Editorial writers, the PM and numerous cabinet ministers have attacked Tony Abbott for his “mindless negativity.” But could it be that “mindless positivity” is even worse?
From indigenous welfare to climate change, mindless positivity is the political strategy that cries out "just do something, anything, quick!" It springs from a mind-set that believes "doing anything is better than doing nothing," and it places a premium on highly visible actions first, and complicated questions later (such as "is this thing actually going to work?")
This week, Aboriginal leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu said: "Please, no more welfare handouts. It's a killer to the Yolngu society." Like Noel Pearson before him, Yunupingu recognizes that the feel-good, poorly thought-through policies that created indigenous welfare dependency have backfired. Sounding like a “good thing”, they squandered billions of dollars on handouts, rather than enabling proper Aboriginal education.
Mindless positivity has been around for a long time. Costello’s baby bonuses and Clover Moore’s bike paths spring to mind. But it blossomed in the heady days after the election of Kevin 07, where it slipped onto the national agenda in the guise of the 2020 summit.
“Something positive must be done,” declared the assembled boffins, dreamers and actors when confronted by the issues of climate change, boat people, broadband, indigenous Australia, the health system, grocery prices, fuel prices, internet porn, junk food, tobacco advertising, binge drinking, and the lack of good Aussie films. (I made the last one up.)
The doctrine of mindless positivity became the eager creed of a Labor government not entirely confident in its own skin. “Something-positive-must-be-done” quickly morphed into "something-positive-must-be-seen-to-be-done," thanks to today’s media-obsessed world. Sitting in their offices gazing at Lake Burley Griffin, senior bureaucrats became adept at putting forward extravagant, highly visible, easily PR-able solutions to a myriad of issues.
Early examples of mindless positivity were Grocerywatch and Fuelwatch, quickly followed by the alcopops tax and the Green energy rebates. Once the Rudd-Gillard team developed a taste for mindless positivity, it quickly spread. Peter Garrett gave us his pink batts and Julia Gillard her superfluous school halls, while Wayne Swan seized the first opportunity to blow every penny in the Treasury coffers “stimulating” us with things that nobody really needed. Like a new Bravia.
Not to be outdone, Stephen Conroy designed his national broadband network as a glorious example of mindless positivity at work. The NBN sounds awesome, yet will squander an eye-watering amount of taxpayer dollars, has had almost no uptake by consumers, and will probably be rendered obsolete by DIDO wireless technology.
Julia Gillard's putsch demonstrated the addictive nature of mindless positivity. Clearly, "something positive had to be done" about Kevin's (entirely predictable) downturn in the polls. The cautious approach would have been to patiently listen to the concerns of the electorate and subtly fine-tune policy accordingly. But mindless positivity demands the grandiose, headline-grabbing, knee-jerk action with no time to consider the consequences. Sack the PM, confound the public, call an early election, lose your majority and hand power to the Greens and independents.
Abandoning Nauru and relaxing border protection was always a risky idea. But mindless positivity made the decision infinitely worse. First the Timorese solution was hurriedly introduced, then abandoned, and now the Malaysian solution, introduced to great fanfare, is a mess.
But the incident does give us a clearer understanding of how and why mindless positivity works. As former Labor minister Gary Johns has said, "governments will never admit they don't have a solution to everything. They always have to be seen to be doing something, no matter what." Even when doing absolutely nothing is probably just as effective as doing something “positive.” Belgium has operated for the last twelve months without any government activity whatsoever. And nobody's noticed.
The Cate Blanchett and Michael Caton carbon tax ads provided the perfect slogan for mindless positivity: "say yes to feeling good about doing something positive about climate change." A prime example of the doctrine, the carbon tax ticks all the right boxes. Sounds like a good thing. But it will be enormously costly and can’t possibly solve the problem of global warming.
Even the apology to indigenous Australians met the criteria. On the surface; a good thing. On closer inspection; nothing achieved. In fact, according to a recent Department of Finance report the entire history of Aboriginal welfare has been one of mindless positivity, with “Large investments (in) well-intentioned policies and programs which have failed to produce their intended results.”
Which is exactly what Galarrwuy Yunupingu is telling us. And not a moment too soon, either.