Density, sprawl, : how Australian cities have changed in 30 years


More than any other Australian city, Melbourne has led a 30-year turnaround in inner-city density (red indicates increases and blue decreases).Author provided

Since settlement, Australian cities have been shaped and reshaped by history, infrastructure, natural landscapes and – importantly – policy.

So, have our cities changed much in the last 30 years? Have consolidation policies had any effect? Have we contained sprawl? Yes, probably and maybe, according to our newly published research.

Reviving the centre

The great Australian baby boomer dream of home ownership caused our cities to spread out during the second half of the 20th century. Urban fringes expanded with affordable land releases, large residential blocks and cheap private transport.

By the 1980s, across Australia’s cities, the urban fringes were ever-expanding. Inner areas had become sparsely populated “doughnut cities”.

By the end of that decade urban researchers, planners, geographers and economists began to warn of looming environmental, social and housing affordability problems due to unrestrained sprawling growth.

Governments responded swiftly, focusing policy attention on urban consolidation through programs such as Greenstreet and Building Better Cities. Concerned individuals formed groups such as Smart Growth and New Urbanism to promote inner-city development and increased urban density.

Since this time, large- and small-scale policy interventions have attempted to repopulate the inner- and middle-urban areas. The common policy goal has been to encourage more compact, less sprawling cities. Subdivision, dual occupancy, infill development, smaller block sizes, inner-city apartments and the repurposing of non-residential buildings have all been used.

Mapping the changes

In a newly published paper, we map the changing shape of Australia’s five largest mainland cities from 1981 to 2011.

Across each of these cities, which together are home to 60% of Australians, there has been substantial, suburbanisation and re-urbanisation. In the last 20 years this has resulted in a repopulation of inner cities.

In Melbourne’s case, the return to the inner city has been particularly pronounced in the last decade. Here, the population jumped from around 3,000 to 4,000 people per km². The extent of this change is visualised in the chart below.

Melbourne may well be the exemplar for inner-city rebirth. More than any other Australian city it demonstrates the 30-year turnaround from inner-city decline to densification.

Between 1981 and 1991 Melbourne became a classic “doughnut city”: population declining in inner areas, density increasing in the middle-ring suburbs, and growth steady in the outer suburbs. For example, in the inner 5km ring there was a decrease during this time of almost 200 people per km².

From 1991 to 2001, even though growth was still focused on the middle and outer areas, the inner area began to be repopulated. Overall, between 1981 and 2011 there were approximately 1,500 more people per square kilometre living in the inner 5km ring.

Over the last decade, greenfield development, infill and urban regeneration have increased urban density throughout Melbourne – as shown in the five-yearly map animation below.

Changes in Melbourne population density over the 30 years to 2011 (red is increasing, blue is decreasing). Author provided

While the turnarounds in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth have been less marked than in Melbourne, they are all no longer “doughnut cities”. This means that where people live in these cities has changed.

Australia’s cities are now more densely populated – and we are much more likely to live in inner areas than we were 30 years ago.

A result of government policy?

We can probably attribute the changes in where urban Australians live to government consolidation policies.

The policy focus throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s was based on incentives to repopulate inner and middle areas.

Policies were changed from 2000 to increase population density across whole metropolitan areas. State and territory strategic plans aimed to promote urban consolidation, with a focus on the inner city.

State and territory plans now focus much more on specific zones throughout the whole of the city, including former industrial areas and surplus government land. New housing development occurs within these defined zones, particularly around transport and areas with urban-renewal potential.

South Australia’s 30-Year Plan for Greater Adelaide targets growth in “current urban lands”, along major transport corridors and hubs. Similarly, the Plan Melbourne – Metropolitan Planning Strategy plans to establish the “20-minute neighbourhood”, contain new housing within existing urban boundaries, and focus development in new urban renewal precincts.

The map visualisations reinforce the scale of this absolute growth across each of the five major Australian cities over the last 30 years.

Have we contained sprawl?

Our research would suggest urban-consolidation policies have slowed but not prevented sprawl, especially in the faster-growing cities like Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Sydney.

So, have we reached the point at which our cities are full? How can we accommodate future population growth? And do we need to focus our attention on new urban areas?

Containing and, more importantly, controlling sprawl may present the next big challenge.

