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.

Voters don’t care about political lies

The Coalition and conservative media might as well stop flogging the dead horse known as JuLIAR. They’re wasting their breath because the public just doesn’t care if a politician is accused of, or even found to be, lying.

These days, lack of truth is what voters expect from all politicians: there’s no political capital to be gained or lost from one MP pointing an outraged finger at another.

Politicians are, however, taking a big political risk if their behaviour suggests they can’t be trusted to do what’s right for the country.

The public’s inoculation against political dishonesty seems to have started in the Howard years.

While voters were considerably unhappy with Keating’s broken L-A-W promise on tax cuts in 1993, and sent him to the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister, PJK was still able to drag that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders during his term. It’s clear this breach of faith nevertheless contributed to the wave of anti-Keating sentiment that swept him from office in 1996.

During the Howard years, however, it’s as if voters became accustomed to, and then unfazed by, political deceit. John Howard first swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister he successfully took such a tax to the 1998 election. Some would say Howard was not actually “successful”, having only secured 49% of the vote, but I’d argue that his success was measured by the two election wins that followed the GST. Howard also backtracked on numerous commitments made during the 1998 election campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises.

Even more memorable are the claims made against the PM in 2004 that he lied about children being thrown overboard by boat-bourn asylum seekers in 2001.

Political observers were puzzled at the time that this revelation did not cause voters to desert the Coalition. Newspoll’s tracking of how voters perceived Howard’s trustworthiness found that his rating had dipped only slightly from 60% in 1995 to 57% at the height of the furore.

Howard’s trustworthiness rating dropped further, to 51% at the time of his election win over Opposition Leader Mark Latham, whose own trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.

Almost counter-intuitively, Howard fought that election on a platform of trust. He announced the election with a direct call to voter values: “Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards?” “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?”

The ALP clearly thought they had an edge over the PM in the trustworthiness stakes. Latham’s response was to claim: “We’ve had too much dishonesty from the Howard Government.” “The election is about trust. The Government has been dishonest for too long.”

Unfortunately for Latham, he and the ALP did not differentiate between a voter’s trust in a politician to tell the truth and their faith in that politician to run the government responsibly.

Politicians as a group haven’t been trusted by voters for a very long time. The Roy Morgan “Image of Professions Survey”, conducted over the past 16 years, ranks state and federal politicians 22nd and 23rd out of 30 professions when it comes to perceived honesty and ethical standards. (Union leaders rank 24th and newspaper journalists 27th.)

An interesting print article on honesty in politics and the children overboard issue in 2004 quotes a pollster explaining the contrast between voters believing politicians and actually trusting them to do their job: “We have total faith in almost nobody, but we put conditional trust in each of our institutions to perform their function. We trust the bank enough to move our money from one account to another; we trust the politicians enough to run the country. It’s only when we think they are not taking any notice of us at all that we rebel and invent something like One Nation to get their attention. We basically trust them just enough.”

This argument applies equally today and goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Greens.

The article concludes by suggesting that “while leaders deliver on our core demands, it seems that we are prepared to live with their dishonesty ….. [yesterday’s poll] found 60% believed Howard had deliberately lied over children overboard, [but] only half that level – 29% – thought he should lose his job over it.”

This is why PM Gillard can privately dismiss current accusations of deception over the carbon tax. As long as she can convince Australian voters that she is running the government responsibly and making the right decisions on behalf of the whole community, as opposed to conceding to the whims of a few (that is, Green voters), she is inoculated against this attack.

This post also appeared at The Drum / Unleashed

Clive Hamilton – an out of touch eco-warrior

It must be sad to be an old environmental warrior: to reminisce about the days of barricades, placards, chants, feathers, drums and, well, copious amounts of hair. Clearly Clive Hamilton has been in a reminiscent mood. Perhaps he’s been fretfully stroking his shiny cranium while remembering the good ole Franklin Dam protests and what they achieved. Perhaps he nibbled on one of those special cookies that were so popular in those days.

How else could he come to the conclusion that mainstream environmentalism has failed because of “the professionalisation of environmental activism over the past two decades.”

Perhaps you, like me, read this and muttered the classic teenager response, “huh?”

Perhaps you, like me, wondered if you had totally misunderstood the clean-shaven and articulate environmental activists that have emerged over the past two decades? Why is it that we found them persuasive and convincing when Dr Hamilton says they were sell-outs to incrementalism and professionalism?

What did we miss?

Perhaps it’s not what we missed, but that which is being missed by the well-meaning Dr Hamilton.

Just like the far-left elements of the Labor Party and some of the Australian Greens, Clive is simply feeling cast adrift because environmentalism is now mainstream. In fact, the broader concept of sustainability – the combination of economic, social AND environmental responsibility – is being embraced across business, government and the broader community.

Admittedly, we have a long way to go. Australians are big talkers when it comes to environmental action and don’t always follow through with consistent actions, but our minds and hearts are open to opportunities to do something for the common good. The outpouring of support for Queenslanders affected by the floods is a perfect example.

Surely Clive Hamilton is being disingenuous when he says that:

We need a new environmental radicalism made up of those willing to put their bodies on the line; because no one ever achieved radical social change by being respectable.

Does Australia really need more radicalism, at a time when religious radicalism is being blamed for racism and other forms of bigotry?

Surely the incremental, professional and constructive way to approach environmental responsibility makes the most sense?

Yes it does.

Many words have been written elsewhere about environmentalists realising that they had to dress, think and talk like corporates and government policy-makers if they were going to influence environmental decision-making within either type of institution.

