The convoluted politics of climate change

 It started about 18 months ago when Kevin Rudd, with the state premiers, commissioned Ross Garnaut to address climate change.  Yesterday the long-awaited White Paper was launched.  It will form the basis of legislation to be introduced into parliament next year.

The reaction so far has been an interesting sociological event.  It seems as if, at least among those commenting to date, there are two camps with strongly held views.  Just a few commentators seem able to observe the whole picture, all the problems, all the issues, all the forces in play, all the parties affected, and make a balanced assessment.  .

Lenore Taylor, writing in The Australian PM Kevin Rudd steers safe course on carbon reduction scheme and Pragmatism rules in crisis provides examples of balanced writing.  Bernard Keane in Crikey exemplifies the opposite in his piece Rudd's talking out of his mandate.  He writes “This scheme is so badly designed there’s a real question as to whether it is worth establishing.” and concludes “Well done, Mr Rudd -- you’ve invented a scheme that actually punishes low emitters and rewards heavy emitters.”  With his seemingly profound understanding of what to do and how to do it, what a pity it is that he’s not in Government designing the scheme and putting the inept Government right.

Rudd knew he would be strongly criticized from both sides.  He knew the environmentalists would be upset, angry or even incensed.  Their agenda is to save the planet, no matter what the cost.  They argue there can be no more important task.  They have vocal supporters; most talk-back callers were on their side, a couple of online polls showed that 60 per cent to 85 per cent felt the targets were too low, and many bloggers expressed their anger and frustration.  A subset of the environmentalists, the renewable energy advocates, are disappointed their endeavours have not been better supported. The industry representatives too have been vocal although somewhat more muted in their comments, most foreshadowing varying degrees of calamity.  The Minerals Council advocate was particularly aggressive in his condemnation of the effects on his industry.  So we have two strong groups pulling strongly in opposite directions.  The only neutral industry comment I heard came from Heather Ridout.

So how much credence ought we to give to extreme views, where clearly a unique, largely one-sided agenda is being pursued.  To give some examples, how much credence should we give to the extreme environmentalist view that the coal industry should be closed down forthwith irrespective of the effects on the industry, on jobs, on the vast revenue it generates?  How much credence should we give to the view that even with compensation there will be a large loss of jobs and revenue as affected industries move offshore, there to pollute even more heavily?  The views are so extreme as to be seemingly impossible to incorporate into a balanced scheme that preserves the planet without causing major economic dislocation, job loss, and depression.  Yet this is what the Government is expected to do, and when it does not accommodate all views is seen to disappoint, to fail. More...

Year end – how do the parties stand?

Kevin Rudd and his Government have had a good year.  The catalogue of achievements is vast, from the symbolic to the substantial, from the carefully considered moves to the emergency measures taken in response to the GFC.  There’s no need to elaborate; the public can see what the Government is doing and is marking it up in the polls, while opponents continue to mouth the ‘all talk, no action’ mantra, and when acknowledging action is unavoidable, demean it is ‘a blunder’, or inadequate in some grotesque way.

Rudd himself has performed superbly in a variety of situations.  He has excelled on the international scene, and has been prepared to travel whenever the country needed to have its voice heard. He has shown appropriate concern, sympathy and dignity in times of personal or national tragedy and at those poignant moments that will go down in our nation’s history.  He has shown he has the common touch by mixing with all sectors of society – children, elders, indigenous Australians, people in the street or at community cabinet meetings and the 2020 Summit, workers, farmers, miners and the top end of town.  He has performed well with international dignitaries, with live TV audiences, and at media doorstops.  Contrary to media opinion, he speaks clearly and convincingly in parliament, and has successfully countered the endless attacks from the Opposition.  He has seen off two leaders, John Howard and Brendan Nelson, and has the measure of the third, Malcolm Turnbull.

Idle commentators have focussed on the inconsequential.  Rudd uses folksy words like ‘brekkie’ or ‘Brissy’ (the people understand them); or he uses terms like ‘complementarity’ (incomprehensible to some journalists, but not to the boffins to whom he was talking); or he repeats the same terms over and over (some even count how many times he uses words like ‘decisive action’ seemingly unaware of the purpose of repetition); he’s boring in parliament (which means he’s not an entertainer like Costello or Keating); or he’s uninspiring on current affairs TV (which means he’s taking the subject seriously and not intending to be wedged by acerbic interviewers); or he travels too much (which is just what he should be doing in the rapidly changing planet we inhabit).  None of these critiques need to be taken seriously.  They are simply a reflection of the inadequacy and superficiality of many of our journalists. More...

