TUMBY BAY - Cher Bono, perennial pop singer, actor, activist and part Cherokee Native American once wondered what it would be like if she could turn back time.
Quite a few politicians have had the same thought. John Howard in Australia tried very hard to turn back time and US president Donald Trump is engaged in a similar but decidedly more destructive exercise.
In a less grander style, we also have politicians who, having served their time, trying to return to it by pushing what they consider to be the wisdom they gleaned from their past political experiences.
Some of the ideas they now peddle can be enlightening but you can’t help but wonder why they didn’t plan and act on them when they were in power.
When asked, they excuse themselves by explaining they were constrained by their political party or by external pressures beyond their control.
They were, they explain, forced to march to the beat of a drummer whose tune they didn’t particularly like but which they had to obey.
In everyday terms this is called ‘selling out’ – compromising their beliefs and letting down the people who voted for them.
Politicians of every stripe and in every country, including Papua New Guinea and Australia, are capable of selling out. I’m sure you can think of many examples. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, think Michael Somare.
This begs the question of why we should listen to them now.
Having said that, I would argue that there are a few politicians still worth listening to: those who stuck by their guns, fought hard but unfortunately failed to change anything for the better.
Among those I’d list people like Barry Jones, boy genius and Labor stalwart whose potential eventually came to nothing.
He recently wrote an article called ‘Saving Planet Earth’ for The Saturday Paper summarising the present state of world politics and pointing out what needs to be done now.
In the article he points out how historians and political scientists have divided recent world history into two distinct periods, before and after World War II.
The period before World War II, Jones says, was characterised by “aggressive nationalism – trade wars, high tariffs, brutal colonisation, World War I, totalitarian rule in Russia, Italy, Germany, the Leninist-Stalinist model of Communism, Fascism, Nazism, the Great Depression, World War II [and] the Holocaust”.
After World War II: “As Christopher Browning recently put it in The New York Review of Books, ‘the post-World War II structure of interlocking diplomatic, military and economic agreements and organisations …. have [mostly] preserved peace, stability and prosperity’”.
Jones then alludes to the new “wrecking ball” approach that Donald Trump and others are taking to all the institutions that were set up as part of this process. Jones calls this new political phenomenon “illiberal democracy”.
He also outlines the existential struggles it has produced: “Vested interest and the short term are preferenced above the longer-term public interest in the US, Australia and many other nations. Homo sapiens has been transformed to Homo economicus.”
All values have a dollar equivalent. If politicians cannot place an economic value on maintaining the rule of law with refugees or taking strong action on climate change, then they are not worth pursuing.
Universities have become trading corporations. With ‘fake news’, people can choose their own reality. Science is discounted. Opinion is more important than evidence. The politics of anger and resentment displaces the politics of rationality and optimism”.
Jones puts the situation down to the lack of political leadership and the failure of the IT revolution to raise the quality of political engagement and debate.
He charges social media with actually debasing the system so that “cruelty and ignorance have become tradeable commodities in Australian politics”, with debate “oversimplified and infantilised”.
His comments remind me of President Berzelius Windrip in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. To get elected the president promises all the poor, angry voters that he will make America proud and prosperous once more. Sound familiar?
At the end of his article Jones says “All nations, and all people, must dedicate themselves to protecting our global home rather than the short term national, regional or tribal interest”.
He doesn’t mention Papua New Guinea but it is obvious that “cruelty and ignorance” plays a big part in the O’Neill government and governments before it. We might even call APEC cruel.
We might, however, conclude that his comments about political debate don’t apply because it hardly exists in PNG at the moment.
Perhaps history does indeed repeat itself and we are now in a period of dire historical repetition.
Whether we should listen to politicians echoing a past that they only seem to remember is another question altogether.