Fear mongers belittle politics and humanity

Here’s my latest piece for The King’s Tribune…

Fear is a fascinating thing. It’s fairly easy to initiate, can sometimes be used to motivate, and can bring out the best or worst in any of us. Right now, it’s being used against us for craven political purposes.

Fear motivates some people to wear a seat-belt, insure their house, take their medication, run from a person brandishing a knife, or perform heroic feats to save loved ones. It can also cause people to be prejudiced, belligerent, aggressive, or perhaps even trample others while trying to escape danger.

Fear is a powerful emotion, and it’s used daily by companies, governments, political operatives and the media to influence our behaviour.

While the tabloid media are best known for playing the fear card, politicians now seem to be trying to trump them. The Greens proclaim that devastation will soon be wrought by dangerous climate change; the Coalition foretells the doom that will befall us from the carbon tax; and the ALP warns about the apocalypse that will come with the ascension of Prime Minister Abbott.

Added to this, we’re cautioned about mining magnates, asylum seekers, newspaper proprietors, rabid Christians, vampiric bosses, a burst housing bubble and another global economic meltdown.

It’s no wonder the Australian citizenry has become anxious and seeks solace amongst the glittering halls of Westfield Plazas scattered thoughtfully around the country. Perhaps the public’s whinging and wringing of hands, attributed by many to our selfish sense of entitlement, actually arises from our confidence being battered by fear-mongers on a daily basis.

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Think tanks: Independent does not mean objective

Somewhere along the way, in the debate of public policy issues, we seem to have forgotten that “independent” does not necessarily mean “objective”.

Think tanks in particular are the guiltiest in using this sleight of hand. In stressing that they are independent scholarly organisations, think tanks attempt to lay claim to a higher moral ground that comes from academic objectivity.

With a sage nod and the dispassionate tones of an academic, think tank representatives refer us to the word “independent” in their Wikipedia entries in a Jedi-like attempt to distract us from the partisan players who sit on their boards or fund their activities. They MAY be independent, in that they’re not formally affiliated with political interests, but most think tanks are NOT objective by any stretch of the imagination. Generally, this is because political interests created them in the first place.

This deception is by no means a new dimension to the battle for political influence. Nor is it the only illusion inflicted on the mostly unaware populace.

The flourishing of think tanks indicates the evolving nature of public trust; articulate and organised “third parties” almost magically blossom from whichever groups the community trusts most. And when that trust moves from one group to another, then new “independent” voices spring from that group too.

It’s a classic lobbying tactic, to which the name astroturfing no longer fits because of its broader scope. I call it the creation of friendipendents, that is, the active establishment by partisan interests of third parties which claim to be independent but actually push their creator’s agenda.

There have been several different manifestations of this tactic. When the community vested its trust in non-government organisations like environment groups, these proliferated. Business interests set up their own NGOs with pro-environment names to muddy the waters. As NGOs lost their gloss, and academics consistently outpolled them on trust, then lobbyists (of all political persuasions) swathed their agendas in academic garb by establishing “independent” think tanks.

And let’s not forget the classic astroturfing tactic which arises when the most trusted voice in a community is “one of us”, resulting in the fabrication of grass roots support to influence the debate.

Sometimes, because of the disparity of public opinion on a broad or complex issue, lobbyists use a combination of these approaches to influence the key demographics. The most evident example of this is the Say Yes campaign, which combined green NGOs with the “independent” think tank The Climate Institute, and faux grass roots organisations such as GetUp!.

The Climate Institute’s prominent involvement in the Say Yes campaign seemed to me to be the first time a self-described independent think tank had publicly displayed such political activism. It caused me to question whether this was appropriate. My judgement was no doubt coloured by The Climate Institute’s close association with one political party; TCI was established by The Australia Institute, which has Bob Brown’s current Chief of Staff on its Board and is headed by a former Greens’ staffer.

I was told that TCI’s activism was appropriate because the Say Yes cause was just and also consistent with the think tank’s area of expertise. I wondered nonetheless whether political observers would have been equally sanguine if the Institute of Public Affairs, which has some prominent Liberals on its Board, had participated to the same extent in the No Carbon Tax rallies.

That’s not to say the IPA doesn’t pursue it’s interests just as vigorously. By identifying, grooming and touting a bevy of articulate “independent” commentators, the IPA has assertively imposed its free market perspective into all major public policy debates including that on climate change.

