Political power is not what it’s cracked up to be

Political power is not what it’s cracked up to be

Photo by John Adams on Unsplash

Our prime ministers and premiers wield far less power than most people believe… Instead, power is distributed across multiple actors – business leaders, media, unions, peak bodies and political factions in addition to the individual political leaders. Most leaders today operate a never-ending mental calculus of how they accommodate the competing demands of these groups in a way that will extend their period of office. Simple as that.

David Hetherington, Senior Fellow at Per Capita

Succinctly put Mr Hetherington. Our political captains are not the only hands on the tiller. Indeed they are arguably not able to move the tiller at all.

At least that is what we thought until they told us to go home and shut the door, which almost all of us did without blinking.

So, yes they are powerless in the face of competing demands when their primary objective is to stay in office. And they really like it in office, it feeds their egos that have voracious appetites. But no, they are not without power. They told us to jump and we said, “how high?”.

This was a fascinating response.

Clearly we were spooked by a nasty virus that at best would make us sick or could signal the end, if not for us, then grandpa. It made sense to stay home and bake.

Only something similar happened in the early 1930’s in Germany.

People were spooked by a massive and disastrous global recession that for the Germans meant that foreign investors, who had come in to help rebuild an economy battered by WWI and the reparations that followed, left in a hurry, taking their money with them, the Americans who are always sniffing an opportunity in particular.

Along came a political opportunist and mesmerising public speaker who exhorted the German people to jump and they did. History tells us what happened next.

Before this connection turns you off as completely nonsensical. Pause for a moment.

The people who jumped back in the 1930s were highly educated, well to do citizens, familiar with success and a high standard of living that they enjoyed in the boom period of the 1920s.

Sound familiar?

They believed they were living in a democracy and that their leaders had their best interests and the country at heart. They also knew that somebody needed to take tough decisions to deal with what was spooking them; the prospect of economic ruin.

Familiar too?

The point is that modern politics may well be at the mercy of multiple actors, especially those with money, but it is not entirely toothless. Leaders can turn on a dime and make remarkable things happen. Not all of them nice or in our best long term interests.

Even if our politicians were genius-level decision-makers, the global disturbance from this pandemic will deliver recessions and depressions with horrible suffering for those already struggling. They will be joined by way too many folks who have not known unemployment, perhaps experiencing it for the first time in their adult lives.

I was one of the one-in-ten for a brief while back in the UK in the early 1980’s — a number on a list, as UB40 famously crooned.

My buddy and I applied for over 100 jobs each in a little competition to see who could land one first. We both failed and ended up in further education seeking higher degrees to help us along, he in atmospheric physics, me in ecology. So smart enough but not employable enough. It seems a long time ago now but it was a real struggle at the time. One in ten was felt by everyone.

When unemployment reaches 14% we are at one in 7.

When it reaches 20% we are at one in 5

These are the numbers of serious discontent.

If at least one dude in the round at the pub is unemployed, there is unrest among all the pub-goers. At any moment any one of them will join the queue for the dole check.

This, of course, is what is driving the political decisions to lift restrictions. Unrest is never pleasant. But to lift them only to go back to the ‘simple as that’ would be a massive opportunity missed.

Alright, enough doom and gloom.

Here is a slightly brighter note.

A new normal

This would be very nice.

How about the renewal of safety nets some redistribution of wealth to pay for it and much greater attention to issues that affect all of us.

Only we can’t expect that to come from the politicians who are telling us every day about stage 2 or stage 3 restrictions and when they might be lifted to get everyone back to normal. The one that we just left behind, potentially forever.

The politicians need normal to be what it was otherwise their juggle among the vested interests will be too hard and the balls will fall.

Unless they have got it all wrong.

There is an idea going around that Modern Monetary Theory might offer an alternative, a radical economic theory that budget deficits are are good, not bad and that government debt is necessary as the source of healthy economic growth. The idea is that investments that enhance productivity such as better health, greater knowledge and skills, improved transport are worth funding, even if it results in a budget deficit.

The theory is that spending is necessary to put money into the economy before governments can tax or borrow. Government spending actually precedes taxation. Then taxation is used to keep everyone in employment.

In Covid times this sounds like a plan.

