Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Climate Change

The openly cynical conviction politician

One thing to like about Tony Abbott is that he has a clear set of beliefs and is in politics because he wants to be the engine that implements these views. His numerous “gaffes” (in the eyes of the media) are generally just cases of him saying what he believes when it’s impolitic rather than actual mistakes. Therefore, with his advisors surely very keen to play up this image of a straight shooting man, it was odd to see two significant counter-examples on Four Corners last night
Read the full article »

Abbott boxed in by climate change rhetoric

Pollution_Factory There is a tendency when it comes to political rhetoric to always go nuclear. To deploy the most strident, attacking, and damaging language you can to label an opponents position or policy. And no word has more power today than ‘Tax’.

Case-in-point: In the US 2008 election, the Republicans attacked Obama for ‘palling around with terrorists’ and saw no electoral traction. Yet when they caught him saying he wanted to ‘spread the wealth’ to Joe the Plumber, their spirits soared. It didn’t help their cause that Obama had a tax cut for about 95% of the country, yet McCain still devoted almost the entire second Presidential debate to claiming Obama wanted to raise people’s taxes, causing a few wobbles from Obama’s campaign.

While there was certainly a strong case for Tax Cuts in the 80’s & 90s, today when there isn’t much fat left on the revenue side of the budget, the social stigma applied to the word is impeding our political debate. Of course this criticism has been mounted before by social democrats who want to spend more on infrastructure or key social services, but it’s also damaging the way Liberals and Conservatives develop their policies too.

A few months ago when The Nationals were the only party against the ETS in principle, Barnaby Joyce took the obvious rhetorical step of calling it an ‘Emissions Tax Scheme’ (clever guy huh). As the vote got closer, he increased the volume calling it a ‘massive tax on everything’. A theme picked up by a number of other opponents of the scheme, and instantly adopted by Tony Abbott when he took over as Coalition leader and defeated the Governments’ policy. This was not the only rhetorical attack on offer against the governments CPRS (it could also be called complex, confusing, ineffective, counter-productive, special-interest laden, bureaucratic etc etc) however “Tax” was the leading punch. To Abbott’s reckoning he had given the Government a black eye (a defeated policy), a cruel new nickname (big taxer) and was now the hero who had saved the people from a major tax. Only, and annoying for him, the people still want something to be done. However, nothing that looks or sounds like a tax can possibly be advocated by the Coalition, leaving very few options available.

If Abbott had avoided dropping the Tax bomb on the governments scheme (and he did not need to do so to have it voted down the bill) he could have offered a much simpler and attractive scheme: A Carbon Tax.

By Jeremy Hansen in the NYT (Who Paul Krugman calls “a great climate scientist. …the first to warn about the climate crisis”)

‘Under this approach, a gradually rising carbon fee would be collected at the mine or port of entry for each fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas). The fee would be uniform, a certain number of dollars per ton of carbon dioxide in the fuel. The public would not directly pay any fee, but the price of goods would rise in proportion to how much carbon-emitting fuel is used in their production.

All of the collected fees would then be distributed to the public. Prudent people would use their dividend wisely, adjusting their lifestyle, choice of vehicle and so on. Those who do better than average in choosing less-polluting goods would receive more in the dividend than they pay in added costs.

For example, when the fee reached $115 per ton of carbon dioxide it would add $1 per gallon to the price of gasoline and 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour to the price of electricity. Given the amount of oil, gas and coal used in the United States in 2007, that carbon fee would yield about $600 billion per year. The resulting dividend for each adult American would be as much as $3,000 per year. As the fee rose, tipping points would be reached at which various carbon-free energies and carbon-saving technologies would become cheaper than fossil fuels plus their fees. As time goes on, fossil fuel use would collapse’….

Emissions Trading Schemes were preferred because they let governments set a limit on emissions which can be reduced over time, giving assured levels of pollution reduction. Carbon Taxes are more elusive in this area, but the same logic of a rising price = less use of carbon emitting fuels/products/technology applies. This offers a wiggle room would perfectly suit a coalition party which both wants to look serious on the issue, but doesn’t want to be too tied into international deals and wants to be able to regulate Australia’s actions in line with economic circumstances.

Carbon Taxes have the advantages of being more economically efficient, and ‘just’ in a Liberal sense of being applied equally across the population. While small refunds could be applied to some industries (such as agriculture), it likely wouldn’t be the hodgepodge of deals and allowances & exceptions that the Government has set up with its ETS (which for the Greens make it now useless). And given that a carbon tax would reward individuals who act positively to reduce their own carbon footprints, it would also be in line with the parties preference for individual responsibility and reward. Not only that, but the Coalition could even piggyback some of the potency of the tax argument, by offering to sharply reduce all income taxes in line with the CO2 taxes. Just like the GST, not all taxes are equal, and given the public demand for action, this would be strongly in line with their past actions.

Finally, if they chose to keep back just a small part of that revenue, it could be invested in what is perhaps the real and only solution to climate change: better technology. This was an argument John Howard made consistently during his final years in office, and one the Coalition could pick up and run with. Australia has the minds, the education system, and the incentives to be the ones who create the next big breakthrough that fundamentally changes how we create and use energy. We’re doing it already, but with a big injection of funds imagine what we could create, what industries would come to call Australia home, what economic returns await us.

Of course Carbon Taxes are not a new idea, and I think Paul Krugman is somewhat right that having spent so long building up a Cap&Trade system, to throw it away and start down a different path just means too many delays to accept. But it’s worth noting again, how the rhetoric we use in one area, deamonising all taxation as bad harmful policy, if not outright ‘theft’ has left Conservatives (and many liberals) unable to offer sensible alternative policies in other areas. A Carbon Tax might not be considered as effective environmentally as an ETS, but it’s just as effective (if not more-so) politically for the Coalition. But it’s now off limits.

