oct 2013

Return Of The Pre-Copernican Obscurantists

By Mungo Maccallum
So Tony Abbott would have you believe that the past six years were an aberration, a bad dream that never really happened. Now, suddenly, we have reawakened in the golden glow of the Howard years, or at least a very good imitation of them.
The old team (well, most of it) is back in charge, and soon there'll be a surplus in every budget and a freeway in every suburb, no more great big new taxes on everything, the debts will be paid and the boats will stop. And sport will be back on the front pages, the big story being Australia's inevitable victory in the forthcoming Ashes series. God's in his heaven, Tony's in Kirribilli House, and all's right with the world.

At least it would be if that was as far as it went - a small step backwards for a man, not exactly a giant leap for mankind. But already there are some ominous signs that it won't stop there - that the Abbott regime intends to regress a long way further back than the first decade of the 21st century.

The most obvious portent is the composition of his cabinet: the last time the executive contained just a single woman was in Paul Keating's government of 1991. There were others knocking on the door then, too: he heard them knocking but they couldn't get in. It is tempting to say that this is a characteristic of Catholic prime ministers, but this would be unfair to Keating, who in almost every other way was a genuine progressive. After all, it was he who dismissed John Howard as a pre-Copernican obscurantist, a title which could perhaps more properly be conferred upon Abbott, the first prime minister since Jimmy Scullin not to appoint a designated minister for science.

He is quick to reassure us that science will still have a place at the table; Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane will oversee the CSIRO and similar bodies. But it is hard not to see this as a relegation: science is no longer an important issue in its own right but a mere handmaid of capitalism. It is worth noting that the only Coalition member to nominate himself for the job of science minister was the South African-born Dennis Jensen, a materials engineer who is also a dedicated climate change sceptic - so much so that he is an enthusiastic supporter of Gibbering Lord Monckton. Abbott, of course, has already abolished the Department of Climate Change and once notoriously denounced the science as crap.

Science is no longer to have either the status nor the independence it used to enjoy. The same approach can be discerned in the pre-election commitment to sort out research. Australian Research Council grants considered to be pointless, frivolous or wasteful (by whom?) will cease henceforth. In vain do the scientists plead that it is impossible to tell where the research will lead, or what products it might eventually produce - if we could do that, it wouldn't be research, just development.

But from now on research grants are apparently to be subjected to some kind of ideological test to prove that they will be of immediate benefit to the government's view of society. This approach is taking us back well before the 1920s - indeed, back before the Age of Enlightenment, before the Renaissance, back to something perilously close to the Dark Ages. Unauthorised inquiry, if not actually banned as heresy, is certainly to be discouraged.

Once again it is hard not to see a religious dimension in this: has Tony Abbott's personal confessor, Cardinal George Pell - another fervent climate-change denier - been whispering in the prime ministerial ear? Abbott and his advisers have worked hard over the past few months to shed the Captain Catholic, Mad Monk image, but as he takes up his throne at the head of his all-but monastic cabinet to cleanse the country of the airy-fairy irrelevancies of the ivory tower boffins in favour of the sturdy, practical common sense of the battlers of the front bars, there is more than a whiff of the mediaeval about it.

But perhaps that's making it too complex - perhaps it is just part of Abbott's revival of the culture wars, along with his policy of abolishing the Ministry of Tertiary Education and rewriting the secondary schools history curriculum to make it less ''left-wing'' - by which he means concentrating more on European and military history. In case anyone missed the point, he also established a new portfolio for the Celebration of the Centenary of ANZAC. The culture wars began as an attack on what Howard and the privileged and pampered columnists of the Murdoch press called the elites, by which they meant anyone to the left of the soup spoon, but they quickly developed into a straightforward anti-intellectual movement: the very word intelligentsia became an insult.

Abbott has been compared - by his own daughters among others - to the loveable but dumb movie character Forrest Gump and appears to take the line as a compliment; so perhaps his rejection of science and the research that goes with it is simply the man following his instincts. The problem is that this is unlikely to lead him forward; the best we can hope from the new government is that it really will be genuinely conservative, that Abbott will keep his key promise of no surprises. But no matter how hard Abbott tries to insulate our island continent from the outside world, the shocks will come, and in the end he may be forced to realise that science and the technology that flows from it is our only hope of keeping up.

But the news is not all bad: science, given a halfway decent chance, has a habit of producing unexpected and hugely beneficial outcomes. It was a spinoff from entirely unrelated research which gave the world, and Tony Abbott, Lycra.

Veteran political corespondent Mungo MacCallum's latest book, The Mad Marathon: The Story of the 2013 Election, is published as an ebook today today and in print next week by Black Inc.

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