  1. Paul Monaghan

    Paul Monaghan is a Friend of The Conversation

    “Our research would suggest urban-consolidation policies have slowed but not prevented sprawl, especially in the faster-growing cities like Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Sydney.”

    Great graphics and article. Have the authors given any consideration on how population and consolidation is now affecting affordability of land i.e. supply v demand equation over this period? Would not affordability be a limiting constraint to consolidation without a shift in popular demand from detached housing to units as homes? How do we bring about such a paradigm shift?

How does Queensland’s program stack up and should it be extended?

Sharks are back in the headlines this week following the attack of 17-year-old Cooper Allen off the coast of New South Wales.

In response there have been renewed calls for culling and even the establishment of a commercial shark fishery. Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk offered to extend her state’s shark control program to include northern New South Wales beaches.

Any unprovoked shark bite is devastating for individuals and communities. Accepting Queensland’s offer of increased culling in New South Wales waters, however, will not automatically reduce the chance of these bites occurring.

So how does Queensland’s program stack up and should it be extended?

How does Queensland’s program work?

Queensland’s Shark Control Program relies on sharks being caught in large mesh fishing nets or drumlines, or a combination of both.

The program uses hundreds of hooked drumlines and tens of shark netsat popular beaches from Cairns to the Gold Coast. Equipment is checked every couple of days by government contractors, and target sharks that have been caught are killed with a firearm. The idea is to prevent sharks reaching the beaches and interacting with people.

The Queensland program has been running since 1962 as a public safety measure to reduce the risk of shark bites and attacks.

New South Wales already uses a similar program, which deploys nets set below the surface roughly 500m from the shoreline on 51 beaches from Wollongong to Newcastle between September and April each year.

The equipment is designed to target sharks of 2m or larger, but in reality indiscriminately kills animals of all sizes and species beyond the targets of white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks.

Do shark programs stop shark attacks?

A recent study has shown that unprovoked shark bites appear to have increased in recent years in eastern and southern Australia, but it is difficult to tease apart what environmental conditions are causing the increase, and even more difficult to predict when and where these conditions will next occur.

Important environmental conditions include sea surface temperature, freshwater runoff, turbidity (the cloudiness of water), currents and circulation patterns. While there are correlations between these factors and shark bites, that is all we know so far. Correlation does not mean causation.

The big problem is that there is currently no scientific evidence to link shark nets or drumlines to ocean safety.

It is not a matter of putting humans at the “top of the food chain” as Nationals president Larry Anthony (who represents the north coast in parliament) stated earlier this week.

It is a matter of whether (1) the strategies directly reduce the number of shark-related deaths, and (2) any reductions outweigh the ecological costs of these mitigation strategies.

Interestingly, shark-related fatalities have declined in Queensland  since the state’s shark program began, but fatalities have declined in areas with and without shark mitigation equipment. The greatest decline actually occurred before deployment of nets and drumlines began.

And what about the sharks?

The dangers posed by Queensland’s shark program to shark populations are substantial. The vast majority of sharks that are caught by the program are threatened according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This includes target species such as white sharks and tiger sharks, and non-target species such as grey nurse sharks.

Some of these species are already listed by the New South Wales Fisheries Scientific Committee. The same committee has listed the state’s current program as a threatening process for marine wildlife. These species are in need of increased conservation and management rather than increased slaughter. Removing even a few of these larger predators can have unpredictable and cascading negative impacts on whole ecosystems.

Any removal of sharks are exacerbated by the slow growth and relatively low reproduction rate of these animals, which make them particularly vulnerable.

What Annastacia Palaszczuk is really offering New South Wales is to indiscriminately kill a large portion of species that should be protected by our state legislation.

What we should be doing is tagging and following the movements of these highly migratory species to understand where they go, and why.

Shark experts associated with the New South Wales government are trialling various forms of shark deterrent technology, some of which are looking promising. Priority has been given to development of personal shark deterrents, such as electrical and magnetic devices, and protective wetsuits.

While things are progressing since the Shark Summit hosted by premier Mike Baird in September 2015, any solution is going to take time.