Instead, because Abbott accepted the rhetorical framework of calling a market based system a tax (thereby ruling out both) he is left with prescious little other than Command-and-Control type regulations. Not only does this also run up against 30 years of liberal and conservative economic thinking in Australia, it may well be at least twice as expensive(p152) if not even more so. But Abbott has no real options left if he wants to propose a policy that at least looks serious.

As Al Gore has said, what is ideally needed is to ensure we “tax what we burn, not what we earn”. Gore is another who has long supported a carbon tax. If the Copenhagen Summit succeeds, then to cap and trades we must committ. But if it fails, if it is all smiling handshakes with no commitment behind them, then a Carbon tax is an alternative we need to have a serious debate about.
If only we could get over the rhetorical stigma of the word ‘Tax’.

(Incidentally, this is why I like the Constructivist approach in International Relations. Everyone wants to be a ‘realist’ about the world and how to respond to it, but when you mentally close off avenues through certain rhetoric, then your options can be utterly distorted, even harming your own interests.)

For a more details explanation of Carbon Tax (and fully sourced), I recommend having a look at this testimony to the US Senate by Ted Gaynor of the Brookings Institute

What will the Abbott Opposition look like?

tony_abbott2 By 1 vote in the party room Tony Abbott has defeated Malcolm Turnbull to lead the Liberal Party. So what can we expect from his time as opposition leader?

Federalism: In his book Abbott makes a strong case that federalism is broken, that the conservative position ought to be to do something, and that the incompetence and irrelevance of the states leaves no choice but to place health and education (amongst others) under Commonwealth control. Whilst stepping back from his earlier call to get rid of the states, Abbott suggests that if a Government can pass a bill in both houses twice, separated by 6 months, then it should be able to override the states, in the way it can with the territories currently. This move would be tough to sell for a referendum, but if proposed Labor would be fools not to jump at the chance. Equally, an Abbott opposition offers by far the best chance for a Rudd/Gillard Government to really deliver an era of ‘New Federalism’. And by that I mean Centralisation.

Health: Abbott as the former health minister is deeply tied to the Howard governments approach. While his support for private schools may limit his support for centralisation in Education, under Howard Abbott regularly argued for a federal government take over of the system, and was the key proponent by the last-minute takeover of the Mercy Community hospital in Tasmania. Abbott also supports the idea of a paid maternity leave (though seems to prefer a Baby Bonus style one off handout). Roxon got the better of Abbott on health in 2007 so if her re-design of the system is strong, this should be a issue Labor would love to talk about, without it being a major vote changer.
Abbott may try to tie such discussions to the issue of Indigenous health & living standards in general, an issue he shows genuine concern for. His policy prescriptions are likely to be of the paternalistic variety (with a dash of Pearson entrepreneurialism thrown in), however it could demonstrate to voters a more emotive side to him than previously recognised. Not necessarily huge vote winner, but could soften up some voters to him.

Abortion: While Abbott has a rather extreme image to much of the public, he would be able to gain immediate credit and re-newed attention simply by making clear his actual views of abortion. While he disagree’s with the principle, he see’s draws a clear line between efforts to reduce australias 75’000+ abortions a year and efforts to re-criminalise it. Equally, he seems to recognize that his own past (a child out of wedlock, reputation as a ladies man), mean that he doesn’t have a good basis for being a moraliser. His views are most clearly set out in his 2004 speech “The Ethical Responsibilities of a Christian Politician”. This is still an issue that has great potential to get Abbott in trouble, but he isn’t the extremist he is often made out to be. He’s more like a Bill Clinton, who thinks abortion should be ‘Safe, Legal, and rare’. A pretty hard statement to disagree with. The rhetoric may frighten some on the left, but that over-reaction could if anything help Abbott with the mainstream.

Welfare: In welfare, the difference between Abbott’s conservative and liberal instincts is clearly apparent. As a Conservative, Abbott recognises the cost of raising families and the benefit of stable incomes, proposing to add significant extra levels of support (such as a guaranteed minimum income) and removal of almost all means tests due to the hideous marginal tax rates that apply as incomes rise and welfare is taken away. Yet as a Liberal Abbott also worries that welfare distorts peoples principles, and for the poor drives them towards poor moral choices such as a life of ease on unemployment benefits. As such he seemingly endorses universal welfare for all but the poor, with untold and uncalculated costs accumulated to the federal government to provide for all this. If Rudd went hard on cutting middle class welfare he could trip up the contradiction between Abbott’s complaints about debt and his desire for expanded welfare. Likely instead he would race him to offer even bigger handouts.

Foreign Policy: The great unknown. Abbott touches on the issue very briefly in his book, but it’s the usual boilerplate stuff of supporting the US, taking the fight to the terrorists, and supporting the Howard Government’s great leap into East Timor. He’ll probably go along with the foreign policy direction of the Govt, take a few opportunistic pot-shots where possible, but otherwise leave it to his foreign minister. If he starts getting hit on the issue by the commentariat, expect him to retreat to nationalism and supporting increased defence funding to prove his strength in the area. If Abbott started getting closer in the polls to Rudd, expect a strong retaliation on the issue of who is better at handling international issues (and going with the consensus on climate change is relevant here). Abbott will have to hit the books to be taken seriously, and needs to hire a good foreign policy advisor as one of his first acts.