And it presents a way to avoid a rapid return to political influence from business and the peak bodies that they pay to cheer for them with unstinting help from their media lackeys.

Wouldn’t that be nice?


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Social cohesion in a time of isolation

Social cohesion in a time of isolation

A few years ago now a serious bushfire passed just to the north of our house. It destroyed over a hundred homes and our back fence. We are still hyper-vigilant in spring when the hot westerlies push hard across eastern Australia and yet what I remember most from that tense experience is the sense of community that appeared spontaneously during the crisis.

Neighbours helping neighbours and everyone helping the firemen and rural fire service volunteers tackling the blaze. People variously wielded rakes, took turns on the garden hoses, made tea or simply offered nervous encouragement. It felt like a group effort.

David Shearman talks of something similar that happened in Britain during WW2 where people came together through far more severe and prolonged trauma.

“Britain was a united and cohesive community. Young and old worked daily in small ways for the common cause. But most importantly, in the free world, two countries — Britain and the US — had leaders in Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt who could explain the need for duty and sacrifice.”

David Shearman

Our bushfire experience of cooperation was certainly coordinated. The RFS Commissioner was constantly in the media providing information and advice. On the ground, the fire crews listened to their seniors and whoever was on the other end of the radio. Civilians readily followed their lead.

Firebreaks were raked, back burns set and helicopters dumped water judiciously to slow the fire enough for the hoses to protect houses. It was planned and calmly executed with everyone chipping in with what they could.

Most of the people in the street had seen bushfire before. It comes with the flammable treed territory we chose to live in. Recognition of the threat was ingrained through experience, so there was little need for Churchillian scale motivation.

This is probably true whenever something frightening becomes real and dangerous. Humans clearly have the cooperation gene even if it may only express itself in extremis. Even so, some leadership is required. There has to be some sense of need or a clear explanation of it.

Danger felt by everyone is the core ingredient for cohesion. Honest cooperation is contagious enough when a threat is real. Fear can bring people together.

Not all the neighbours were in on the group effort. At least one family were too frightened to leave their home. We actually thought they were out or had left, until at the height of the crisis with a fireman hosing down their wooden deck as some protection from embers, there was movement inside the house. Perhaps they needed the ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech.

Despite this, I easily recollect the cohesion that created much more than the sum of the parts. What I also recall is how fast it dissipated.

It took a day for the fire to burn most of the fuel in the bush around our homes. That night there was still eery red glows from scattered tree stumps. A day later and it was just char and ash. The threat had passed.

Heroic rural firefighter doing a great job in our backyard

Then we began to realise that this wildfire was a devastating event for the community. Everyone knew someone who had lost their home. A collection point for food and clothing was soon overflowing with gifts and volunteers. The fire was the topic of conversation wherever people met purging themselves of their fearful experiences. It was a human emergency for several months and then it wasn’t.

A great purveyor of entropy cut a swath through us and people responded to defy it. They rallied and returned things to our sense of normal with great speed.

Then we all forgot about it.

At least that is what it feels like. Every now and then memory is triggered or a newcomer is told the stories of the fateful day but mostly it is history. Some regulations have changed, fire preparedness is reinforced and we all look up at the sound of a helicopter. But the cohesion has gone.

I imagine that it will come back when the next fire comes along. It will because bushland in this part of Australia burns regularly, every decade or so on average in these parts. So in a short while cohesion will be called and I have no doubt that the residents will respond as spontaneously as they did in 2013.


Sure enough 2019-20 bushfire season was horrific.

Our little community escaped the worst but we had two monster fires, one to the north that burned within a few kilometres of our suburb and one to the south that threatened to do the same for the best part of a month.

People were cohesive. They helped each other out and were endlessly grateful to the fire services and the volunteers that provided assistance to the hundreds of people who lost homes, livestock, infrastructure and in a some tragic cases their lives.

No political leaders emerged during this crisis. The prime minister went on holiday to Hawaii and had to rush back with his tail between his legs. The state leadership did their best but really did not know what to do.

Shane Fitzsimmons, Commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, stood up and showed everyone how it should be done. He was truthful, blunt and yet caring all at the same time. His leadership got the collective through.

