Monday, May 4, 2009

Common Ground and Royal Commission Outcomes Compromised

Common Ground and Royal Commission Outcomes Compromised

Torrey Orton, with assistance from Peter Campbell

May 4, 2009

Our times are ones for conviction. They encourage us to be clear, often at the cost of real complexity. We are so loaded with information, and claims on our attention, that it is highly unlikely we will make personal choices rationally. Rather, we will be increasingly likely to rely on our habitual assessment and solution systems. They are what we have easily to hand.

The Victorian Government announcement today that they will commit $200 million to fire prevention, including increased fuel burn-offs, exemplifies this irrationality. It is, in fact, an explicit commitment to irrationality in public processes. The budget is the excuse but pandering to electorate slivers is the reason. These slivers contain pre-digested Commission outcomes, announced in the public campaigns to indict others (Greens in particular) for fuel reduction failures. The science on fuel contribution to fire intensity and speed is at worst conflicted.

All this somewhat knackers my enterprise here. The Government is already implicitly accepting an interested argument over the deliberations of a cast of thousands. It proves the prescience of some of what follows (written before the $200 million deluge) and does not disprove the truth of the attached propositions; just renders them prematurely enfeebled. So it is with the non-political. I should have listened to Doug Cameron’s (then a union official on the rise) warning 20 years ago at an IR event I lectured in: “Everything is political” or words to that effect. I continue because this natural characteristic of human systems is long-term dysfunctional for our times.

Thinking habits

The forces which sustain this system apply most clearly to choices about life and death matters like personal safety from bushfires. We all come to any adult experience with a wealth of existing judgments and supporting evidence(s) for them. These make up our foundational intellectual infrastructure contents. They have the character of change-resistant physical habits. They constitute a predisposed blame architecture. They also have some truth status, usually sustained by like-minded believers. In this they are a predisposed solution system (though not always to the problems of the present).

Stress and simple-mindedness

The flexibility and adaptability of our intellectual infrastructures (at personal and group levels) are severely strained by the ‘reach’ they are forced to make to grasp the world(s) we are addressing or engaging. The greater our distance from tangible and testable facts the more simplistic our grasp of reality. This is by brain system default not by personal defect of aspiration or engagement technique.

Distance makes the mind grow fainter which, under stress, strengthens it slight grasp with intensity – that is a move towards the fundamentalist attitude in a deep sense. This is not a religious matter but it produces socio-psychological climates for religious-like thinking and behaviour across all domains of human activity.

I say this not to disparage or discourage but to acknowledge the realities of the influence challenges which confront the Commission. And, similar will continue to confront us whatever they manage to salvage from their betrayal by the Government. Damage to the credibility of public discourse / debate is the greatest loss, not personal affront.

Change resistance

Another force cutting against development of common ground(s) may be the deep commitment of existing power holders of all sorts to any opening which could facilitate others getting a piece of their action. Cultures have disappeared behind the smoke of such conflagrations. When common ground is lost conflagration or freezing is the result; fire or ice, both are nice for endings.

We know that judgment depends on fundamental values and perspectives (theories) which are very change resistant. We can see the struggle among competing ‘theories’ occurring daily between, climate changers and deniers (sceptics are a related bunch which I belong to temperamentally), between free marketers and state interventionists (neolibs and Keynesians?), between one culture and another. These struggles are conducted by adversarial means whose aim is winning, not the truth. ‘Facts’ become the ammunition of argument. The objective is a consummate union of souls around shared god(s). Therefore, finding common facts is doubtful.

Yet, this is a time when some truth, some reliability of perception and judgment, is necessary.
So, it is a critical task for the Commission to find or create common ground in facts and constructs and values from which may arise shared beliefs and opinions out of which may emerge shareable judgments.

Common ground

There are some compelling examples of common ground shared on some of the topics under consideration by the Royal Commissions.

One example is the protection of native forests in our reserve system – especially old growth forests and water catchments. Broadly, there is consensus across the logging industry, government, and conservation organisations on the general principle of protecting biodiversity, our natural heritage and the aesthetic appeal / value of such forests. However, there are significant differences about the quantity and locations of forests that require protection. The logging and woodchip industries argue that enough forest is already protected in reserves; the Victorian Government is still in the progress of adding some small areas to the reserve system; and conservation groups are asking for several more forests to be protected. There are also some significant differences on the appropriate management regimes for native forests.

Another example of common ground is the necessity and desirability of volunteer contributions to bushfire prevention and response measures. Tensions between professional and volunteer service provision do not stand on disregard for the latter but discussable boundaries of competence and capability distributed across the broad face of fire prone Victoria.

The Commission, and others doing similar work, could benefit from identifying the expected, or more powerfully, the achieved common grounds when reporting their work outcomes. It would give them credibility and us hope.

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