Climate Change: The only reason we are discussing the rise of an Abbott leadership is because he is the most recognisable face of the anti-CPRS movement inside the Liberals. Obviously his position is dependent on those outright deniers such as Minchin (Abbott seems to have taken just about every position on this issue), so he will seek a lengthy delay and more generous handouts for the CPRS. More important will be his ability to control the pro-ets senators such as Troeth, Humphries, Trood etc. Despite winning due to support from climate deniers, Abbott surely knows the electoral risk of the CPRS, so he may propose some alternate form (A carbon tax could be appealing) to placate the supporters and appear to be serious about the issue for the public. But have no doubt, he is willing to fight, and hard against Rudd’s CPRS. He already road tested a number of lines against it, so expect to hear the words “giant new tax on everything” consistently for the next 9 months.

Rhetoric and Strategy: While Abbott came to the leadership because of his opposition to the CPRS, he has a moderate view of the role of oppositions, writing in his book: “An oppositions job is to clarify its own thinking rather than actually to govern the country… What is the point of opposing legislation when it is likely to pass anyway….There’s much to be said for adopting the view that the government is generally entitled to get its legislation through, because thats what the people voted for” (Battlelines 2009 p53). Recognising the harm Beazley’s constant oppositionism did to him, and the harm Workchoices did to the Howard Government, i’d expect a Abbott opposition to voice constant complain, whilst generally stuttering that they will give the government the noose to hang itself.

Abbott’s not a bad speaker, he doesn’t mince words and uses plain language. It could appeal strongly compared to Rudd’s detailed linguistic specificity. He does have a slight stutter as he thinks about what to say, and I’ve yet to hear him give a really impressive or inspiring speech. He is best at press conferences, which is handy as that is where most of our political discussion comes from. He will make the occasional inarticulate gaffe, and say a lot of things that will drive segments of the left crazy, but his policies are likely to be pretty conventional. It’s not a bad act, similar to what Howard pulled. (Interesting the left rarely seems to do this, showing the rights rhetorical domination in recent decades). On that issue, as his first press conference as leader showed, a great rhetorical challenge for Abbott will be to claim the credit for what the Howard government did well, without being too tied to it, or looking like he is just advocating its return, as Labor will charge (it already is with its first -online- add “Dont Go Back”)

It will be easy to over-estimate the radicalness of Abbott as leader, but he will end up earning brownie points from the public for being more moderate than they were lead to believe. I doubt he can win, but he will be a tough leader to beat. Despite his years in the ministry, I have a feeling Australia doesn’t really know Abbott, or will at least give him a honest second look. So expect some volatility and change compared to this weeks polls. (When done here, you should follow that link to check Possum’s excellent breakdown of the post-split polls)

Abbott is a very committed, hard working and decent bloke. He spends a lot of his time helping charity/volunteer groups, he keeps himself fit and healthy, and he is passionate about public life and improving the country. Rudd in comparison could come off badly as a nerdy spin machine. That shouldn’t happen given the governments domination, but if Abbott can survive to face a second election he will be a real threat. I’m certainly look forward to this election. For all my political disagreements with Abbott, I rather like the guy. He’ll infuriate, he’ll make the Liberal Party a much more conservative beast, but he will be offering a clear and strongly believed alternative.

An ETS by dinner time

While we wait for the Liberal leadership saga to play out, just a quick reminder, that 7 Liberal Senators acting as a block could end this farce and pass the CPRS by dinner. Indeed the senate isn’t rising until 10pm, so they’ve even got time for some quick dutch courage before such an act. We are so used to party discipline being comprehensive, that even though the Liberal party is utterly divided on the issue, they still are voting as one, both to pass amendments from the McFarlane-Wong deal, and to delay the bill.

Just 7 senators walking into the chamber, with Labors knowledge could vote to roll all amendments into one, end the debate and vote on the final passage of the bill. Rather than worry about deals with Hockey or counting numbers with Abbott, Turnbull just needs to get the following people into the chamber – Birmingham, Simon, Brandis, the Hon George, Coonan, the Hon Helen , Humphries, Gary, Kroger, Helen, Payne, Marise , Ronaldson, the Hon Michael , Troeth, the Hon Judith, Trood, Russell,. It would be one of the most audacious acts in Australian political history, but hey, this is Malcolm Turnbull we are talking about, and he has a lot of free front bench positions to fill… Something to think about.

And just because I’ve been wanting to post this for a while : What possible reason does Joe Hockey have for taking the Liberal leadership job. He knew it was a dodgy deal last month, it is an even worse deal this month. He is being pressured by a lot of people worried about their own seats, to sacrifice his career for them. He needs to think strategically and in the long term interests of the party and his personal principles. Though only 44 if he takes the leadership and loses his career is effectively over in politics (unfair but thems the breaks). If Abbott takes over, and loses as expected (assuming Hockey can hold his own seat), then he will be unopposed in the leadership stakes, and be able to use the electoral drubbing as a mandate to sideline the climate deniers. He will have authority as one of the only former Howard Government ministers left (given that by then Turnbull & Abbott will be discredited or retired), and the time to re-establish the party as suits him.

But if he runs, he will be out of the job by this time next year, probably go down in history as a loser of Latham-esp proportions (without being responsible) and have a miserable time as the current divisions over Climate Change continue to play out. Even if he delay post Copenhagen (which is in 7 days), what will he do in January? February? March? These are the questions the government asks, all set to images of bushfires and dirty polluting coal plants. Indecisive or not across the details? Patsy to the deniers, or one himself? The Labor attack adds write themselves. To run now just sacrifices his talents and skills for no good reason. Don’t run Joe!

