Alan Kohler: Seduced by optimism, scuttled by reality – sadly, it’s the way of the world

Events overseas and at home in Australia show, sadly, that it's no time for rose-tinted glasses.

Events overseas and at home in Australia show, sadly, that it's no time for rose-tinted glasses. Photo: TND

Eighteen months ago, I wrote a column for The New Daily with the heading: “Optimists have failed us; pessimists, please report for duty”.

You can read it here but the beginning, and the gist of it, was: “The main problem we have as a society is that all of our leaders – politicians and executives – are optimists one and all, not a pessimist among them. … while optimists make good leaders in good times, they don’t prepare for the worst because they don’t think the worst will happen.”

In any policy, especially those concerning peoples’ lives, like Israel’s towards Palestine and the Australian government’s attempt to embed an Indigenous advisory body in the constitution, you need to prepare for the worst outcome, not assume the best.

Israel’s leadership has been hopelessly optimistic about Hamas: Two weeks before last weekend’s horrific attacks, the Israeli government announced that 20,000 Gazans would receive permits to work in Israel because Hamas had stopped firing rockets into Israel and seemed to be on a path towards reconciliation.

So the music festival near the Gaza border last Saturday had almost no security and 260 young people were slaughtered. The 23 observation points around Gaza’s perimeter were each manned by a single female soldier. All of them were killed immediately.

Underlying the intelligence failure that resulted in the Israeli military being caught napping was a misplaced optimism that decades of steadily tightening occupation, settlements and blockades would not end badly.

It’s true that optimism is inherent in the Israel project itself, and was first exposed on October 6, 1973: 441 soldiers were standing guard at the Suez Canal when the Egyptian army arrived; it was the beginning of the Yom Kippur War.

Israel’s misguided appraisal

Pessimists in Israel are constantly on a war footing because the occupation of the West Bank and the brutal siege of Gaza are obvious causes of resentment and insecurity, but the Israeli government chose hope and complacency.

In the Financial Times over the weekend, historian Simon Schama wrote about “the Netanyahu government’s obstinate refusal to listen to Israel’s security chiefs, who warned him that the safety of the country was being imperilled by policies that were dangerously divisive.”

Meanwhile, the misplaced optimism of the Albanese government was being exposed on Saturday with the decisive vote against the Voice.

As a political venture, as opposed to good policy, the Voice referendum was wonderfully but hopelessly optimistic. The opposition was always going to oppose it, and do so deceitfully, and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Warren Mundine and Lidia Thorpe were always going to embody the idea that not all Indigenous people were in favour of it. It never stood a chance.

A careful pessimist might have had a constitutional convention, or at least tried to negotiate a compromise with the opposition, or perhaps even legislated the Voice first so Australians could get used to it before installing it in the constitution via a referendum. The Prime Minister chose hope and complacency.

Will the referendum’s defeat make things worse for Aborigines? It is an emotional and moral setback, that’s for sure, but it probably won’t change anything much materially. It might even lead to some serious focus on practical solutions to address their disadvantage. We can only hope (optimistically).

Will it alter the political balance and improve Peter Dutton’s standing? I seriously doubt it. This is a classic pyrrhic victory: Yes, you beat Anthony Albanese by saying No, but now what?

And as I pointed out last year, it is humanity’s misfortune that the global action against climate change is being led by optimists, and self-interested cynics.

Mere words can’t end climate crisis

For example, Australia’s leaders want to persuade us that if we can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 and increase renewable electricity to 82 per cent everything will be OK.

But it won’t, nowhere near it. For starters, those targets won’t be achieved. But even if they were, they’re not enough. Also the emission reduction will be largely achieved with questionable carbon offsets.

And, anyway, emissions elsewhere in the world are still rising, largely because India and China continue to build coal-fired power stations – more than the number Australia and other nations are closing – and, of course, they are getting their coal from us.

We desperately need pessimists in charge of climate policy. A pessimist would assume, correctly, that that the global average temperature will go well above the 1.5 degrees Paris target – fairly soon in fact – so that as well as trying to cut emissions they would be preparing Australia for the worst.

In 1959 philosopher Bertrand Russell was asked what message he would like to pass on to future generations.

He answered: “When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or what you think will have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look solely at what are the facts.”

Alan Kohler writes twice a week for The New Daily. He is the finance presenter on ABC News and founder of Eureka Report

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