What happens when you insert smoke and mirrors into a policy vacuum?


What happens when you insert smoke and mirrors into a policy vacuum?  You get an ALP strategy for (in)action on climate change.

Julia Gillard’s announcement this morning that the government plans to establish a committee of scientists to advise on climate policy, paired with a citizens assembly to gauge community feeling on climate policy, is a shallow attempt to legitimise policy inaction.

Those familiar 1980s TV spoof Yes, Minister will remember ministerial adviser Sir Humphrey Appleby suggesting committees as a great way to portray the illusion of government action in the face of public pressure.  And so it is with Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement today.

The ALPs climate change plan (the status quo is not a new policy) readily fails the credibility test.  One must ask why we need yet another panel of experts when there are already reams of scientific evidence to inform government policy?  Universities, NGOs and think-tanks in Australia have been working on this problem for years.  This new scientific panel is simply unnecessary.  There is no need for more committees, no need for more reports.  The evidence is in.

So what then of the citizens assembly?  Julia Gillard has argued that a community consensus does not yet exist on the causes of climate change and the appropriate course of action.  Yet current polling shows high levels of community support for urgent action on climate change. According to a recent Auspoll survey, almost eight out of ten Australians, 77%, support strong climate action.  This result is representative of numerous polls since before the last federal election.

And since when did issues of vital national interest require 100% community consensus before the government acts?  Whatever your opinion of John Howard, his government had the courage to undertake major policy reforms with far less public support.  How Howard would have longed for 77% approval of his GST legislation in 1998!  Yet here we have the Rudd/Gillard government sitting in suspended animation as its credibility and its political capital drain away in the absence of a policy that a large majority of Australians are in favour of.

So when Julia Gillard announced today that the government would establish a citizens’ assembly to establish a community consensus for climate action, my gut reaction was one of scepticism (some things we should be sceptical about).  This citizens committee is a mechanism designed to provide the fig leaf of legitimacy for policy delay.

Parallel Constituencies

The composition of the senate has impeded the implementation of Labor’s climate change agenda.  ALP insiders suggest that the CPRS bill was inevitably weakened in order to secure support from the Coalition, which itself was necessary in light of the rejection of the bill by the Greens and independent senators.  Senior advisors from the Department of Climate Change personally told me in November 2009 that the CPRS bill, as it stood at the time, was just a start and would be strengthened in time.

However, there is reason to believe that there is more at play here than just the composition of the senate.  The hollow faux-policy released today what one would expect from a government that is sleeping with the enemy, sitting cosy with carbon-intensive industries and their lobbies.  Guy Pearse, a former political adviser, lobbyist and speechwriter from the conservative side of politics, has documented the degree to which lobbying interests from these sectors have penetrated the policy-making apparatus under both Coalition and Labor governments (http://www.guypearse.com).  The apparent power of these lobbyists is only matched by their disregard for the wider public interest.

And this is where the problem really lies.  Parliament and the ruling government that derives from it is by design a reactive institution.  Parliamentarians are elected to office to represent the desires of their electorates.  The problem is, however, that Australia’s parliament represents two different parallel constituencies that compete for the attention of elected officials.

There’s the official constituency—the general public—whose members attempt to influence policy formulation indirectly through their vote, and then there’s the unofficial money constituency, whose members purchase direct influence over the policy-making process through campaign contributions.  Given the current form of the major parties on climate policy, there are no prizes for guessing which of these parallel constituencies holds more sway over policy formulation.  This is why the government’s request to trust them that stronger action is coming does not inspire great confidence.

Where there’s smoke and mirrors, there’s fire

If the major parties continue to present token gestures and buck-passing as a response to the climate change threat, beyond the expiration of the current senate, it’s possible we may see two serious developments:

(1)    The major parties may leak support to alternative political forces. Most observers discount this trend on the basis of past experience, but that prediction is based on an assumption that the political battleground will remain as it has during the long period of prosperity Australia has enjoyed since 1945.  But will this assumption continue to hold?

Because of its fundamental impact on all aspect of human life, climate change is increasingly changing the playing field upon which the game of politics is played.  Even if we sort out the issue of greenhouse gas mitigation, there will be many more issues surrounding climate adaptation to consume the political process.  Climate change will be the baseline issue underlying our political process for many electoral cycles to come.

The rise of alternative poltical forces may or may not be a good thing.  If voters direct their support towards alternative parties advocating climate change policies commensurate with the level of threat suggested by the scientific evidence, this may force the major parties to take the problem seriously.

However, if voters instead lean toward demagogues peddling a pungent mixture of quick fixes, denial and appeals to a mythical golden age of the past, this will drag the major parties in a direction that will at the least make it difficult to have a mature debate about any issue, let alone climate policy, and at worst could threaten the very cohesion of our diverse, multicultural society.

In the longer term, if the shift to alternative political forces is large and sustained, we may even see one of the major parties collapse.  Although this is extremely rare, it does happen from time to time in western liberal democracies when a party ceases to be relevant under changing circumstances (does anyone remember the Whigs?).  This previously unthinkable development  registers on the radar because climate change has ended business-as-usual politics.

(2)    Civil disobedience, sabotage and possibly even violence may become common over time if the major parties continue side-step the necessary policy choices.  This is a dangerous strand of blowback that the major parties are clearly not cognisant of.

We saw acts of civil disobedience today, from the PhD student who attempted to storm the Prime Minister’s press conference, to the men who chained themselves inside the PM’s office.  We’ve seen it in the growing number of direct action demonstrations at the Hazelwood power station.  Right now these are fringe elements.  If the government keeps delaying action these movements are likely to gain momentum.

This is what happens when the pace of political decision-making is too slow for the pace of events in the real world.  Political institutions and processes lose legitimacy when their rhetoric loses touch with reality.  Just because our political system has enjoyed over a century of relative stability, does not mean it will always remain that way.

A new playing field, but do they know it yet?

Leadership instability within both major parties during this parliamentary term is, in part, evidence that politics as we know it is being altered by climate change.  If only the Labor Party and the Coalition could understand that the game has changed, they would see the array of unintended consequences awaiting them should they continue to get their climate change response wrong.

Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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