ETS: The Final Countdown – Todays Primer

Here is a quick primer for those of you unsure of what’s happening, or wanting to double check you’ve got the lay of the land down pat. I’ll also be live blogging the days events, so check back regularly to keep up to date.

3:25pm – It’s Over. No vote today.
Labor under Chris Evan’s passionately blames the libs ‘fillibuster’ argues “you have ratted on that agreement”. Cites 295 amendments, with only 34 dealt with. Labor must share some of the blame with its poorly organised chamber and inability to get supportive libs in chamber. Whinging about a ratted on agreement just looks week. This weekend is going to be ugly for all involved in the Liberal Party.

Liberal rebels have sent a letter asking for leadership spill Monday morning (suggestions might occur Tuesday instead), however notables such as Senator Minchin have not signed it.
Talk has now turned to how Labor responds, particularly if they call a Double Dissolution in response early next year. Rudd will have a trigger under section 57 of the Constitution if

the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree

If this happens twice, with a 3 month wait in between, then the Govt has it’s trigger. Deferral is not blocking or failure to pass, but could be left to lawyers. So whilst the test isn’t a full block, it’s also not clear a failure today will be enough for a DD. I’ll follow up on this in a post in a few days when some of the dust has settled.

1:50pm – The deal for Hockey to lead seems to be firming. However I have some doubt if that is the liberals desire, or the press’s. So the ugly side of twitter may be an increase of the press’s power to judge who is a valid candidate (as they universally and negatively did for Andrews). The Senate is finally getting around to debating the Govt-Opposition deal on the CPRS, but time is escaping, and no sign of any liberals willing to stand up and vote today. This sage may well go until monday lunchtime if not next few months…

12:15pm – Confusion if Bishop did or did not ask Turnbull to resign. Deal may be in works for Hockey leader, Dutton deputy. Abbott starting to waiver. May not have numbers, or be content to simply take Turnbull’s scalp and move up to Shadow Treasurer under Hockey. Who knows where this would leave ETS (prob delay to post Copenhagen, but who knows what then? & why would Hockey accept such a bad deal with the mal-contents emboldened)

11:30am – Deputy Julia Bishop has called on Turnbull to resign. Hockey is firming to run against Abbott on Monday. The Senate is crawling in pace. Not looking good for vote by 3:45pm (when Senate is due to rise).

History: Labor passed an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) known as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). The Liberals demanded amendments, with Ian McFarlane(Lib) and Penny Wong(Lab) doing the negotiations. These included major new breaks for polluters and households. Details here. After a 10 hour meeting on tuesday, Turnbull claimed he had the support of a majority of the party. Many dissented, claiming he was in minority. Anger at being over-ruled, led to a vote on whether to change leadership, with Kevin Andrews running as the potential replacement. The Vote failed 48-35. Party members pledged to support the bill or hold their tounge. After Question Time on Thursday, two leading dissenters, Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin, both members of the shadow cabinet went to Turnbull and demanded the vote be held off until Copenhagen summit or they would resign. Turnbull refused, and about 10 members of the Liberal Party cabinet resigned, starting with Abbott. Late Thursday night, Turnbull gave a defiant press conference saying he would fight on and try to pass the legislation. The Govt capitalised on this, and has rushed the bill forward to be voted on by 3:45pm today (Friday 27th Nov). Tony Abbott (denier) has declared that he will challenge Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership, with a vote due on Monday morning. Pressure has been applied to Joe Hockey(supporter) to also run. Most MP’s have gone home to their electorates, so are not in canberra to vote on the leadership right away.

The Numbers: To pass a bill you need 39 senators to support the bill
Labor: 32
Coalition: 37 (33 Liberals and 4 Nationals)
Independents: 2 (Xenephon and Fielding)
Greens: 5

Who else supports an ETS

Greens: The Greens opposed the CPRS strongly. Though the most active on the issue and with the strongest supporters, they see the bill as a sell out and refuse to support it. Likely they will continue to make perfect the enemy of the good and vote with the climate deniers against the bill. However, they could also choose to at least vote with labor on procedural issues almost ensuring a vote will occur. With their support the CPRS would be almost guaranteed, without it will be very tough.

Notionally the Liberal Party supports the bill. Malcolm Turnbull has made a very strong claim for it, and is risking his position to support it. This may be stubborn digging in, but it’s also very courageous & principled stuff. Claims have been made that “15 of 32” or “a majority” of liberal senators support the bill. Many have reservations about the nature of the bill, and the push to pass before Copenhagen (Dec7-18 2009) On a vote on tuesday to delay the bill until after Copenhagen only 12 Liberals voted for delay, leaving potentially 20 in support. Only 7 are needed to vote today to support the bill. Of those who seem most likely to vote yes are:

Birmingham, Simon – Senator for South Australia
Brandis, the Hon George – Senator for Queensland
Coonan, the Hon Helen – Senator for New South Wales
Humphries, Gary – Senator for Australian Capital Territory
Kroger, Helen – Senator for Victoria
Payne, Marise – Senator for New South Wales
Ronaldson, the Hon Michael – Senator for Victoria
Troeth, the Hon Judith – Senator for Victoria
Trood, Russell – Senator for Queensland

How does this bill get passed?
1) 7 Liberals vote with Labor to over-ride any procedural motions against and vote by 3:45pm today in favor. For liberals who support the ETS this is their best chance as they are still technically voting with the majority of the party. If on Monday Abbott wins a spill (as expected) then any vote they cast for the ETS would be against the will of the party leadership. Far more extreme pressure could be brought to bear. Passing an ETS today would also take all the wind out of the sails of the deniers (for it would become law with Labors support in the HOR), and so could also guarantee Turnbull’s continued leadership (protecting and indebting those who vote for an ETS today).