Locally, it was the mayors that stood up. Ours, Mark Greenhill, Mayor of Blue Mountains City Council, took to FB to give daily updates of the operations in our district. He was tirelessly present with the firefighters and the support staff and went above and beyond to provide the cohesion people needed.

People really do rally around individuals or each other when the heat is on but then readily dissipate into their own worlds when the crisis passes.

The drought crisis that turned into a bushfire crisis that has turned into a pandemic crisis means we have been overdone with cohesion of late.

The question is will vacuum return. Will leadership that is only present in extremis fade away when the calm returns as it surely will.

This is a rare opportunity for it to stick around.


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We have let

We have let

The Guardian online is running a series of 2020 Visions from prominent Australians about the future of a country that is in a mess.

We are flapping our arms around as if after years of surfing we suddenly forgot how to swim.

Our politics is morally bankrupt and devoid of ideas, the people are hiding behind a mountain of household debt so high you need oxygen at base camp, and the outback has had enough sending drought, dust, obscene heat, fire, smoke and finally flood just about everywhere.

Bugger, if it wasn’t for air conditioning, filters and heroic emergency services personnel the place would be unlivable.

It’s been one hell of summer down under.

Any kind of vision for the future is welcome in such dire times.

Here is a quote from the 2020 Vision Series looking for serious answers

Instead, we have let untruths, half-truths, misrepresentations, hypocrisy and hyperbole become the currency of our age. Secrecy is now standard operating procedure in politics. The public interest and the right to know is too often subordinate to some alleged higher interest, grandly and sometimes scarily defined as “security” or “on water” or “in the bubble”, so of little relevance to anybody declared to be outside it: the rest of the country

Professor Ian Chubb, neuroscientist and former chief scientist of Australia

Only three words really matter in this otherwise truthful statement from a senior scientist who spent time with political numpties…

we have let

Yep, we sure have. The people have allowed the irresponsible to break the tiller of the sailboat and failed to repair it. We have let the boat come adrift at the mercy of an angry sea.

It’s our fault.

Don’t blame the politicians or the lefties or the neo-Nazis or the abbos or the DINKys or the Landcruiser MILFs or even the neighbour’s french bulldog that barks like a cat.

Blame yourself.

Yes, you. And me. And every other card-carrying citizen who has stood by and let all this happen.

You know I am right.

Just look at the outpouring of praise for the Rural Fire Service volunteers who have performed miracles to save lives and properties on over 18 million hectares of the country that burnt.

It was effusive and genuine gratitude because we all knew they saved our arses, literally.

We let his risk of catastrophe escalate and then when the crisis came it was local volunteers who bailed us out. They deserve a medal and some serious pay. So much by so many to so few, a famous dude once said.

We have let.

Here is a summary of the 2020 bushfire season

As of 14 January 2020, fires this season have burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres; 186,000 square kilometres; 72,000 square miles), destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killed at least 34 people. An estimated one billion animals have been killed and some endangered species may be driven to extinction. Air quality has dropped to hazardous levels. The cost of dealing with the bushfires is expected to exceed the A$4.4 billion of the 2009 Black Saturday fires, and tourism sector revenues have fallen more than A$1 billion. By 7 January 2020, the smoke had moved approximately 11,000 kilometres (6,800 mi) across the South Pacific Ocean to Chile and Argentina. As of 2 January 2020, NASA estimated that 306 million tonnes (337 million short tons) of CO2 was emitted.

Just for comparison, the Australian government estimates that Australia’s net emissions in 2017 were 556.4 million tonnes CO2-equivalent.

Ian Chubb thinks the solution is our re-engagement with democracy when ‘we have let’ becomes ‘no we don’t let’, we demand better.

The sixteen-year-olds are on the case, thank goodness — go Greta.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the 30 odd years it will take before they get strong enough to kick our sorry arses out. So, it is up to us to help them.

Here is what Ian Chubb suggests we do

When we wake up, we will demand leadership: one that is bold, courageous and open, with an unswerving commitment to our right to know. We will need leaders with the ability to build an appropriate vision for our country, along with the competence and capacity to persuade us why we need to do what they propose we do – all the while exposing their evidence base to us so we can see why one option was chosen over another.

Professor Ian Chubb, neuroscientist and former chief scientist of Australia

In short, we must demand logic and accountability.