This brings me back, then, to where I began. Independent does not mean objective, although think tanks (and their creators) depend upon us not making that distinction.

Think tanks have agendas and the justness of those agendas will differ in the eyes of each beholder. Think tanks have too long hidden behind the cloak of independence and should be subject to more scrutiny. They should be recognised as active players in political debate, and not the dispassionate observers that they pretend to be.

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum

How to sell a carbon tax

Let’s admit it. One time or another, most of us have taken the easy way out. We’ve criticised instead of giving constructive criticism; we’ve focused on what can’t be done instead of what can.

When it comes to the carbon tax, my hands aren’t clean. I’ve been critical of the climate change mantra that claims putting a price on carbon in Australia will reduce global emissions.

However, putting my misgivings aside, if I look at the carbon tax as a communicator I’ve no doubt that it could more effectively be pitched to the Australian community. So I challenged myself to craft a communications strategy that would successfully sell such a tax.

And here it is. This strategy is an all-or-nothing approach. Each of its four components relies upon the other. It also relies upon the sincerity of our Prime Minister to be successful.

Step 1: Say sorry

There’s only one way for Julia Gillard to defuse the ongoing and escalating accusations of deceit. She must apologise, unreservedly and genuinely, for breaking the commitment she made before the last federal election.

Such apologies can be done badly, so the PM must study key examples to avoid making similar mistakes. Ms Gillard would do well to note how her predecessor mishandled an apology exactly 12 months ago by mouthing the right words, but in such a sing-song manner that any perception of empathy was shattered in the process.

Like Rudd, Gillard also seems to have been standing behind the door when empathy was handed out, so she will need to keep this in mind when delivering her mea culpa on the carbon tax.

Step 2: Be honest

Secondly, the Prime Minister must dispense with the pretence that Labor holds government in its own right. When apologising for the broken pre-election commitment, Gillard must remind voters that she was obliged to do so in order to form a minority government.

Ms Gillard must remind voters that it was their decision to give the Greens and independents the power to form government with one of the major parties. And she must remind voters that negotiation and ultimately concession are the price that Labor must pay every day to deliver as many of its elections commitments as possible to the nation.

In being straight with voters about the constraints they’ve imposed upon her, the Prime Minister would achieve two things. She’d earn respect for acknowledging this democratic decision. She’d also be telling those who voted in protest for the Greens last time that they should consider this outcome and vote more carefully next time.

Being honest in this way doesn’t necessarily give credibility to the Opposition’s claim that Bob Brown is the real Prime Minister. If delivered by Julia Gillard with honesty and authority, this message will demonstrate that she has the leadership capability to accommodate Green voters’ interests while still pursuing a broader Labor agenda for the benefit of the whole community.

Step 3: Put Australia in a positive light

Thirdly, the Prime Minister must focus and build upon Australia’s greenhouse positives, not the negatives.

Australians want to be told they’re winners, not losers, and preferably on the international stage if at all possible. We don’t like being scolded for emitting the highest amount of greenhouse gas emissions per person in the whole world. We don’t like being made to feel guilty about our quality of life. And we feel anxious, resentful and even angry about government actions that may threaten that lifestyle in any way.

Rather than tell Australians they need to take their greenhouse medicine and cop a little pain for the public gain, the Prime Minister should spruik how Aussie greenhouse technologies, services and know-how are smarter and more successful than our international competitors.

In this context the carbon tax can be pitched as the way for all Australians to help fund our smarter greenhouse actions; the way to pay for the expensive research, development and demonstration projects that are needed for Australian clean energy technologies to get the edge on their overseas competitors and be winners on the international stage.

Step 4: Make it real

And finally, Australians must be helped to make connections between their own everyday actions and greenhouse mitigation.

State governments did this successfully with their water restriction campaigns. By drawing a link between climate change, the drought and dwindling water resources, state governments gave their constituents a way to see the tangible benefits of their water parsimony; whether they changed their water consumption behaviour, paid to install water tanks, or let their turf die.

The altruistic “payback” for these actions was the daily progress reports on roadside electronic billboards showing the results of the previous day’s efforts in terms of water used, targets reached and dam levels achieved.

Australians were happy enough to comply with water restrictions because they felt they were doing their bit for the collective good, and in reality the required change in behaviour was not overly costly or inconvenient.