Southern Cross University welcomes new Vice Chancellor

Professor Adam Shoemaker

Southern Cross University has welcomed Professor Adam Shoemaker as the University’s fifth Vice Chancellor. Professor Shoemaker commenced in the role on September 24, following the retirement of Professor Peter Lee.

Professor Shoemaker is one of Australia’s leading researchers in the area of Indigenous literature and culture.  Prior to his appointment as Vice Chancellor of Southern Cross University, he held senior leadership roles at a number of other Australian universities including Academic Provost at Griffith University, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Education) at Monash University and Dean of Arts at the Australian National University.

“I am delighted to be here at Southern Cross University and look forward to leading the University through the next stage of its development,” Professor Shoemaker said.

“My aim is to make Southern Cross University the most progressive, connected and student-focused regional research university.  We play a significant role in transforming lives and the employability and the future career success of our students is a top priority.”

A former Commonwealth Scholar, Professor Shoemaker is the author or editor of nine books in the field of Indigenous literature and culture, and is also widely published in the areas of international and digital education; race relations; and cultural studies. His achievements in community engagement include founding the Oxfam-Monash Partnership and co-founding the Monash-World Vision Alliance, both of which encompassed action research, in-country projects in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, student-focused internships and curriculum change.

Canadian by birth, Professor Shoemaker holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts from Queen’s University and a PhD from the Australian National University. He served as Chair of the Brisbane Writers Festival in the mid-1990s and edited a landmark anthology of Australian writing and photography which was published in association with the Sydney 2000 Olympics.  For many years he chaired the Advisory Board of Monash University Publishing and was on the Advisory Board of Campus Review.  Professor Shoemaker is a former Director of Open Universities Australia, is a trustee of the Brisbane Girls Grammar School and—most recently—was Deputy Chair of the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

Impact of dementia on Terry Jones is ‘painful to watch’ Michael Palin

Palin says dementia which affects his Monty Python costar’s ability to speak is ‘cruellest thing’ for Jones, ‘to whom words were stuff of life’

Michael Palin and Terry Jones
 Michael Palin spoke after Terry Jones’s diagnosis of primary progressive aphasia was announced this week. Photograph: Ian West/PA

Jones, 74, who directed Monty Python’s films Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, and co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Gilliam, is suffering from primary progressive aphasia, which affects his ability to communicate.

Palin and Jones were members of the famous comedy troupe, which also included John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman. Jones wrote and directed many of the group’s best-loved works.

In a moving post on Facebook, Palin said the impact on Jones’ ability to speak is “the cruellest thing that could befall someone to whom words, ideas, arguments, jokes and stories were once the stuff of life.

“Terry J has been my close friend and workmate for over 50 years. The progress of his dementia has been painful to watch.”

Palin said he had met up with Jones earlier this week and the Welsh-born actor had been smiling and laughing. He wrote: “Not that Terry is out of circulation. He spends time with his family and only two days ago I met up with him for one of our regular meals at his local pub.

“Terry doesn’t say very much but he smiles, laughs, recognises and responds, and I’m always pleased to see him. Long may that last.”

The news of Jones’s illness was announced on Tuesday as Bafta Cymru announced he has been given a special award for outstanding contribution to film and television.

His award was announced at the Bafta Cymru nominees party, as well as that of make-up artist Siân Grigg. The pair will be celebrated at the British Academy Cymru Awards on 2 October.

Aboriginal inmate’left braindead ‘after brawl with guards at SA prison

Sister says Wayne Morrison on life support after he allegedly attacked five prison guards during ‘critical incident’ at Yatala Labour prison

 Latoya Rule with her brother Wayne Morrison
 Latoya Rule said her brother Wayne Morrison has been left braindead after an altercation in a South Australian prison. Rule said Morrison ‘was a non-violent fisherman and artist’. Photograph: Latoya Rule/Facebook

Twenty-nine-year-old Wayne Morrison allegedly attacked five prison guards at Yatala Labour prison on Friday while he waiting for a scheduled video-link court appearance.

But Morrison’s sister Latoya Rule disputes the allegation, saying her brother, who was five-feet tall, “was a non-violent fisherman and artist”.

“This is beyond heartbreaking,” she posted on Facebook. “All prison officers involved have been release from the hospital with minor to no injuries, and my brother is brain dead and has no life left.”

