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]
The tension is heightened by the emotion that accompanies the positions people take – an extreme example was the young lady removed yesterday from the National Press Club, screaming and resisting ejection. Senator Milne’s utterances are emotionally laden. Logical reasoning is difficult while emotion is dominating thought. The immediate memory span has a limited capacity; the more emotion that occupies it, the less space there is for reasoning. We’ve all experienced this at the commencement of important exams. So it’s unlikely that there will be rational debate while emotions are running so high. Each side will be blind to the other’s viewpoints, and unable to understand or accommodate them. There is no point in having the groups sit together to discuss and resolve the differences. So it will be up to a neutral group to resolve the impasse. That group is our parliamentarians, whom we elected to make decisions on our behalf, no matter how complex the matter.
The Government believes it has got the balance right. That is a matter of judgement. It seem to have come to the task with a strong commitment to address climate change, and its pre-election rhetoric gave rise to high expectations. The reality of having to balance competing views and opposing forces, with whom it has consulted widely, has obliged it to shape what it believes is possible, given the contemporary and predicted economic circumstances here and overseas, and the attitudes to, and actions of other nations or groups to climate change and greenhouse gas pollution. This reality has been shaped also by what is possible politically given the different views held by the Opposition, its subset the Nationals, the Greens, and the independents.
The Government thinks the White Paper is a fitting intellectual starting point, and a politically advantageous place to begin.
What happens from here will be a fascinating study. Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop have been circumspect in their comments, pointing to the study the Opposition has commissioned to examine the White Paper, since 'the devil is in the detail', as usual. It’s a sensible move, and has the additional advantage of giving it some breathing space before committing to a position. Barnaby Joyce is not so backward in stating a position. He is nihilistic – the Government’s plan will do nothing to ameliorate climate change and will damage the economy. Warren Truss tends to agree, but in more muted terms. Andrew Robb seems more set on opposing the plan, expressing more concern for the economy than for the planet. He wants to look at the White Paper in detail and will support the Senate inquiry proposed by the Greens.
So the contest of ideas and the game of politics will occupy the first half of 2009. Who holds the best hand in this convoluted game of politics?
On the face of it, the Government should, having created the plan and having thought through the rationale for its position. Malcolm Farr in his piece in the Daily Telegraph, Carbon Kev in Green sights says “Turnbull might have to come to Rudd’s rescue or risk something tougher than Government policy emerging from the Senate”, and later “The carbon reduction legislation will be dealt with with tectonic slowness in the Senate unless Turnbull pitches in with the Government, which might give the Liberal chief substantial power on this critical issue, perhaps even to the point of dictating its timing.” Predictably, Dennis Shanahan in his piece in The Australian, Promises fail as reality takes hold thinks that Malcolm Turnbull, having “carefully held judgment yesterday on the carbon emissions scheme, is in the box seat politically.”
All sides have to be careful. The Government can’t bulldoze its legislation through, it doesn’t have the numbers. Even if it could, it is likely to see it an advantage not to have to take all the flak and all the responsibility. So it will likely go along accommodatingly with the Senate enquiry where the two more extreme sides in the debate – the Greens and the Coalition – will inevitably clash, allowing the Government to sit back and watch the blood flow. The Opposition has be careful it does not revert to what looks like climate denial, or show more concern about the economy, affected industries and jobs than about the perils of global warming. For their part the Greens, despite popular support, have to be careful that their concern for the planet is not accompanied by indifference to the economy, jobs and the welfare of the people.
So it will be an intriguing battle of ideas, positions, wills, and political moves – it’s a pity the stakes are so high. Who will prevail? My guess is the Government; it has already gone through the act of balancing contrary positions, and it has a much higher level of political smarts than its climate change adversaries, and will seek to wedge them, particularly the Opposition. I just hope that the concept of ‘balance’ prevails, and that neither the planet nor the nation is the loser.