Can the Greens step down from their pedestal now?

Yes, it was a devastating drubbing for the NSW Labor Party. It was also a well-deserved loss after years of incompetence and less than truthful dealings with the NSW public.

But that wasn’t the story for me. All I wanted to know was how the Greens fared. No, I don’t have an unhealthy obsession with the Greens. But as I explained in the previous post, suggestions that swathes of voters are deserting the Labor ship for the Greens are Just. Plain. Wrong.

The Greens fielded a candidate in every seat. While Labor suffered a 17% swing against them, the Greens failed to pick up more than a 1.4% swing to them. Even in the upper house they only managed a 1.85% swing in their favour.

I’ve been told the Greens’ vote suffered from the poor quality of candidates on offer. Sorry, that excuse doesn’t fly.

Every single political operative in Australia has known for the past four years that the NSW election would be held on 26 March 2011. There has been plenty of time for the Greens to organise decent candidates. The Liberal Party did; hell even the National Party managed to do so.

And why is it that when the Greens do well, it is all about the superiority of their values and policies, but when they do less well it is about their poor candidates?

Reports of Labor’s death are greatly exaggerated

Last weekend the SMH’s political editor, Peter Hartcher, made an extraordinary claim that “Labor’s looming death as a stand-alone political entity is the biggest story in contemporary Australian politics.”

Hartcher is an experienced and astute political analyst, having reported politics for the Herald not only from Canberra, but also Tokyo and Washington. However, his prediction seems disconnected from reality.

Hartcher’s thesis is that Labor has lost its progressive supporters to the Greens and has no chance of getting them back. He says that “Labor has yet to squarely confront the fact that it is on track to bring the two-party system to an end as Australia witnesses the rise of a three-party system,” and that “even if [the Prime Minister] can win passage of a carbon tax through the Parliament, it will not be enough to save her, and Labor, from oblivion.”

I don’t quibble with Hartcher’s contention that Labor has had a tactical tendency to lurch to the right on contentious issues to prevent voter leakage to the Coalition. Nor do I dispute that this has caused some progressive voters at the other end of the political spectrum to abandon the ALP for the Greens.

I can even agree that Labor’s low primary vote (37.99%) at the 2010 federal election was mostly attributable to “disillusioned and disgusted Labor voters going across to the Greens”.

But there is no evidence to suggest, as Hartcher does, that these voters are lost to Labor forever. To do so would be to fundamentally misread (or rewrite) what occurred.

The Greens garnered 11.76% of the primary vote at the 2010 election, a swing to them of 3.97%. However, nearly 80% of that vote went back to Labor in preferences, just as it did at the previous federal election.

Interestingly, 26% of Green voters said they did not make up their mind how to vote until 24 hours or less before casting their vote, compared with 17% for Labor and 9% for Coalition voters. This proportion of votes, decided so close to polling day, is unusually high compared with previous elections.

The combination of Green votes preferenced back to Labor, with the delayed decision to vote Green, suggests that many more potential voters wanted to vote Labor but couldn’t bring themselves to do so.

When voters are uncertain about which party to choose, they usually lean towards the devil they know (the incumbent). But on this occasion they were faced with two relatively unknown politicians, both of whose authenticity were in question. As a result, some voters ended up rejecting them both.

Unfulfilled expectations also played an important role in that rejection.

Kevin Rudd’s downfall was that he didn’t deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices.

While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation he didn’t deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so because they knew voters were waiting to take out their anger on him, just as they had done to Keating in 1996.

Julia Gillard was also damaged by the mismanagement of expectations, but not in the irretrievable way suggested by Hartcher. She became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne illegal immigrants. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme.

Hartcher claims these actions were a grievous insult to the progressive side of the ALP and caused a permanent mass exodus of voters. In fact these actions were viewed much more simply, and by a broader range of Labor voters, as yet another PM welshing on their commitments.

While Hartcher seems to think the battle has been fought and won by the Greens, they should take no comfort from the fact that a chunk of their voter base is comprised of disaffected major party supporters.

The published opinion polls mean nothing this far out from an election: the Greens’ support is nothing more than soft and fickle at this point. It’s conditional upon two things: (1) continued voter antipathy towards the major parties and (2) the Greens’ capacity to deliver on the high expectations they’ve created for themselves.

The Greens shouldn’t lose sight of what happened to the Australian Democrats when placed in a similar position 30 years ago.

The Democrats held or shared the balance of power with other minor parties or independents in the Australian Senate for nearly 25 years (1981 to 2004). At their peak, they also held the balance of power in the upper houses of several state parliaments: NSW from 1988 to 1991, SA from 1979 for the following two decades and WA for one term following the 1996 election.

Today they hold no seats – in any Australian parliament.

There are both similarities and differences between the Democrats and the Greens. Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two is the amount of voter goodwill and accompanying high expectation that each party generated. It was the Democrats’ inability to fulfil this voter expectation that ultimately proved to be their undoing.
When the Greens attain the balance of power in July this year, they will discover, as did the Democrats, that it’s much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. The Greens will need to manage voter expectations better than the Democrats to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, on either side, but if the Prime Minister can find ways to wedge the Greens on their legislative wish-list it will be the minor party and not Labor that will face public opprobrium for unpopular decisions.

This dissatisfaction will then be played out at the ballot box.

Hartcher says Labor is finished as a major party and that it “cannot hope to govern in its own right any more.”

His prediction is a long way yet from being fulfilled.