Several guards were also injured in the incident, including two who suffered facial fractures.

Rule said she planned a series of national protests and would fight for justice for her brother.

“This is not just another death in custody, this is state sanctioned brutality in the same stream as #blacklivesmatter and deserves the same level of attention. My brother’s life matters and he should not be portrayed as someone he was not.”

Morrison had been in custody for six days, during which, Rule said, her brother was denied “the human right of healthcare”.

The state’s authorities have not revealed the details of Morrison’s offending which caused him to be imprisoned. Rule said he was due to be released into home custody.

Morrison’s brother, Patrick, condemned South Australia’s Department for Correctional Services over the incident.

“My brother is going to die because of what they’ve done to him,” he wrote on Facebook.

“There will be justice, I demand justice. You cannot hide what you’ve done.”

Wayne Morrison was waiting in the admissions area of Yatala prison ahead of a scheduled video-link appearance at Elizabeth magistrates court when the “critical incident” erupted at about 11:30am Friday.

Authorities allege Morrison was involved in an altercation with two officers, including a young woman, when he had to be restrained by three other guards.

It is understood Morrison was then taken back to G division of the prison, Yatala’s maximum security area, when he suffered a medical episode, believed to be a cardiac arrest.

“The prisoner involved in the incident was brought under control by responding staff,” Brown said. “In the course of the incident, a medical emergency ensued and the correctional staff applied immediate first aid to the prisoner and sought assistance from onsite medical staff.”

Five staff were injured. Two – a man and a woman – sustained facial fractures.

Brown said an ambulance was called and the prisoner transferred to the Royal Adelaide hospital.

CCTV cameras reportedly captured vision of the incident. That footage is now the subject of an investigation by South Australian police’s major crime investigation branch.

Australian Associated Press contributed to this report

School funding changes: Coalition could avoid Senate vote

Education minister warns changes could be made to Gonski reforms within the current legislation without putting plan to the Senate, where it would be blocked

Simon Birmingham
 The education minister Simon Birmingham met with state and territory ministers on Friday to discuss changing the school funding deals that were signed with Labor under the 2013 Gonski reforms. Photograph: David Mariuz/AAP

The education minister, Simon Birmingham, has warned the Coalition could make changes to school funding deals within the current legislation, thereby avoiding a Senate vote which is likely to fail.

As promised in the election, Birmingham met with the state and territory education ministers on Friday to begin talks to change the existing school funding deals in 2018-19 – deals signed with Labor under the 2013 Gonski reforms.

The convention since the 1980s is that the commonwealth and states agree to school funding deals. When Labor implemented the Gonski reforms, the commonwealth legislated the deals to ensure the funding would be uncontested.

Before the election, Birmingham announced a plan to commit $1.2bn for the years five and six of the school education plans – a reduction of $3.9bn compared with Labor’s promised funding.

But after a fiery meeting, Birmingham signalled the commonwealth would not need the states to agree in order to make the changes – a position confirmed by noted education expert Jim McMorrow last week.

“We can work within the current budget because much of the extra spending that Labor promised in 2013 – off in the never-never – beyond the forward estimates was never actually legislated spending so much of that is not actually tied to the legislation,” Birmingham told ABC Insiders on Sunday.

“So we can work within the current budget arrangements but of course I think it is far, far better if we get reforms to ensure we are distributing funding according to need equitably across the states and driving reform in schools.”

Labor, Greens and Nick Xenophon’s party have committed to block any reforms which would reduce school funding promised in the original deals with Julia Gillard.

New South Wales Coalition education minister, Adrian Piccoli, has led the charge against the changes, saying the commonwealth had signed the deal with his state and it would constitute a broken promise not to honour the agreement.

Birmingham has argued that because different states obtained different agreements, it was unfair on some states, such as South Australia and Western Australia whose students get less per head than students in other states.

The Gonski report recommended all students across the country receive the same baseline funding with loadings for disadvantage. At the time the first deals were signed, it was announced the first round of agreements would be the transitional phase designed to bring all states and territories to similar funding levels.

“I hope as we work through this … [states] concede it is much better to have a model put in place that is needs-based, treats the states equitably, drives reform and will actually support us in getting the changes to the Act to make sure it is a fair deal,” Birmingham said.