Actions that make common sense.

No more bubbles and bullshit and pork barrels, just honesty and common sense.

‘We have let’, believe it.

Leadership for the environment

Leadership for the environment

Be curious and humble

Be courageous and confident

Kat Cole, the 30 something president of a $1 billion brand believes that great leadership requires just these four key qualities.

Makes good sense.

Curiosity is essential for anyone leading the way along new paths into unknown territory. It implies a willingness to learn and anything genuinely new always supplies a steep learning curve.

Humility is self-restraint, self-understanding, awareness, and a good sense of perspective meaning that it is not about me. This is a true leadership quality.

Courage seems obvious. Someone must be the first to step out into the unknown to take on the curve.

Confidence is contagious. It energises those who have it and everyone they meet. It is a powerful attractive force that gathers and holds people together to deliver more than the sum of the parts.

There are few leaders who do not have these qualities. Absence or even a shortage in any one of them and a would-be leader couldn’t move forward and bring others along.

What do these qualities mean when it comes to environmental leadership?

Anyone with a smidgen of interest in the natural world usually has some curiosity. Variety, the unusual, and the strange are present in everything from trees to termites, and not even Sir David has seen it all.

Stand close enough to a wild elephant to hear her stomach rumble and humility will cascade over you to wash away your awe. Put a spoonful of soil under a microscope and the life teeming across your vision should make all your first world problems melt away. Once seen for what it truly is, nature can humble the mightiest ego.

They don’t call them environmental warriors for nothing. There is a fight on that demands courage enough to stand against convention and take on the reality that modern living exploits nature. It is hard for even the simplest sustainable action to be easier or cheaper than business as usual.

So far, so good as we can expect that most environmentalists are curious, humble and courageous.

Confidence is a feeling of self-assurance usually arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities — the expression of self-belief.

Now here I would argue that environmental leaders have a problem. Many are strong, articulate and outgoing individuals for sure. And they are often passionate, sometimes fearless, advocates.

But these traits are not confidence.

Confidence can be very hard for environmentalists because at some level they all participate in the actions that exploit resources. They drive cars, fly in aeroplanes, consume the products of commercial agriculture and feed their dogs. They live a life that they know contributes to most environmental problems.

Only true narcissists can overcome such incongruity to be truly confident. Normal folk cannot overcome the flaw and appear fake or overly aggressive.

Confidence

Blinded by the disbelief of another prime minister sworn in on the back of 54 party room votes I almost missed the real political change last week. After 5 attempts in as many years Australia has an optimist in charge.

Once the claimer of moral heights Kevin Rudd capitulated over climate policy and we realised that he could get things done for Kevin but not for everyone else, Australians have been led by negativity. Julia Gillard tried her best to be positive but the bloodied knife she carried was just too heavy for progress to prevail. Then she was knifed too.

Mr Abbott who squeaked past Mr Turnbull in 2009 by one vote to become party leader is supposed to be a nice guy. He works for charity on his time off and is loyal to a fault but every phrase he uttered in the top job came from a place of fear.

Stop can be a positive word but from Tony Abbot it was never really clear why things had to stop. They just had to. Anything that should be positive —more jobs, more growth, less deficit — came across as a justification. As if proof were always needed that the government was doing well, when they were just scared.

Then yesterday for the first time in many a year a prime minister of Australia stood up at parliamentary question time and said that the country has a great opportunity and that times are exciting for the nation. Mr Turnbull was positive. He almost led a rendition of ‘yes we can’ and it felt like he wanted to.

This is momentous.

If he can keep it going, and admittedly that is a big if, we could see some confidence return. We might actually join the many other countries with far worse economic outlooks and social challenges than Australia who are finding solutions because of a belief in the best of their people.

As a social centrist myself I would rather this breath of fresh air to have come from the left side of politics. Mr Turnbull may look trendy but he is still a brown. But the labour party are mired in their own brand of negativity that cannot hide the fact that they spend too much time playing with knives.

So instead I will take Mr Turnbull at his word for confidence has great power to do good. And we really need that.