2) The Greens come down from the mountain and support Labor, with 1-2 Libs supporting it.

3) ?? (Ie anything could happen. Xenephon has been against it, but could change at last minute if Labor offered a big enough bribe (as they did on Murray-Darling legislation).

4) The bill fails today. Abbott takes over and official Liberal policy becomes to oppose the bill. Labor goes to an election (potential DD if CPRS bill is voted down), and wins additional senate seats. Pass legislation on their own or with greens support.

5) It doesn’t.

Who’s going to be Liberal Leader next week?
Good question.
Malcolm Turnbull: could only remain if he gets an ETS passed before Monday, pre-empting Abbott’s campaign to become leader so as to stop the legislation. He’s been very impressive these last few days, but has about 20% of remaining leader.
Tony Abbott: Most expected him to wait until post election loss. Spurred into action by ETS which he has claimed is just a policy issue, though now will challenge. Likely to win such a challenge on Monday (Turnbull had only a 7 vote buffer, against the non-starter Kevin Andrews. Likely Deputies include Julie Bishop (if she abandons Turnbull), Tony Smith, Andrew Robb, Joe Hockey
Joe Hockey: Supported Turnbull, but seen as next best Pro-ETS, moderate leader. Being pressured to take on Abbott on Monday. Like Abbott doesn’t want leadership before the election (loss). But may have little choice if Turnbull is abandoned/moderates want to stop Abbott.
Andrew Robb: Was considered a serious contender as a caretaker leader till the election. Unlikely now that Abbott has thrown his hat in the ring. Still too early after taking a break for depression to be a serious contender.
Kevin Andrews: …..Just Joking. On a day like this we all need a laugh.

I’ll update this as information comes in. If you have anything to add or challenge, please post a comment or email me could either be a fizzle, or the start of a fundamental re-alignment of Australian politics (with Turnbull type liberals leaving the party for Labor, and the Coalition becoming a far more conservative body). Keep refreshing that webpage, and of course follow me on twitter for all the latest. (Though i also highly recommend adding the following people (Annabel Crabb, David Speers, Samantha Maiden, Latika Bourke, James Massola)

Kevin Rudd the Legislator

Peter Hartcher made an interesting observation in the weekend papers:

Rudd is emerging as a prime minister who defines himself by the fights he avoids. He is uncomfortable advocating an opinion that might be electorally risky. He would prefer to shut down an Opposition attack with narrow political tactics than to overwhelm the Opposition by mobilising broad public opinion.
Rudd is an immensely well regarded leader. The emerging evidence is that he will hoard every decimal point of his popularity by avoiding an argument, rather than deploy it to ask the country to follow.

When it comes to making a forceful case for his plan, he has, in effect, vacated the field. The question is – why? It is not an oversight. Labor strategists readily concede that Rudd has deliberately created a vacuum. Because if he is silent on the issue, the TV cameras will automatically swing around and zoom in on the way the other half of the political system, the Opposition, is dealing with the issue. In effect, Rudd has handed a megaphone to the case against action on climate change. This, in turn, has gradually whittled away public support for action on global warming.

Leaders in democracies have two sources of power. One is legislative, the other populist. Over the last 60 years, the populist side has been increasingly winning out. Politicians have concluded that massive popular agreement with their policies (whether authentic or focus group created) is the secret to controlling the legislature and hence entrenching their changes via legislation. George Bush and Tony Blair went on significant stumping tours of their country to try and persuade audiences, convinced that the legislators would tune in as well and decide to run ahead of the ground swell, rather than try and stop it. Their reasoning was clear, if polls showed 80% want policy X, no legislator in their right mind would do otherwise than vote for it. Howard as Hartcher points out, also seemed to believe in his powers of persuasiveness:

John Howard was a prime minister who defined himself by the fights he picked. He would often champion an unpopular policy, then go into a mighty campaign of public advocacy. He usually managed to turn opinion and win the day, or at least get away with it. This was true of the GST, waterfront reform, the Iraq war.
Rudd is emerging as a prime minister who defines himself by the fights he avoids.

This however is an unfair claim by Hartcher, because it is not a fair comparison (2 years vs 11) and second because Rudd realises something more relevant: Public support for an issue is largely irrelevant if they support the Government. Rudd’s reckoning is that rather than having his fellow legislators (worries on his side, or the opposition writ large) take comfort that popular support for a CPRS has dropped, he is betting that his supreme domination in the approval polls will carry the day regardless. He doesn’t need to convince the public or even the opposing party members to support climate change legislation, he has only to make them scared of the consequences of opposing him.

And it’s working.

Just look at Malcolm Turnbull, and the smarter Liberals who are quietly asking if their skeptical colleagues are mad and trying to lose their seats. They may believe in doing something to fix climate change, they may not hugely like Rudd’s policy, but they are also absolutely petrified of him going before the public and holding them up as the men who stood there and yelled ‘Stop’ before the onslaught of histories judgement.

Who's your daddy?

Guess who is in charge here...

Strangely for a man who has only spent 11 years in parliament, and tends to disrespect the institution, he seems to be much more canny in using it. He knows the CPRS will most likely pass because the opposition don’t want it to give him any more arguments against them at the election. In that, it doesn’t actually matter if 40% or 90% support the legislation or even more than 20% understand what it actually does. That’s not important. Rudd is marshaling his public popularity overall to give him power within the legislature on not just specific but all issues. What’s to stop him hitting up Turnbull over workplace relations or the NBN come the election should a climate change bill pass. Instead of seeking public support for each specific issue, Rudd wants public support for him as a leader. With that, he can jump between issues as suits, retain policy flexibility as suits, and intimidate the hell out of the opposition.