The Coalition has yet to put a deal to the states and territories but Birmingham committed to reveal a final agreement early next year. New funding agreements need to be in place by the end of 2017.

Bruce Springsteen calls Donald Trump a ‘moron’

Singer says Republican candidate offers ‘simple answers to very complex problems’ and backs Hillary Clinton for president

Bruce Springsteen
 Bruce Springsteen performing in Philadelphia in September. Photograph: Elizabeth Robertson/AP

Rock legend Bruce Springsteen has described Donald Trump as a “moron” and “tragic” in an election campaign he has chosen largely to stay out of, until now.

Speaking to Rolling Stone magazine, the singer said: “The republic is under siege by a moron, basically. Without overstating it, it’s a tragedy for our democracy.”

Springsteen also accused Trump of offering “simple answers to very complex problems”.

“The ideas he’s moving to the mainstream are all very dangerous ideas – white nationalism and the alt-right movement.”

Springsteen said he liked Hillary Clinton and thought she would be a “very, very good president”.

Speaking in a separate interview with a talk-show in Norway and Sweden he described the Republican presidential candidate as an embarrassment to the United States.

Springsteen, who has dramatised the plight of working-class Americans in his music, said he understands how Trump could seem “compelling” to people who are economically insecure.

“The absurdity is beyond cartoon-like. But he’s gotten close enough [to the White House] so it can make you nervous,” he told the talk show Skavlan.

“I don’t think he’s going to win, but even him running is a great embarrassment if you’re an American,” he said.

Trump knows how to tell voters “some of the things they want to hear,” he added, including to people “uncomfortable with the ‘browning’ of America.”

“He has a very simple answer to all these very, very complex problems.”

Springsteen recorded the interview with the talk show ahead of next week’s release of his memoir, Born to Run, which describes his childhood in New Jersey and rise to fame.

The singer, famous for his onstage stamina, has drawn a diverse field of devoted fans for decades, including New Jersey governor Chris Christie, one of Trump’s most public backers.

Springsteen insisted for years that he would let his music speak for him but has been more openly political since the election in 2004, when he campaigned for John Kerry in his unsuccessful bid to win the White House from George W Bush.

Malcolm Turnbull at the United Nations General Assembly

If ever leadership was needed it is now, before these corrosive views are allowed to destroy the multicultural cohesive society Australia has become.

Malcolm Turnbull could not have been more enthused after hearing Barack Obama’s last speech to the United Nations General Assembly. His response captured the bind he is in, confronting the political divide in his own government and nation back home. The parallels with the US presidential election are disturbingly familiar.

The prime minister told his pack of travelling Australian journalists that the outgoing president gave a “powerful and impassioned defence of liberal democracy”. Integral to this, and getting a loud cheer from the Australian government leader, is “open markets, free trade”. He said the president spelled out the dead end of protectionism: “We must not allow fear of open markets – fear of the world, in fact – to take us backwards into poverty.”

Turnbull said Obama “summed it up beautifully, I think, when he said, ‘Countries that seek to build a wall imprison only themselves’ ”. The Obama speech was a thinly veiled attack on the populist, xenophobic world view promoted by the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. It was remarkable for that and as sure an indicator as any that this liberal, first black president fears not only for his legacy but also for his nation should Trump triumph.

Turnbull came very close to showing his druthers for the presidential election when he accepted the description of himself as “an old friend of Hillary Clinton”. He also said, “I have no doubt the American people will make a very wise choice in November.” But even his old friend Clinton has been forced to match Trump’s protectionist rejection of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Australia is now hoping Obama can persuade congress in the lame-duck period after the presidential election to ratify the deal. While it is not an unalloyed blessing for Australia – there are lingering concerns about copyright and pharmaceuticals – it does have its benefits.

One of them can be seen in strategic terms, though denied publicly, of counterbalancing if not encircling a newly assertive China. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has met key people in both the Clinton and Trump camps to press Australia’s interests. She came away from the Trump discussion saying she was confident his aides valued our alliance. How that fits in with Trump’s apparent desire for a fortress America rather than an internationally engaged one is open to nervous speculation.