Numbers that tell a story

  • $70 billion agricultural investment as bank loans to farmers
  • $40 billion on warships to be built in Adelaide
  • $2 million average farm debt in Australia
  • $1 a kilo for onions

Numbers in words…

While Australians have the 15th highest per capita GDP in the world [on IMF estimates] and the 5th highest average income among OECD countries, consumers pay next to nothing for their food [around 10% of disposable income].

Ageing farmers work an average 49 hours per week and are in debt up to their eyeballs.

The bankers insure this lending against the land value and know that global demand will keep the price of prime agricultural land high enough for their shirts to be safe.

Rather than provide food security to the region the Australian government invests in warships that the Chinese navy would overrun in the time it takes to order special fried rice.

Monkeys like peanuts

Full disclosure throws up some very interesting comparisons.

For example we know that in Australia the prime minister is awarded an annual salary of $507,338

Not a bad earn. There will be allowances and the like and not too many groceries to buy thanks to endless corporate dinners and executive lunches. Certainly beats the socks off the salary of the average Australian that is $72,800 currently the 5th highest in the world.

Immediate reaction #1 — You have to be kidding, that’s far too much to pay a politician

 

Now we take a gander at the salaries of company CEOs. This is possible thanks to the requirement of boards to state executive remuneration in the company annual report. And there are websites that collate these numbers into accessible lists.

Turns out that the average [as in mean] salary of a top 50 business CEOs is $7,485,000 per annum. Just 15 times more than the PM.

In 2014 the pauper on the CEOs list, languishing down in 300th place on the earnings ladder, made $869,000

Immediate reaction #2 — You have to be kidding, that’s far too much to pay anyone

 

In what universe are the top ranking CEOs making decisions an order of magnitude more important that those of the prime minister. He was elected to look after our interests?

Turns out if you add up the salaries of PM and his cabinet ministers it comes to roughly $8.7 million — 13 CEOs earned more than this on their own.

It doesn’t make any sense. But if you, reluctantly I hope, accept that this is the world we live in where an individual is considered important enough to earn seven figures to run a company, then you get…

Immediate reaction #3 — You have to be kidding, pay peanuts get monkeys

 

What to do with grumpies

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you are of a certain age you will be familiar with a lessening of capacities. The muscles ache a little more than they should, the hair is grey or gone and the boobs are sagging. And no, this is not sexist — just have a surreptitious gander at a few middle-aged men next time you’re about town.

For grumpies this is the time of life for reflection, a pondering of why time steals faculties. And for some it is a time of crisis.

Needless to say I plumped for crisis. What else would you expect from a wannabe writer and career risk taker? It is inevitable that once the energy of youth is spent there is little left to fuel the courage needed to absorb uncertainty. Almost overnight we want life to be simple, predictable and safe.

The time for dream chasing is replaced with rounds of golf and coffee after yoga class. But even this is not enough because the ego suddenly realises that it might not be needed if all you are going to do is relax and sip lattes. It rails at its impending redundancy and makes you feel like a failure.

Before you know it, sagging pecs are the least of your worries.

At this time in the world’s history the towns and cities of western economies are replete with people of this certain age. A quirk of demography, nutrition and the wonders of modern medicine have made it so. There are lots of folk pondering and trying to come to terms with their depleted courage.

Some of them are still in boardrooms and in parliament where they stumble onto decisions that reflect their mood and what got them there — the status quo. The time for radical risk and innovation is long passed for there is no courage left for such things. Instead the obvious is to conserve what we have by doing more of the same. After all, it worked didn’t it. At least that is what President Obama just told the State of the Union.

When you add up more of the same what you get is growth. More of everything got us here, so yet more of everything will see us through any crisis, personal or otherwise.

Does this mean we are addicted to growth? No, probably not. It means we are mentally lazy and lack courage. And these are two of the inevitable properties of a certain age. And being of that certain age myself, it freaks me out.

The obvious solution is to replace all the grumpies with newer models — energetic, courageous types with an idea or two and a spring in their step. Only this takes time for the system first makes youngsters jump through enough hoops to use up all their sprightliness. And if we fast tracked them they’d lack all the life experience that is an undeniable benefit of being a certain age.

No, the solution is this. Reenergise at least some of the grumpies with a dose of certainty. Give them permission to spend a decade at the end of their careers revisiting the ideas of their youth. Allow them to discuss way out notions and suggest possibilities without fear of persecution at the polls or on Facebook. Let them feel free to give it a go.