Opposition ship docks for repairs

Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is steaming slowly into port for a period in dry dock after skirmishes in open waters not far from the coast.  Hopes were high that routine maintenance would be all that was needed, but several recent encounters with the good ship Her Majesty’s Government have left the crew wondering why things have gone so badly just when it was looking forward to brief respite from the bruising encounters of the last twelve months.  After a change of captain ten weeks ago, hopes were high that salvos from HM Opposition would blow a few holes in the hull of HM Government, and slow its steady progress.  But the reverse seems to be the case.

2008 hasn’t been a good period of deployment for HM Opposition.  It started badly when the captain that was appointed turned out to be not the one that was anticipated.   Despite his good intent and earnest endeavour, he made tactical mistakes, often failed to hit the target, was never highly regarded by the on-shore crowd and naval commentators, eventually lost the support of his crew and was replaced by a much-vaunted captain who, having been rejected initially, now embraced with eagerness his destiny as the leader who would bring resounding success, Captain Malcolm Turnbull.  The on-shore crowd applauded and the naval critics exuded enthusiastic approval.

After initially making a tiny and temporary dent in HM Government commander Captain Kevin Rudd’s best-captain approval rating, Captain Turnbull has steadily gone downhill.  Today’s maritime poll, Newspoll, shows that Captain Rudd now holds the same massive 47 point lead over Captain Turnbull as he held over Captain Nelson just ten weeks ago.

The failure of HM Opposition to damage HM Government, even at close quarters, started the naval commentators wondering why.  Some felt the strategies employed were too limited, even outdated, even more queried the tactics, and still more the frequent sudden and unexpected changes of tactic, which sometimes amounted to going into reverse or doing a complete about-turn.  Concerns about Captain Turnbull’s judgement began to surface.  It wasn’t as if he didn’t sound convincing, standing as he did in full regalia making high-sounding pronouncements.  But his crew continued to show confidence in him until this last week, when the port was in sight and a long-awaited rest just ahead.  Then, with the final exchanges taking place, confusion among the crew lead them to run around the ship in different directions, despatch salvos towards the wrong target, and in the process inflict damage on the ship and several of the crew.  There was open mutiny by some despite Captain Turnbull repeatedly shouting orders, albeit somewhat confusing.  This was made worse by Sub-Lieutenant Minchin, who finding himself caught short at the head and in need of a caffeine fix from the mess, was absent just when Captain Turnbull’s orders should have been passed on.  He argued that he didn’t have to obey orders when the matter was ‘Mickey Mouse’.  So a couple of his sailors ran one way, four another way, while he stood still, stunned. More...

The curse of adversarial politics

On the final morning of Federal Parliament for 2008, Kevin Rudd thanked his party members, his staff, and Leader of Government business, Anthony Albanese (Albo), and said nice things about Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey, Leader of Opposition business.  Malcolm Turnbull reciprocated with similarly pleasant remarks and called for less hostility and more agreeable behaviour in Parliament.  Bravo.  Hearing their remarks on a news bulletin was music to my ears.  After a particularly nasty and vicious final few weeks in parliament, complete with cat claw gestures, I asked myself why politics needed to be as malevolent as it so often is, especially that part of parliamentary proceedings most often seen by the public – Question Time.

It took me back to a piece I wrote in July for Possum Box titled Is adversarial politics damaging our democracy?   What follows is an update of that piece with contemporary examples.

While most readers will have their own ideas about the meaning of ‘adversarial politics’, so that we’re all on the same page, let’s use the following definitions: “Adversarial politics exists when the proposals put forward by government are routinely criticised by opposition parties. Any stance taken by government is automatically opposed, whatever its merits.” and “Adversarial politics takes place when one party (usually not in Government) takes the opposite (or at least a different) opinion to that of the other (usually the Government) even when they may personally agree with what the Government is trying to do.”  It is a characteristic of the Westminster system, and if one can judge from its most flagrant manifestation, Question Time, most parliamentarians seem to revel in it.  They enjoy the contest, which at times takes on gladiatorial proportions. 

Because it provides a rich source of sensational copy, the media thrive on adversarial politics, and contribute powerfully to it through the press, TV and radio.  Without it, life for journalists would be less lively and the preparation of material that might interest the public more demanding. 

But to some who closely follow events in the political arena, it is a source of irritation because inherently it involves dishonesty and at times downright deceit.  The main game seems to be winning or scoring political points even if that requires taking an opposing position that is inconsistent with previous positions or policy, and in the process demeaning or humiliating the other person or party.  All observers of the political process applaud informed and vigorous debate that teases out the issues and ensures sound decisions are made. But is an adversarial approach required to achieve this?  Some might argue that it is, but many would disagree.  The purpose of this piece is to offer illustrative examples, make a case for a less adversarial approach, and suggest what ordinary citizens might do to effect change.

Because adversarial positions inherently are more often taken by parties in opposition, many of the illustrations offered in this piece are derived from Opposition comments and positions.  However, the Government is not immune, as some examples demonstrate. More...