But putting up the shutters is not unique to Trump. He has plugged into the same sort of mood that saw Britain vote to leave the European Union. “Brexit” has become the new shorthand for the triumph of the little people over the elites. Exacerbating the anger was the feeling that open borders were allowing immigrants and refugees to overrun the place. Sound familiar? Pauline Hanson’s first speech in the senate last week just as brazenly stirred these sentiments. She called for all Muslim immigration to be banned. Her colleague, Malcolm Roberts, urged Australia to follow the example and “Aus-exit” the “unelected swill” that is the United Nations.

It was in the context of this week’s UN General Assembly that Turnbull was crunched between the demands from President Obama that rich nations do more for refugees and demands from Hanson and her fellow travellers that we do a lot less. The prime minister went for rhetorical flourishes, hoping that no one would notice. He was only invited to Obama’s special summit if he was prepared to come and put something on the table.

Labor’s Bill Shorten didn’t miss. He described Turnbull’s offer of raising the humanitarian intake to 18,750 a year from 2018-19 as “a hoax”. Turnbull, Shorten said, was merely locking in a reduction to the program instigated by Tony Abbott in 2012-13. Abbott cut Labor’s 20,000 to 13,750. To his small credit, Turnbull is making permanent a higher number that his predecessor intended as a one-off. But unremarked and unaddressed was the issue of almost 2000 people held in indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru.

The Greens’ Nick McKim describes this as a humanitarian crisis created in Australia’s name: “We cannot address the humanitarian crises of the world by creating new ones, but that is exactly what Mr Turnbull is doing.” Shorten wonders if the other announcement from Turnbull, to take an unspecified number of Central American refugees from holding camps in Costa Rica, is laying the groundwork for a people swap with the United States. It would be better than the enduring hiatus that continues a policy of cruelty on Manus and Nauru as a deterrent to asylum seekers. But the government was quick to rule it out.

The contrast between Canada and Australia couldn’t be starker. Canada is led by the charismatic Justin Trudeau. He has the enormous benefit of having a governing party that actually celebrates him and is behind him. Canada has taken 30,000 Syrian refugees since November. Australia has yet to come close to the 12,000 Tony Abbott signed up to last September. And while doing this, Trudeau’s popularity has soared. His explanation: “Canadians understand that immigration, that people fleeing for their lives … is what created Canada.” He says refugees are a source of strength for the country. There can be little doubt that if Canadians do understand this, it is in large measure because their leader reinforces the message and they trust him. He is certainly making positive use of his prolonged honeymoon.

Turnbull’s honeymoon was short-lived, stymied by the imperative of keeping onside the National Party hardliners that make up the Coalition, as well as the conservatives in his own party. The price he paid was considerable, as the last election showed. But there has been no let-up for him. A case in point is the outspoken chief whip of the Nationals, George Christensen. He’s being paid more than $13,000 extra a year to keep backbenchers in line but has free licence to crack the whip at the government. He echoed Pauline Hanson’s Muslim immigration ban, refining it to a ban on migrants from countries where Muslim extremism has a hold. He calls that a “more nuanced approach”.

It seems like appeasement of Hanson, although in his case it’s less appeasement and more furious agreement, not only on this but most things. Christensen was able to persuade Hanson of this before the election. He asked her not to run a candidate against him in his seat of Dawson. She didn’t, and the swing against him was kept to 4 per cent. Some in Labor believe his motives are less pure. They believe it is all about currying favour with One Nation to attract its preferences next time – a strategy that the LNP in Queensland would not be all that averse to, especially as Hanson says she will run candidates in all seats at the next state election.

Christensen says he’s never seen One Nation as the bogyman that others paint it to be. He will continue to push his anti-Muslim immigration views. He told The Conversation: “If we are to stop bleeding to the right, we need to tackle an issue like that.” Again, it looks more like an embrace than a tackle. The Essential Poll this week found this stance was very fertile political ground. Forty-nine per cent of Australians support the call for a Muslim immigration ban. That represented 60 per cent of Coalition voters, 40 per cent of Labor voters and 34 per cent of Greens voters. The reasons given were their failure to integrate and the threat of terrorism.

