Michael Burrill

Opinion: When muddying = controlling the debate

yeah, nah
Image: AAP/Lukas Coch

Debate and opinion in the Australian political stratosphere are about as clear as mud, claims Michael Burrill. Then again, that’s just his opinion…


A couple of weeks ago Liberal Senator Eric Abetz caused outrage when he seemed to suggest abortions and breast cancer were linked.

Abetz, who openly opposes abortion, later back-peddled and denied believing in the supposed links claiming, “Media reports that I have drawn or believe there is a link between abortion and breast cancer are incorrect,” and that he was misquoted via selective editing of what he had said.

While I have my own doubts about the truthfulness of his withdrawal, whatever the case I believe Abetz achieved what he set out to do – muddying the debate.

This is something of which the current government and its allies seems particularly fond. Long considered a tactic of his friends in the climate change skeptics lobby, Tony Abbott may now claim to believe in climate change (for electoral reasons, I’d suggest) but he seems content to hold onto the strategy of those in the skeptics lobby, whether this be via attempting to paint protesters as “ferals” and thugs, or through the manipulation of language and the debate as whole, which has transformed those seeking asylum (a legal right) into “illegals” and potential refugees into potential terrorists (Labor are complicit in this too), or as a medium term fiscal issue to a “budget emergency”.

Some may suggest that manipulation of the debate by politicians, lobbyists and the media are commonplace and nothing new; I’m inclined to agree. Those same people may then go on to suggest that everyone should know politicians are by and large manipulative liars by now, and it is therefore the responsibility of individuals to educate themselves and read between the lies. I’d agree in principle, but the reality is a bit more complex. What of those without the time or facilities to educate themselves, and what of an education system which, from my memories, seemed more interested in teaching the supposed mythical triumphs of “our great democracy” than its realistic problems and pitfalls.

Most worrying are the findings of an American Psychological Association study that found repetitive exposure to one person’s opinion can lead people to think it’s more popular (and, I’d infer, therefore more valid.)

While the study was carried out in small groups, I would imagine the same effect is true, if not amplified, when a politician, mining magnate or media mogul expresses an opinion arguably out of self-interest (not naming any names) and it’s repeated on the TV, radio or front of a newspaper over and over.

When this becomes apparent, one can only reflect on how easily “public opinion” can be manipulated. So while individuals should take some responsibility, just saying things like “Don’t believe you everything you read” doesn’t seem enough. “The public debate” has been manipulated and dictated to the public by the political and economic elite for too long (an opinion I intend to keep repeating in the hope your brains trick you into believing it…sound familiar…?).

Pre-selected questions of a scripted, heavily controlled format might be enough for some, but personally I think it’s time we all aim for more (that my initial urge was to use “demand” only further suggests how dis-empowered we’ve become).

Sure, there will be always be that guy pissing his crazed opinions to anyone who will listen down the pub, but deep down underneath my layers of protective cynicism I’d like to believe most people have a bit more to say for themselves than just talking about funny videos of cats or crackheads dancing.

“How do we get there?” I hear my fellow cynics ask, smirking

Admittedly I don’t have an answer off the top of my head, and even if it I did, it would feel hypocritical of one person to dictate terms.

The only conclusion I seek to reach here is that it’s about time we put aside the “best of the worst” complacency and attempt to combat the continued manipulation of opinion and debate.

What’s that cliche that gets trotted out every time the west bombs a third world country because they’ve fallen out with the previously friendly dictator?

That’s right…

By the people, for the people.


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