As Tasmania lags behind Australia, Eric Abetz is reigniting old battles.
It was a strange choice of words. In June last year, the Liberal senator from Tasmania, now minister for employment, Eric Abetz, addressed a conservative forum in Sydney. In his speech, Abetz quoted one of the most radically despairing philosophers of the 19th century. “It was Friedrich Nietzsche,” he told the faithful audience, “that said, ‘There are no such things as facts, only interpretations.’”
Abetz made the unusual citation in a speech attacking the bias of the ABC – specifically, its new Fact Check exercise, formed to “determine the accuracy of claims by politicians, public figures, advocacy groups and institutions engaged in the public debate”.
Abetz followed the quote with his strong belief that “anyone who asserts a capacity to determine and divine the truth and facts in all matters should by definition be treated sceptically –
especially when it impacts on our democratic processes”. Which, logically extended, would seem to not only serve as a rejection of ABC’s Fact Check, but the whole project of journalism itself – and much of politics.
Abetz’s epistemological riff, had it been shorn from his specific and petty gripe with Aunty, might have been a rich reflection on the individual, government and truth. Instead, it presented fascinating contradictions. The senator, born in Stuttgart in 1958, is a Christian Calvinist, and was citing the very moral relativism that the social conservatives of his party – who have ascended dramatically under Abbott’s prime ministership – consider repugnantly destructive.
For the Liberals’ social conservatives, the imagined tapestry of Australian society is always threatened by the absence of fixed meaning – the universality of God’s wisdom, the primacy of the “traditional” family, and inflexibly optimistic narratives of Australian history are the divine glue that binds us together. Determining our own meaning is anathema. Nietzsche’s relativism is precisely the sort of intellectual slovenliness that imperils us.
Abetz’s citation of Nietzsche was also interesting, for he was summoning one of history’s most fierce atheists. Nietzsche called Christianity a “slave morality” and argued that ethics sprung from a “will to power” – an affirming belief to the classical liberals but abhorrent to the dominant philosophy in Tony Abbott’s cabinet. To consider the speaker of the Nietzsche quote is to marvel at the chasm between the line and the moral certitude that defines Abetz and his colleagues.
Tasmania is a powerful case study in the consequences of philosophical myopia. Abetz seeks to revive an industry he thinks was made lame by the anti-development dogma of the Greens, but in reality has been stricken fatally by inefficiency, greed and the vicissitudes of global development. Abetz is continuing the unsustainable belief that Tasmanian prosperity – its very sense of itself – springs from forestry. “In my home state of Tasmania over 50 per cent is locked up,” Abetz says. “Now, if that was to be inflicted on the rest of Australia, or indeed on any other state, have a look what that would do to its economy – no mining, no farming, no tourism – and draw the line however you like. Fifty per cent of the state locked, you’d see some more economic basket cases in Australia.”
When Abetz speaks here of retarded potential, he is speaking specifically of the nature reserves contained in the agreement. But in 2012, just 1 per cent of Tasmania’s workforce was employed in forestry. Ten years before that, it was not much more than twice that. The economic potency of Tasmanian logging has long been imagined, exaggerated by political convenience, myth-making and the sincere anxieties of loggers.
• John Hawkins, in Comments: Erich, Facts. You renounced your German citizenship on the 9th March 2010. You cannot renounce a German citizenship you do not have. You must therefore have been a dual national sitting in the Senate illegally for more than 15 years prior to 2010. Erich please sue me if I am wrong.
• mr t, in Comments: HERE is the link to the original ABC Fact Check article that apparently caused Mr Abetz such distress. I remember after the Fact Check was posted Senator Colbeck issued a supplementary Media Release that was then attached to the article. Further, a comment that challenged the indendence of the TFA scientific assessment was deleted. I remember this as I subsequently posted a response questioning the independence of the “Independent” Paul Harriss Legislative Council review. Of course, the independent Paul Harriss has since come out of the closet (so to speak). I still wonder who was the original poster as the ABC monitor stated he/she “has been blocked by our staff.” Obviously the offices of the honourable senators were monitoring the article at the time.