If ever leadership was needed it is now, before these corrosive views are allowed to destroy the multicultural cohesive society Australia has become. Turnbull calls it the most successful one in the world. He claimed in New York that this success is built on strong borders and the government being seen to be in charge of who comes and the circumstances under which they come. Sounds like John Howard in 2001. No attempt to redefine or enlighten. No Trudeau-like vision. Shorten made an attempt on Wednesday: “There are millions of Muslims right across the world who live in Western societies, who contribute to our quality and standard of living, and you give in to the crazies and the fundamentalists if all you do is accept their arguments and repeat them ourselves.”

At the UN, Turnbull committed Australia to an additional $130 million over the next three years to support “peace-building and assistance to refugees, forcibly displaced communities and host countries”. For context: that’s $40 million less than the cost of the same-sex marriage plebiscite. Labor has begun hardening its attacks on the plebiscite and making a series of priority comparisons. An example: the plebiscite instead of a $50 million grant to save the Arrium steelworks. These priorities, Labor says, were foisted on a hapless Turnbull as he tried to keep “his puppetmasters in the hard right of the Liberal Party happy”.

Here, public opinion seems to be buying Shorten’s argument. The Essential Poll found 53 per cent of people believe the issue should be settled by a vote of the parliament if the senate blocks the non-binding opinion poll. That almost certainly won’t happen, at least not in the short term. Although Cory Bernardi and his urgers, such as columnist Andrew Bolt, are suspicious Turnbull might try it on before this term is out.

He might, but before then he has to tackle other really big issues, such as budget repair. Capitulating to the populist, xenophobic right won’t be much help there either.

Senator, You’re No Socrates

September 14, 2016 7.15pm AEST

In ‘The Clouds,’ Aristophanes depicts Socrates as a sophist, suspended in a basket to enable him to study the skies.Joannes Sambucus, 1564

So, we all knew Malcolm Roberts, former project leader of the climate denialist Galileo Movement turned One Nation politician, would make an ‘interesting’ first speech to the Senate. If you’ve been following Senator Roberts’ career, most of what he said was more or less predictable. The UN (“unelected swill” – take a bow, PJK), the IMF and the EU are monstrous socialist behemoths with a “frightening agenda,” climate change is a “scam,” the “tight-knit international banking sector” (a dangerous phrase given Roberts’ history of discussing international “banking families”) are “One of the greatest threats to our liberty and life as we know it.”

It may be startling to hear this in one concentrated burst, from a senator, last thing on a Tuesday afternoon, but if you’re familiar with the more conspiratorial corners of the internet this was all fairly pedestrian stuff.

What was more surprising, at least in passing, was Roberts comparing himself to Socrates:

Like Socrates, I love asking questions to get to the truth.

A Socratic questioner in the Senate! The gadfly of Athens, who cheerfully punctured the delusions of the comfortable and reduced them to frozen bewilderment with just a few cheerfully framed questions like some Attic Columbo, has apparently taken up residence in the red chamber. This should be a golden age for rational inquiry, right?


Epistemic revolt

The choice of Socrates, like that of Galileo, is no accident. Both fit neatly into a heroic “one brave man against the Establishment” narrative of scientific progress that climate denialists like to identify with. Both eventually changed the trajectory of human knowledge. But along the way, both suffered persecution. Galileo was made to recant his “heretical” heliocentrism under threat of torture and spent his last years under house arrest. Socrates, charged with impiety and corrupting the youth and denounced in court by one Meletus, was put to death. Of course that’s not nearly as rough as the brutal suppression of Malcolm Roberts, who has been cruelly oppressed with a three year Senate seat and a guest slot on Q&A. But you get the idea.

Most importantly, both Socrates and Galileo function here as emblems of a kind of epistemic individualism. They’re ciphers for a view of knowledge generation as a contest between self-sufficient individual thinkers and a faceless, mediocre ‘they,’ instead of a collective and social process governed by internal disciplinary norms and standards.

Roberts doesn’t simply like asking questions – anyone can do that. No, he wants to be like Socrates: someone who refuses to accept the answers he’s given, and dismantles them with clinical, exhaustive precision. Malcolm Roberts wants to work it all out for himself, scientific community be damned. If Socrates could, why can’t he? Why can’t each of us?

