During the past two years I have contributed a number of articles to the Brisbane Line, the e-bulletin of the Brisbane Institute. Those on environmental topics have appeared in this blog.

Martin Leet, the editor, sent me an email accepting my latest article, Responsibility and Power, which will appear in the July edition of the Brisbane Line. I am fortunate to have this opportunity to occasionally touch on an issue close to my heart.


In an ideal world power and responsibility would go hand in hand to judiciously guide and shape society. The world is as it is precisely because this does not occur. Power, with its compelling sway over the human ego, is inherently open to abuse. The abuse of power is arguably the deadliest sin. That is why a lofty sense of responsibility needs to accompany the exercise of power.

The mis-match, both between power without responsibility and responsibility without power, is so pervasive it is barely recognised as the tragedy in human affairs that it is, other than in lawless circumstances such as war or arbitrary rule. The examples I cite are commonplace. All but the first refer to power without responsibility. They demonstrate variously how entrenched inequality, injustice, greed, wilfull indifference, complacency, not caring for the truth and reckless self-indulgence are, in the public life of an advanced society. Not only would their occurrence decline with an increase in the responsible exercise of power, people’s exposure to power without responsibility would be correspondingly reduced.

During my years of environmental activism dealing with land use issues, whether challenging planning applications on and around Tamborine Mountain, campaigning for the protection of open space in South East Queensland, or currently, biodiversity in Australia’s populated areas, I have had ample opportunity to experience the frustrations of responsibility without power while encountering the exercise of power without sufficient responsibility.

Power, through all its gradations, tends to lie with vested interests. Its most potent expression tends to be by individuals who dominate the organisations to which they belong. In the context of land use issues, vested interests are inclined to be driven by the desire to make money and activists, whatever else may motivate them, are inclined to act for the greater good out of a sense of personal responsibility.

Acting for the greater good is at the heart of my use of the word responsibility because it includes accepting a responsibility for acknowledging the truth. I consider such action the yardstick for the proper exercise of political power in the face of conflicting, legitimate demands which may include inter-generational equity.

Anyone taking on vested interests is engaged in an unequal struggle. Time and again a developer is able to get away with causing distress to any number of people by endangering the environment in pursuit of personal financial gain because responsibility for protecting the environment is not taken as seriously by the machinery of government as responsibility for encouraging devlopment and growth. Activists opposed to the logging of old growth forests can doubtless tell a corresponding, sorry tale.

Little wonder then that  for activists, setbacks are many and victories relatively few and far between, and of these, a disconcerting number may well turn out to be inconclusive. Whereas development in environmentally sensitive areas is always conclusive. When building begins on pristine land its ecology is irreversibly compromised and it ceases forever to remain what it once was. The fact that this occurs as often as it does, means that vested interests in the form of government, by defining the greater good in economic rather than in environmental terms, have sided with developer vested interests and have abrogated their responsibility to protect the environment for future as well as present generations.

Much has been written and said about people power which, in a democracy, is able to change the government and which, on rare occasions can overthrow a tyrannical regime. Generally the term, as we apply it, refers to actions in support of a high-profile cause. Perhaps its first successful expression was the campaign to abolish slavery in Great Britain. For people power to be exerted in this way, strong leadership is essential. People power can also be expressed more passively but at least as potently through the collective responsibilities people are willing or unwilling to accept. For instance, people who live in a country which provides comprehensive public health care, have a responsibility to refrain from making irresponsible demands on that system. When public heath care came into being after the second world war, people’s recourse to doctors was dictated by their previous experience of harder times and their use of the service was more circumspect than it is at present. Nowadays people think nothing of going to the doctor or the hospital emergency department for trivial ailments. Such irresponsible demand makes health service provision unsustainable.

The post-budget ABC Insiders programme provided a nauseating instance of power without responsibilty – to which, unfortunately, the media is prone. The host and his three guests representing the left, centre and right, spent quite a chunk of air time discussing how people can manage if they earn $150,000 a year and now find themselves having to forgo an amount of federal government welfare. They cited the cost of mortgages, child care, petrol, food and showed genuine concern for people in this situation. It did not occur to any of them that most of their fellow Australians have to provide all these things for far less money. None had the decency to speculate on the challenge facing someone earning $30,000 or $40,000 a year.

When politicians and the media join forces, power without responsibility plumbs new depths. The two seem made for oneanother. I find it alarming that journalists and politicians, including Kevin Rudd, have seen to it that the distinction between left and right is nowadays widely regarded as irrelevant. When the Howard government, not content with handing out generous tax cuts to the well off, gave Australia’s wealthiest schools extra public funding, the resultant protest from sections of the community was branded within the coalition and by the media as the politics of envy. This pernicious phrase is still used by some opposition MPs and Brendan Nelson accused the government in its budget of going after people it doesn’t like, namely the recipients of welfare earning $150,000 a year. The sheer arrogance and nerve of this form of special pleading is breathtaking. To me it smacks of ingrained, rightist triumphalism in the sense that politics has moved to the right globally, largely thanks to Milton Friedman, Thatcher and Reagan. That the left is not what it was, does not mean the distinction between it and the right is irrelevant. The absence in the media of a countervailing argument to this assertion is a pity, though not surprising.

But that does not mean that politicians have to go along with it. No one could doubt the strongly right wing character of Howard, of many of his senior ministers and his government. On Rudd’s own admission, one would have less cause to characterise his government as left wing in spite of it being  more compassionate and socially inclusive than that of his predecessor. There is a world of difference between left and right.  For politicians and  journalists to claim otherwise is a prime example of the exercise of power without responsibility. Rudd, please note. Left politics tends to favour the have-nots over the haves. Right politics tends to favour the haves over the have-nots.

Whoever first uttered the telling phrase “me too” during the last election campaign inspired coalition politicians and the media to use it  to define and diminish Kevin Rudd. That coalition politicians would succumb to amnesia during an election campaign and ignore the crucial areas of policy difference between Rudd and Howard on troops in Iraq, on industrial relations, on education, on nation building and an apology to the Aborigenes is not surprising, but it is inexcusable for the media to have done so for two reasons. Firstly, Rudd’s strategy at the time was to avoid becoming a target on policy and secondly, as Lawrence Springborg admitted on radio the other morning, there is bipartisanship across 80% of the work of government, presumably because it is routine.

The parliamentary press gallery’s view of politics as a blood sport is arguably the most malign example of the exercise of power without responsibility by the media.  Admittedly Australia’s adversarial politics lends itself to intermittent blood letting. But there is something out of all proportion in the spectacle of a relatively small number of journalists conferring on themselves the right to putatively dictate the nation’s fate in their desire to mortally wound a vulnerable politician. The more senior the politician, the more all-consuming the pursuit. When the Canberra gallery smells blood, nothing else counts, least of all the real issues at stake. What was there to gain by the hounding week after week of the hapless Nelson, followed by the equally determined hounding of Rudd over petrol prices? A baying pack is a far cry from an investigative journalist campaigning to right a wrong. Supposing Nelson had fallen on his sword, what good would that have done. How would the country have benefited by further destabilising the federal oppostion? The saving grace in all this is the fact that the gallery did not get their man, although it wasn’t for want of trying.

Peter Kuttner                               June 2008