Rudd’s strategy is a risky one, a drop in overall popularity would leave him without a saftey net. And it’s not one history may look on too kindly. PM’s are remembered for what the left behind in popular views as much as individual legislative bills. But it is also a much smarter approach given Rudd’s only marginal persuasive powers of rhetoric. Whilst Howard had a lawyers eye for reasoned arguments, and Keating could make you look towards the stars as he gave the opposition a blow to the stomach, Rudd knows his rhetorical command is limited. Better then to not even pretend to be a great orator, and simply to market himself as he is. A very smart, hard working, pragmatic leader, who has the best interest of the country at heart. And woe begot anyone foolish enough to think they can prevent him doing his job. Turnbull is facing a raging inferno of popularity that makes individual spot fires (wasted stimulus, asylum seekers, CPRS compensation) all utterly meaningless in the overall scheme of things.

Rudd in this sense, is actually acting as a true legislator. He will be measuring his success of his first term in the seats won off the opposition (right now looking at 5-11), and potential control of the senate (or an easing of the challenge). The discipline of his government members is his barometer of day to day success. Oddly enough in this hyper televised world, Rudd seems to count his real power entirely within the legislature. No wonder he seems to be enjoying Question Time these days.

Double-D Madness

At quieter times in the parliamentary cycle, we often see our political correspondents leading out a few rumors and stories as a way of generating some attention, controversy and generally getting something to fill the page for their bosses. This spring, its the idea of a Double Dissolution election over the Carbon Trading Scheme. While Rudd has already put up a bill that was voted down, he is already destroying the narrative by pledging “good faith” negotiations with the Coalition. If the resulting bill and amendments are substantially different to the first rejected one, and the Coalition does indeed again reject the bill (likely over the cries of Turnbull), then Rudd couldn’t use it as a trigger.

But even say he did go ahead, would the political strategists be supportive? Hell no, as Possum helpfully demonstrates:
cprs-DD election

There is strong support for an ETS, but it’s not strong enough to make people want an early poll. It may be accounting for some of the difference between the parties, but people clearly want to vote on other issues like the economy as well, and don’t in general like going to the polls early. After all for ALP voters an election would just be a lot of hassle to see their party remain in essentially the same place, perhaps slightly stronger in the senate. For Liberal voters, they know they wont be getting back into government so why bother with fiddling around in a few marginal seats. Win some, lose some, the only real difference would be the demise of Turnbull. Rudd might even look weaker or more intrusive by being seen to ‘rush’ to a DD election, despite the fact it would be held only be 6-10 months before he is likely to call one on the normal schedule. And having already raised the issue, have no doubt the media would make its narrative one of ‘racing to the polls early’. Never a good look for a PM.

Perhaps even more importantly however than all the optics is the straight maths, as Anthony Green notes:

Simply put, the mathematics of double dissolutions mean that Labor would be less well placed in the Senate after a double dissolution than it would be if it waited to have a normal House and half-Senate election at the end of 2010.
The reason for this is the complex proportional reprepresentation system used in the Senate and how this interacts with the lower quota for election that would apply at a double dissolution election.

(Full reasoning for the political junkies at his site)

Still all of that is slightly more sensible than the suggestion that Rudd would hold a DD election over a desire to means test private health insurance. If the PM is looking unlikely to use or even benefit from such an election on a issue of fundamental long term importance like Climate Change, there is no way, -unless he is literally out of his mind- that he would do so over making many Australians pay more for their health care. It’s beyond a joke, its simply misleading to the public to even speculate.

And finally, when even Australia’s weakest political mind Peter Costello can figure out that a DD election is neither a good idea, nor going to be adopted by Rudd, it is time for our political journalists and editors to take a deep breath and drop the whole story once and for all.

Headline writers everywhere will surely be disappointed at the loss of so many potential DD puns (Rudd exposes his DD’s, Turnbull crushed under DD’s, the public grapples with DD’s etc etc) its a small loss to ensure a basic commitment to honestly informing the public. Its fine to speculate and see how politicians respond, but given all the evidence to continue treating the idea of a Double Dissolution as a serious story is simply to mislead the public.

The Politics of Climate Change #2

At the start of the week I talked a little about the Greens political strategy over the Emissions Trading Scheme, so with the Senate having this afternoon voted down the Government’s scheme, it serves to look at how this may all play out. (I also offer this because I don’t have the scientific knowledge to contribute anything beyond what has already proliferated online and in report after report, and because my own preference is for a Carbon Tax, so all the groups plans seem off kilter for my liking).

First, I think contra-common wisdom that this vote should be regarded as a defeat for the government. All governments like to see their legislation passed, and whilst this one faces a hostile senate it didn’t manage to convince any of the non-Labor senators to support the bill. Most of the public havn’t been watching the horsetrading, but they know Labor is absolutely dominating the opposition, is highly popular and yet must now square that up with an inability of the Government to get through what it promised. It also suggests the Governments legislative efforts such as combining the Renewable Energy Target Legislation with the CPRS hasn’t helped, nor their many many concessions to polluting industries such as coal and agriculture. Whilst these groups and the business lobby have accepted the need for such legislation and therefore been reasonably quiet in their complaints, expect some to demand a much better deal second time around.