Distributed knowledge

But Socrates, living at the dawn of scholarly inquiry, had the luxury of being a polymath. “Philosopher” simply means “lover of wisdom,” and early philosophers were forced to be rather promiscuous with that love. Physicist, logician, meteorologist, astronomer, chemist, ethicist, political scientist, drama critic: the Greek philosopher was all of these and more by default. The intellectual division of labour had not yet taken place, because all fields of inquiry were in their infancy.

Also well known for their skill at Invisible Basketball. Raphael 

Fast forward two and a half thousand years and the situation is radically different. The sciences have long since specialised past the point where non-specialists can credibly critique scientific claims. There is now simply too much knowledge, at too great a pitch of complexity, for anyone to encompass and evaluate it all. The price we pay for our expanding depth of knowledge is that what we know is increasingly distrubuted between the increasingly specialised nodes of increasingly complex informational networks.

That fact, in turn, emphasises our mutual epistemic dependence. I rely daily on the expert competence and good will of thousands of people I never see and will never meet, from doctors to builders to engineers and lawyers – and climate scientists, who wrangle with the unimaginably complex fluid dynamics of our planet.

So what do you if you find yourself up against a network of specialist knowledge that disagrees with your core beliefs? Do you simply accept that you’re not in a position to assess their claims and rely, as we all must, on others? Do you, acknowledging your limitations, defer to the experts?

If you’re Socrates today, then yes, you probably do. The true genius of Socrates as Plato presents him that he understands his limitations better than anyone around him:

And is not this the most reprehensible form of ignorance, that of thinking one knows what one does not know? Perhaps, gentlemen, in this matter also I differ from other men in this way, and if I were to say that I am wiser in anything, it would be in this, that not knowing very much about the other world, I do not think I know. (Apology 29b)

Dismissing expertise

But deferring to those who know better is not the sort of Socrates Malcolm Roberts wants to be. If you want to be a Roberts-style Socrates, instead of conceding your ignorance, you cling to some foundational bit of putative knowledge that allows you to dismiss anything else that’s said, like so:

It is basic. The sun warms the earth’s surface. The surface, by contact, warms the moving, circulating atmosphere. That means the atmosphere cools the surface. How then can the atmosphere warm it? It cannot. That is why their computer models are wrong.

This is a familiar move to anyone who’s ever watched a 9/11 truther at work. While “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams!” has become a punchline, in some ways it’s the perfect battle-cry for epistemic rebellion. It asserts that if you just cling to some basic fact or model, you can use it to reject more complicated scenarios or models that seem to contradict that fact.

Jim Benton/

That move levels the playing field and hands power back to the disputant. Your advanced study of engineering or climatology, be it ever so impressive, can’t override my high school physics or chemistry. My understanding of how physical reality works is simple, graspable, and therefore true; yours is complex, counterintuitive, esoteric, and thus utterly suspect. I’m Plato’s Socrates: earthy, self-sufficient and impervious to sophistry; you, by contrast, are Aristophanes’ Socrates, vain and unworldly, suspended in your balloon far above the healthy common sense of the demos, investing the clouds with your obsessions.

Auxiliary Accusations

This leaves our would-be Socrates with the awkward fact that all those experts still disagree with him. How do you respond in the face of such disconfirmatory data? You could abandon your hypothesis, or you could deploy what Imre Lakatos called an ‘auxiliary hypothesis’ to defend it.

In Roberts’ case, as with many conspiracy theorists, this auxiliary hypothesis takes the form of a scattergun accusation. Climate science isn’t just mistaken, or even just inept, but “fraudulent.” Roberts is quite prepared to accuse thousands of people whose lives he knows nothing about of conscious and systemic corruption rather than admit he might be wrong.

From within Roberts’ rather Manichean worldview, that might seem to make a certain kind of sense: the forces of freedom are fighting an apocalyptic battle against the forces of repression. The enemy is positively evil, with its cooked climate data and insidious agendas and overtaxed bread. There is no need to spare the feelings of a foe so wicked. Those greedy bastards knew exactly what they were doing when they signed up for Socialist Climate Data Manipulation Studies in O-Week.

For anyone who claims to care about the quest for knowledge like Socrates did, the moral recklessness of such an accusation, from someone in such a position of power, should be cause for alarm. And when you’re trying to destroy the reputation of researchers because their message doesn’t suit your free-market pieties, you might just be more Meletus than Socrates.