Similar initiatives are needed to sell the carbon tax. Daily electricity use numbers, targets and perhaps even $$ saved or exceeded could be shown on the same electronic roadside billboards that have become a familiar sight to commuters on their daily trek home.

Real-time feedback of this kind will remind Australians that they are doing their own bit for the planet, and help them to feel good about it.

These are the success factors for selling the carbon tax. Make an apology to reset the tempo of the debate. Treat Australian voters like adults and tell them the truth about the constraints of minority government. Tell us we’re winners in the greenhouse action game. And help us feel not only connected to that action, but also proud to be doing our bit.

Faux environmentalism

Will Australians’ faux environmentalism derail our greenhouse effort?

It seems the Government’s proposed flood levy has tested the limits of Australians’ willingness to help others. While many thousands voluntarily gave money, supplies and physical support to those affected by the floods, opinion polls show around half the population has balked at a modest Government levy to share restoration costs.

Why aren’t we prepared to pay a bit more for the greater good? Is it because we resent being forced to pay when so much has already been given voluntarily? Or is it because the levy is seen simply as another tax grab? Again, the opinion polls suggest it’s a combination of the two.

Perhaps even more troubling is the extension of our philanthropic inconsistency beyond charitable acts into the environmental domain. Many Australians are only pseudo green, speaking green words rather than doing green deeds and this faux environmentalism has implications for the carbon price now at the centre of the Gillard Government’s greenhouse efforts.

Essentially, the carbon price will increase the cost of greenhouse gas-based goods and services to a level similar with those produced using renewable-based technologies. The aim of the carbon price is to encourage consumers, when faced with similarly high priced goods and services, to choose the renewable-based option and thereby bring down its cost over time through economies of scale.

Therefore, the carbon price relies on our willingness as individuals to pay more for the collective good. Does our reluctance to pay the flood levy foreshadow a similar resistance to pay the carbon price? The disparity between our green words and deeds suggests this is indeed the case. Just look at our purchasing behaviour.

Australia enjoys some of the cheapest electricity in the world and as a result we’ve furnished our homes with air-conditioning, multiple fridges, big screen televisions and numerous computing devices. This cheap, coal-based electricity comes at an environmental price with around 17% of Australia’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions coming from household electricity use.

Even though we know this and despite the establishment of the first green energy schemes way back in 1997, Australians’ voluntary participation in such schemes continues to languish in the single-digit percentages. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that household awareness of renewable-based GreenPower schemes increased to 52% in 2008. While 33% of Australians expressed a willingness to pay extra for GreenPower, in fact only 5% of households actually do so.

The same pattern emerges with green shopping. Independent research recently conducted with the support of the food and grocery industry and EPA Victoria found that while 80% of shoppers said they consider sustainability issues when doing the groceries, their actual shopping trolley contents showed only 13% bought environmentally-sustainable food and groceries. When asked about packaging, 27% of those surveyed said they’d be prepared to compromise on food and grocery packaging to protect the environment; but only 6% said they would give up the convenience that came with packaging. On the thorny question of price, 85% of the shoppers surveyed said they were worried about the impact of food and groceries on the environment. At the same time, 78% said they would not pay extra for sustainable products if this made the products more expensive.

The emptiness of our green rhetoric is obvious even in car sales. 2010 was a record year for the sale of greenhouse-friendly hybrid cars, with Toyota selling 6833 hybrid Camrys and 1611 Priuses. Unfortunately this doesn’t mean that Aussies are abandoning their V8s for climate friendly cars; only 20% of the hybrids were purchased by private buyers with the rest being bought by celebrities, governments or businesses. In a similar vein, all of the 112 electric cars bought last year were for commercial fleets.

So here’s the rub. Australians are generally reluctant to be more environmentally responsible, particularly if it costs more. Combine this with our resistance to the flood levy and it seems likely that we will resent being required to pay more for everything that involves carbon in its production, transport or use.

The Prime Minister cannot be complacent about the sincerity of the community’s commitment to greenhouse action. It’s quite clear that while we often say the right thing, we do something else.

Unless this is acknowledged, nothing will be done to understand or transform our faux environmentalism into the real thing. If nothing is done, our greenhouse efforts are doomed to be derailed by public self-interest and outrage.

Right now, public support for a carbon price is little more than uninformed rhetoric. The Gillard Government needs to prepare for when the Australian people start to focus on the personal cost that will arise from the carbon price. Saying it is for the common good will just not be enough.

This article originally appeared at The King’s Tribune.

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