For that reason, I think the Greens have probably helped their own cause at the expense of the environment, although that all depends on if they are able to fully capture the balance of power at the next election (DD or otherwise). They seem to have made the best the enemy of the good, and likely this vote will keep Australia at least a year if not 2 from getting through its legislation. Sure thats not a lot of carbon, but I’d wager even with the balance of power in the Senate the Greens could achieve more pushing through small (quiet) changes that steadily removed concessions and increased targets (and therefore carbon prices) would be an easier and more successful way to get the balance they desire than trying to get Labor to agree to it all at once. Already a number of environmental groups have voiced their dismay at the failure of the bill, and in part blamed the greens. It shouldn’t hurt the party, but it does show how varied the entire movement is and the difficult politics of leading it. Brown has gambled, first on the adds, now on the No vote, it may work but it depends on their success at the next election and if Labor feels a) more urgency b) more concilliatory towards Brown’s Greens.

For the Liberal Party this is also a bad result. Had the vote passed with independent and Greens support, most of the heat taken out and let them spend the next few years blaming the Government for rising prices and hurt industries. For now however as the old saying goes, sometimes the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting it. The Government will do all it can to pin the blame of this squarely on the Opposition, and if its dominance inside parliament this week is anything to go by, it will absolutely savage the Coalition come election time. Until the Liberals get a policy they haven’t a hope. Their release of Frontier Economics Research was like a Ventriliquist rudely insulting passers by and saying the Doll said it. Either way it deserved and got a solid punch in the jaw from Labor this week and likely from the public come election. Turnbull especially for the image he brings to the role, and his former history as Environment Minister is well aware of this and yet clearly incapable of pulling his troops into line, only exacerbating the visible tensions in the party. If the Coalition passes something by the end of the year they may be OK come election, but the longer this goes on, and the closer it gets to an election (which must be next year) the fresher it will be in the public mind. The only alternative would be a radical new approach (such as a Carbon Tax) that could be simply understood by the public and supported by business and industry. Doubtful, but when your that far down a hail mary might just save a few people’s seats.

For the independents it’s a difficult business to work out. Fielding has proven himself way out of his depth here, and whilst never having a chance of retaining his seat anyway, has further cemented his loss. Who takes the Victorian senate place is tough, probably Labor in the climate (they should have had it by all merits in 2004) but it’s not certain.
Nick Xenophon wont be up for election (unless there is a DD) but I think the public (and indeed the press) are yet to make up their mind about what he’s up to. He’s beginning to be tarred with the Coalition, but can easily cut himself free as they sink. Maybe he is just playing hard to get and will place heavy demands before the government, but if fielding and the coalition remain opposed come December, he may not actually have much bargaining power.

So long story short: Everybody is going to look bad from this. Internationally it makes us look regressive, domestically Labor looks weak, the Opposition disunited, Fielding incompetent, Xenophon cagy and the Greens utopian. Not a good day for anyone (well except those few who think it’s all a big hoax, I guess they are celebrating.)

The Greens go white at Rudd

Whilst most attention has been focused on Rudd’s demands for an ETS bill, and the Oppositions confused but slowly emerging response, there is some more interesting politiking going on by the Greens going hard at the Government with this TV Advertisment:

Two points jump out: First the effort is a bold and timely step by the Greens. Whilst they are unlikely to force Rudd to shift to make the policy stronger, one of the strange feature of this debate has been the absence of Greens voices within their dominant policy area. This is in part the media bias that always excludes the minor parties, but also especially against the Greens as un-serious contributors. By reminding the public and forcing the press to take note (The TV news have been running small clips), the Greens are setting themselves up well for the election, particularly if the ETS is still yet to be passed. The traditional political wisdom is that cash spent prior to the immediate period before the election is wasted money, with most of the public (90%) assumed to largely ignore politics day to day. However this seems to over-estimate the cynicism and insularity of the public. Kevin Rudd proffered from a similar strategy during early 2007, running advertising introducing him to the wider public and showing some of his background and principles. It was bold and costly as ALP National Secretary Tim Gatrell later admitted to journalists, but it worked and took the Liberals by surprise.

So whilst I think it a smart move by the greens, what is with the washed out colour scheme? It makes Brown look like a zombie:Bob+Brown+CPRS+TVC+still

Unlike other adds that use a lack of colour to make a point before returning to full colour on conclusion/use of the product (ie “use X to bring your home to life”), the add stays white throughout. The greens attract a lot of the best and brightest who are attracted to politics and usually quite design conscious, yet this effort seems almost deliberately unattractive. It may catch your eye to see such a bright white screen light up your loungroom, (particularly on modern huge plasma tv’s) but it’s also just as likely to make people, pets and small children back away in fear from the grinning Bob Brown. An odd choice to be sure.

Smart Action

Very welcome local news:

Chief Minister and Minister for Territory and Municipal Services, Jon Stanhope, today announced Downer EDI Engineering Power Pty Ltd would install ACTION’s new $8 million smartcard ticketing system.
The new ticketing system, due to commence in the second half of 2010, is modelled on Perth’s successful SmartRider system, which was also implemented by Downer EDI.
“Canberrans can look forward to a new ticketing system that is fast, easy and flexible,” Mr Stanhope said. “It will offer bus users a reusable and rechargeable card for travel on all ACTION buses.
“Bus users will be able to recharge their smartcard over the internet, phone or at other card facilities across the ACT. A one-use ticket will also be available for casual users and tourists.
“Bus users will be required to tag-on and tag-off buses, which will significantly improve ACTION’s capacity to monitor passenger trends and make adjustments to meet changes in demand.

The idea of tagging off (ie swiping as you leave) could be a bit of a burden esp if there is just one on each bus, but in general this is a great idea and very welcome. I used the Oyster card’s when in London last year and found them an absolute breeze. They moved through large numbers of people quickly, and were easy to use and keep track of remaining credit. I don’t quite have that same confidence for the local system, but it’s an important step.

