The physics of politics today

Politicians can be as hard to pin down as photons as they practise their own peculiar forms of science.

"It's not difficult to understand, really," said Leon. "Just think of modern Australian politics in terms of quantum physics." He smiled quietly to himself, before settling back comfortably in his chair. I nodded quickly, but it must have been only too obvious that I had no idea what he was talking about. He began to explain.

"Imagine an electron bumping into a photon," he began, before stopping abruptly. He must have seen the blank look creeping over my face. "Look. A photon is like a tiny part light of a beam of light. In some ways it behaves like energy; in other respects its like a particle. This means its location is impossible to measure precisely." Another nod seemed the only possible response. Then came illumination. "In essence, the particle appears to exist in two places at the one time."

The light bulb suddenly switched on. Exactly!

As the Danish physicist Niels Bohr suggested, anyone who is not profoundly shocked by quantum theory has not understood it. Our politicians have not simply understood, but are exploiting this theory. They offer some voters one thing while promising something different to someone else. Attempts to pin them down are doomed to utter failure.

What could better explain Tony Abbotts response to the Governments climate change policy? As the opposition leader famously said to Kerry OBrien on The 7.30 Report, his spoken words should be disregarded. "The statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth are (the) carefully prepared, scripted remarks" (in policy documents).

As a former seminarian Abbott was well aware, however, that even the Bible has rival interpretations of its mysteries. Perhaps this was why he deliberately chose to refer to the gospels; he knew hed be safe. The divine mysteries have never been revealed.

Sometimes apparently incompatible beliefs co-exist under the same roof, rather like the Liberal leader himself and his predecessor Malcolm Turnbull. At other times his comments seem to come from parallel universes, such as his remark that "climate change is crap". Propelled relentlessly by seemingly inexhaustible energy, Abbott is the photon that cannot be pinned down. The very act of attempting to do so seemingly changes the oppositions policy until it is, quite plausibly, in two different places at once.

But if particle theory illuminates the opposition it also raises questions about the Government. Exactly what policy prescriptions is it following? Labor is finally moving to take action to reduce the threat of climate change. No one would argue seriously that Australia is not a fragile continent that has always been particularly exposed to the vagaries of the weather. Weve always wanted to turn the rivers inland and climate-proof the farms - insulate the country from a succession of bad seasons.

Yet instead of action the Government appears happy to allow us to be lulled into a false sense of security. The quantum of our emissions, compared to other, bigger nations, is tiny. Although we can (and morally, must) do our best to reduce these, this means we do not hold the ability by ourselves to turn back climate change. At this point, youd expect a forward-looking government to be investigating other ways of protecting (most crucially) our food production.

Central to this is, obviously, the Murray Darling river system. Last year scientists warned that unless between 3000 and 4000 billion litres of water a year was returned to the system, it would be in danger of complete collapse. Thats when the government appointed Craig Knowles, a former NSW Labor politician and consultant, to take another look at the work of the eminent scientists whod reported on the emerging crisis. Perhaps theres something quite special about the way they teach science at Liverpool Boys High School, or Knowless other alma mater, Sydney TAFE College. He quickly ascertained exactly where everybody else went wrong.

It seems (according to Knowles) that the scientists were actually measuring in the wrong place all along! This is marvellous, because it means we don't actually need to cut water allocations to anyone. Instead of turning water into wine, Knowles has managed to perform another, better miracle. He's turned dry inland salinity into water.

Yet instead of laughter, Knowles' study will be greeted with relief by this Government. It means they wont have to worry about taking hard decisions. The waters atoms will be made to work more productively, existing in two places at the one time. It's a great game; one it seems every politician is playing. Sadly it's always much easier to generate heat, rather than light. No ones much worried about the science: politics is everything. Sometimes it's particularly easy to believe were back in the Middle Ages, despite being surrounded by the products of the modern world.

As the horrific conflagration of World War II began, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz reflected on the Campo di Fiori - field of flowers - in Rome. This square had been packed with vendors, rose-pink fish, wine-dark grapes and laughing girls when he'd visited, not long before.

Back in the year 1600 this was the site of regular public executions. Here the Italian mathematician Giordano Bruno was burnt alive; his apostasy had been to proclaim that the sun was not at the centre of the universe an illegal heresy, demanding the ultimate punishment. The mob were quickly roused to enjoy the spectacle.

Three centuries later, Milosz witnessed the great illusion suggested by the march of progress. The mobs were again being mobilised, just as they had always been had been. The hot wind of another war; pogroms against the Jews, and fear had caught them in its grip.

Yet its unfair to suggest that analysis has been completely banished from politics. Both sides of politics are guided by a particular bit of scientific wisdom. Its one thats measurable, accurate and unimpeachable. Its called polling and today its the one true faith.

  • Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.