Who knows what will happen. It cannot be any worse that the leadership vacuum we are in.

Doors closing please stand clear

passenger trainIn life there are opportunities everywhere. It is possible to start a revolution, a company or a friendship almost anywhere at any time. All you need is enough energy and commitment.

It is a marvel of the human condition that the societies we create mostly facilitate this desire for opportunity that is in all of us. We even pen a plethora of self-help literature on the back of this universal potential. Books on positivity that show us the glass as half full to overflowing only sell because they catalyse our innate desire for opportunity.

Fair enough you say.

Such a hippy-dippy worldview may be upbeat but it is only part of the truth. There is the downside too.

The cheats, naysayers and greed infested abound to ruin many an opportunity with their negativity. The world is nothing if not two-sided. It always has enough ying and yang for everyone, even those with a library full of Tolle tomes.

I agree. Opportunity does exist for us all but so too does misfortune. Both are a heartbeat away.

Here is the thought. I suspect that those who cheer their way through life easily coping with misfortune and insatiably seeking opportunity know one crucial thing…

Doors closing please stand clear

In other words everything is transient. The opportunity will not be there forever any more than the misfortune. The doors will close on both so that new doors can be opened.

The human condition is honed to this flux.

We intuitively know that when an opportunity comes along it will only be there for a short time. Our chance at it is likely to be brief. We either act to grab the chance or we watch it pass by and say ‘better luck next time’.

In day-to-day life the loss of an opportunity is rarely life changing. There will be stories of the record producer who passed up the Beatles or a soccer manager who said no to signing Lionel Messi, but these are rare anecdotes. The frequency of opportunity in everyday life means that misses do not matter that much.

Not so with nations. They move more slowly and are less nimble in both recognising and taking opportunities. Leaders of nations must be much more alert to see opportunity on the horizon and position themselves and their constituents to be ready.

Australia for example has done very nicely out of wool and then minerals, especially iron ore and coal. It took these soft and hard commodity opportunities with both hands and has become wealthy as a result. Only to keep the wealth coming it needs to ready to grab the next opportunity. Current leadership seems to be doing the opposite and holding on tight to the past.

It’s a poor choice.

Sayre’s law now applies to politics

Wallace Stanley Sayre (1905–1972) was a U.S. political scientist and professor at Columbia University who came up with the following law of human nature: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”

Smart fellow to notice the universality that when it doesn’t matter, we get really intense.

The law would clearly apply to ‘does my bum look big in this’ or ‘that really isn’t your colour’ or equally ‘Rooney will never be a number 10’.

Much of this is because we are more attuned to drama than the truth. The soap opera formula is the definitive expression swaying as it does from one drama to the next failing elegantly to resolve any issue. Most reality TV offers up the same basic plan.

Sayre found the proof of his law in observation of academics. He is quoted as saying “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” And having had a previous life in the hallowed halls of academia I have to agree. Create job security and it takes everyone off their toes only to channel energies at each other. It’s weird indeed. When I left the ivory towers it was because I am cursed with a copy of the entrepreneur gene, but the bickering was easy to leave behind and observed from a safe distance.

What concerns me is that Sayre’s law appears to be leaking into big P politics. There is fierce agreement over the big values such as perceived threats to security even if they are a loose excuse to justify war. Much head nodding and stoic repose on the cross-benches whenever the PM speaks of response to atrocity.

Move to question time and suddenly there is mayhem over a medicare co-payment. The shadow health minister turns red and is about to explode forcing the speaker to announce that the end of the world is near. It makes crazy posts like Fun with flags seem normal.

This should be a big worry. Am I wrong to expect parliamentarians to get fired up about the big stuff? No, I want them to debate the crucial decisions even if they end up in agreement — and it can’t get more serious than war and what to do about terrorism.

Yet we are deafened by silence. Instead the debate spills into the streets causing pain to many an innocent. This is very poor leadership.

I am left with the absence of Australian PM at the UN climate summit in New York, only for him to take the proverbial by pitching up in the big apple the very next day to address a somewhat disinterested general assembly.

Agreement mutes debate and so does avoiding the issue. It’s not good at all.