The ACT's ACTION Bus service

The ACT's ACTION Bus service

Despite it’s highly planned design, public transport in Canberra is still a farce. New options such as light rail appear buried for the foreseeable future, so existing Bus routes will have to do. Whilst there have been some welcome changes such as more bus lanes, and increased express routes (into and out of the city in peak times & between hubs) the service is still hardly used as you’d have hoped. Canberran’s as a whole are a very good market for public transport, being made up of significant numbers of students, a large CBD, and a general population who is well aware of the issue of climate change and generally wealthy enough to consider alternatives to driving. Yet because public transport is so bad, people often feel they have no other choice. My parents, both accutely concerned about such issues, recently faced this dilemma when their 2nd car spluttered it’s last petrol breath and had to be replaced.

Despite the fact my father no longer works full time, they felt Canberra’s public transport system was simply too much trouble to bother relying on. So a second car was bought, likely to be driven by one person alone for 90% + of it’s trips. Part of the difficulty it seemed was the concern over having the right change, knowing the fare and the general slow speed of bus trips within this laid out city. If a smart card can help encourage this city’s professionals to leave the car at home, or even re-consider a second car it will do significant benefit not just for the regular users but in helping this city do its part in addressing climate change.

The end of the beginning?

Whilst some in the environmental movement (or far sighted statesmen such as Al Gore) have been talking climate change for over 30 years, the public still feel that this is a new issue thrust on them in the last decade, if not last few years, and as such they are still coming to grips with what it means. In 2008 the Liberal Party’s internal polls even blamed the issue of climate change as the third decisive reason the Howard Government lost. However I tend to think this reflects more a case of a desire to be seen to care by the public, rather than serious concern (this also perhaps explains why they haven’t punished Rudd despite his superficial efforts thus far). That however may all be beginning to change:

The evacuation of the Carteret Islands have begun. This morning I stood on black volcanic sand, pressed up right against the jungle, and watched a small white boat powered by a single outboard engine run in against the shore. On board were five men from the Islands, the fathers of five families, who have come to finish building houses and gardens already begun in a cleared patch of jungle at Tinputz, on the east coast of Bougainville. When these homes are ready the five will return to the Carterets, to fetch their wives and children back. Life, they hope, will be better for them here. On the Carterets, king tides have washed away their crops and rising sea levels poisoned those that remain with salt. The people have been forced to move. The men climbed silently from the boat and into the shallows. They splashed towards us, carrying almost nothing. From beside me, others who had come to meet them walked out quietly in welcome. The air was still, both sad and happy, which seemed to suit the moment. That single boat carrying these five men is the first wave in what is, as far as I can tell, the world’s first official evacuation of an entire people because of climate change


With the first global warming refugees, we are entering a new phase in the Climate Change debate. It is not, -to borrow a famous phrase- the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Far too many (and I think counter-productively) have called for the debate to be ended and to move onto focusing on action. But such changes take a long time to work through the body politic and often need moments and icons on which to hang the shift. The Carteret Islands, may help provide such a symbol. Yet this is not just an environmental problem to be dealt with by CTS’s & protocols, it is also a significant Foreign Policy challenge for Australia in particular. Carteret is just one of thousands of Islands in the region which will be affected and made much more inhospitable due to the rising sea levels. And whilst the people will undoubtedly try and hold onto their lifestyles and location for as long as possible, once that dream dies, the place they will want to go to begin new lives is likely Australia.

This will mean establishing many more services in the upper north for the coming refugees over the next few decades, and new legislation dealing with them turning up and wanting to live here in high numbers. Thankfully Australia is a migrant nation at heart today, with a great track record, because this influx of people who will likely resent having to come here, and are used to lifestyles and skill sets quite different from those found on our shores, will require some very careful management. Housing, training, opportunities will all have to be provided to encourage good integration (which does offer economic benefits to Australia) all without stirring up the deep seated anti-migrant/racist concerns which still lurk in corners of the Australian psyche (especially in north of Australia which is both the home of Pauline Hanson and the location where most of the new global warming refugees will likely seek to migrate to).

If anything, preparing for this challenge is a much more significant issue for Australia than doing our bit to cut emissions. We account for barely 1% of the total carbon release, and whilst a first world country, our economy is dependent on primary industries such as mining and agriculture which can’t significantly change their CO release (try telling a cow to stop farting!). Whilst the government will need to push these industries to do their part, and encourage cleaner, greener industries and behaviors around the country, arguably their larger challenge will be to deal with the effect of global warming on this country. What sea-side area’s will be lost requiring internal resettlement, and what external people will seek to come to these shores, once their own homes have been washed away, and rightly expect that wealthy, sparse Australia can accommodate them. No one else will want them, (and many in the region wont be able to help them), so it will fall to us.

If anything, drop the CTS (I now tend to favour a carbon tax) and make this the priority of the governments response to Climate Change. It will mean more to long term peace and prosperity than our meager contribution to filtering.

Update: Whilst the exact nature of Climate Change is still very unpredictable, this seems a important report to take note of:

ABOUT 100 million people living on Australia’s doorstep could be forced to leave their homeland due to climate change this century, according to a new report.

The report, commissioned by the environment group WWF, found Australia will have a key role in avoiding ecological and humanitarian disaster in what it calls the Coral Triangle – the marine area including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and East Timor.

Drawing on more than 300 published studies, it estimates that failure to take effective action on climate change will diminish the food supply drawn from the area’s coasts by up to 80 per cent.