As a result, green activists were sourced from a broader range of disciplines including economics, law, the physical sciences like geography and chemistry, and the behavioural sciences like psychology.

Only once they were equipped to step into corporate boardrooms and departmental meeting rooms, and speak the same language as their antagonists, were environmentalists able to make ground on a raft of issues.

Without the professionalism of green activists, and their acceptance of incrementalism as a means to an end – two of the three weaknesses identified by Clive Hamilton – many of the environmental reforms we take for granted today would not be in place. These include the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the National Pollutant Inventory, and the programs to protect Australia’s native forests and the Great Barrier Reef. None of these reforms are perfect, but they are a vast improvement on what existed before, which was nothing at all.

I can’t conclude this note without mentioning a few green activitists whose achievements are the best counterpoint to Dr Hamilton’s fretful illusions.

Each of these people put on a suit, learned to talk in corporate-speak and made a material difference to the way the environment is valued and managed by corporate Australia and the Australian Government (and none of them will thank me for mentioning them):

Paul Gilding was CEO of Greenpeace International and after he left was a trail-blazer in advising corporations how to adopt sustainable practices. He now works with individuals, businesses, NGOs, entrepreneurs, academia and governments.

Tricia Caswell was on the Executive of the ACTU and then went on to be Executive Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation. After that she was the Executive Director of PLAN Australia and then went on to found the Global Sustainability Institute at the RMIT University that initiated most of the discussions around triple-bottom line reporting for business in the early 2000s.

Michael Rae was with WWF Australia when he worked with the Australian minerals industry to improve their performance on environmental and social matters. Michael also led the charge at the international level, during the Global Mining Initiative, to reduce the use of cyanide in the mining and production of gold. He now runs the Responsible Jewellery Council.

Erwin Jackson progressed from Greenpeace to the ACF and is now the deputy at the Climate Institute, which is so derided by Clive Hamilton. Strangely, Dr Hamilton does not mention that he used to be Chairman of the Climate Institute, and perhaps this is the real source of his bitterness. That aside, Erwin has been instrumental in keeping the Australian Government’s hand to fire when it comes to climate action, and his patient approach suggests he knows that this is a long game to be won by engaged experts and not by the whingers braying on the sidelines.

Clive Hamilton would probably call these people environmental sell-outs. I call them true environmental activists and ultimately, success stories. They have kept to their principles but adapted to the corporate/government world, and they have made a material difference.

This is something that the reminiscent Clive Hamilton can only aspire to.

This post also appeared at Crikey.com and The Drum: Unleashed

I am the greenhouse culprit! And so are you.

There’s a great video that does the rounds every now and then showing a young woman collecting signatures on a petition to ban a substance with an unfamiliar scientific name. When questioned by potential petitioners, she replies that the substance is “a chemical found in reservoirs and lakes”, that “pesticides, nuclear and styrofoam companies are using it”, that it “ends up in babies’ food” and that it “causes excess sweating and urination”.

The scenario is a set-up and the young woman is actually talking about water. She has no trouble getting signatures because she uses terms that have been proved by market research to provoke an emotional reaction in the listener. Such terms can generate feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and sometimes fear. These feelings motivate the listener to take defensive action, on this occasion by signing the petition.

The Greens leader, Bob Brown, tried to do the same thing earlier this week. He used a number of key words and phrases, honed by researchers in sympathetic think tanks such as the Climate Institute and the Australia Institute, to create the same sense of powerlessness about climate change, and hopefully to drive anxious Australians into the arms of Greens recruiters.

Brown talked about the coal industry’s “excess profits”, they were the “culprits” of natural disasters, the industry is “75% owned outside Australia”, and that the version of the mining tax agreed by Labor with the industry “would cost Australians $35 billion in foregone revenue.”

On this occasion, Brown misjudged the timing of his polemic. Australians were already feeling anxious and powerless in the face of natural forces and, when presented with Brown’s comments, were outraged by his attempt to exploit their vulnerability to score a cheap political point.

The additional irony is the factual inaccuracies in Brown’s ill-judged comments. Australia’s entire mining industry (coal and metals) directly generates 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gases. Our electricity, gas & water sectors account for 36.6%, agriculture 20.9%; manufacturing accounts for 12.6%; and services, construction & transport 10.5%.

Households generate 9.4%. But that isn’t the whole picture.

It has been estimated by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that
Australian households are responsible, either directly or indirectly through the consumption of goods and services that require energy to produce, for the generation of most of our energy-related greenhouse gas emissions (around 56%), mainly through household electricity use (about 17%) and motor vehicle use (about 12%).

That makes you and me the real greenhouse culprits.

So if Bob Brown was genuine about sharing the cost burden for greenhouse action, what would he be doing? He would be telling Australians that:

  • they should get rid of that second fridge or the freezer/bar fridge in the garage
  • each house should have only one small television and one computer
  • no electrical appliance should have a stand-by function and all would need to be switched on and off at the outlet
  • people who wish to use electricity at peak times should pay more for it
  • they should build smaller homes and increase the amount of people living in each house
  • petrol should be raised to $2 a litre and 6-8 cylinder cars should be banned from Australian roads
  • the use of aluminium and concrete in building and manufacturing should be banned due to the high amount of greenhouse gases generated during their production
  • Australia should stop growing food more food than it needs (currently Australia exports 60% of the food it grows).

But Brown will not advocate these actions because they will not win the Greens members or votes.

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