Prime Ministerial half-truths will not save the climate

Not that long ago I wrote that Julia Gillard could regain control of her carbon price campaign by adopting a four-part strategy. While I don’t think for a minute the PM actually read my advice, it seems someone within her camp independently came up with a similar strategy.

At least that’s how it first appeared on Monday night when the Prime Minister gave a confident, polished and personable performance on Q&A.

The first part of my strategy required the PM to be honest – to admit her broken promise and explain the constraints she had to work with in the minority government that Australian voters had imposed upon her.

That’s pretty much what she did:

“Now, I did say during the last election campaign – I promised that there would be no carbon tax. That’s true and I’ve walked away from that commitment and I’m not going to try and pretend anything else. I also said to the Australian people in the last election campaign that we needed to act on climate change. We needed to price carbon and I wanted to see an emissions trading scheme…. Now, if I’d been leading a majority government I would have been getting on with an emissions trading scheme. It’s what I promised the Australian people. As it is, in this minority parliament, the only way I can act on climate change by pricing carbon is to work with others and so I had a really stark choice. Do I act or not act? Well, I’ve chosen to act….”

It was an exciting moment; I thought the Prime Minister had taken a huge step in rebuilding her bond of trust with the community.

But then, two mistruths shattered the illusion.

Firstly, the PM claimed the carbon price would make renewable energy-based products cheaper, that consumers would react to this price signal, and this would drive innovation. She said:

“When you come to buy things, products that are made with relatively less carbon pollution will be cheaper than products that are made with more carbon pollution. So you’re standing there with your household assistance in your hand. You could still keep buying the high carbon pollution products if you want to or what you’re far more likely to do is to buy the cheaper, lower carbon pollution products. That means that the people who make those things will get the consumer signal, gee, we will sell more, we will make more money if we make lower pollution products. That drives the innovation. So I want you to have that household assistance in your hand but I also want you to see price effects which make cleaner, greener things cheaper than high pollution commodities. That’s why it works.”

This is patently untrue. Firstly, if the carbon price is set low (eg. $20/tonne as suggested), renewable energy-based products will still be more expensive than the coal energy-based products. As explained by renewable energy advocates Beyond Zero Emissions the carbon price would have to be set much higher to make the low emission products even price competitive with the high emission ones, let alone cheaper.

“Due to the nature of technology and the energy market, we would require in excess of $70/tonne even for wind power, the lowest cost renewable, to compete in the electricity market [without subsidies]. For baseload technologies such as concentrating solar thermal, the game changer we need to replace coal and gas, you would need in excess of $200/tonne for initial plants.”

If the low carbon price doesn’t make low emission products cheaper, then the Prime Minister is relying on the green consciousness of consumers to drive green purchasing. This won’t happen either; while people claim they buy green products their actual behaviour shows they don’t. In the absence of consumers changing their purchasing patterns, there will be little or no incentive for the “big polluters” to move to lower emission inputs.

This is also recognised by activist green groups such as Friends of the Earth (Australia):

“The demand for a carbon price is widespread in the climate movement. The Greens support a low carbon tax, leading to a fully fledged emissions trading scheme. But just as rising petrol prices have not lead to new investment in public transport, a carbon price will not in itself see renewable energy built. At best it is likely to make gas more competitive with coal.”

So, on the capacity for the carbon tax to change spending patterns and drive innovation, the Prime Minister could be said to be disingenuous, but I’d say she was deliberately misleading.

Similarly, the PM intentionally misled Q&A viewers with her comment about China. While scolding us for being climate recalcitrants, the Prime Minister misrepresented China’s climate actions to emphasise our tardiness:

“You know, China [is] closing down a dirty coal-fired power generation facility at the rate of one every one to two weeks.”

In reality, China is replacing its old coal-fired power stations with new ones. China is a long way from abandoning coal in the way suggested by the Prime Minister.

The International Energy Agency says China’s economic and social growth is so vast and so rapid that the nation will continue to use coal for electricity generation until at least 2035.

“The IEA estimates that China, which generates more than 70% of its electricity with coal, will build 600 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired power capacity in the next quarter-century – as much as is currently generated with coal in America, Japan and the European Union put together.”

Also according to the IEA, China overtook the US in 2009 as the world’s largest energy user. The organization says:

“…the country’s energy demand is foreseen to surge a stunning 75% between 2008 and 2035, when it will account for 22% of world demand. China will lead the surge in electricity generation growth, and power demand in the country is expected to triple between 2008 and 2035.”

China is doing what‘s best for its people while it grapples with global issues such as climate change. The Gillard government is attempting the same, but doing a poor job of it.

Sleights of hand and half-truths won’t engender the community respect that the Prime Minister needs for us to follow her lead. Without such trust and willingness, there will be no effective climate action.

As I’ve said before, if the Prime Minister wants to bring Australian voters along with her in pursuit of a low emission economy, she must treat us like adults and start telling us the truth.

The truth, according to the International Energy Agency’s latest World Energy Outlook, is that global power generation is expected to grow by 75% between now and 2035. The truth is that fossil fuels will continue to dominate even though the proportion of renewable energy sources will grow.

The truth is that it’ll be tough to wean Australians from our country’s natural strengths, such as plentiful and affordable energy, and the comfortable lifestyle that comes with it.

And the greatest truth is that this process will require a transformation of the economy and of our lifestyles that we will have never seen before.

The full transcript of the PM’s appearance on Q&A is available here.

Give up the game of Extreme Rhetoric – let’s talk instead

A funny thing happened to me on Twitter yesterday: I had a really interesting conversation with a bunch of tweeps about GM crops and food. It was interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly it was respectful. Secondly, it evolved naturally over the course of the conversation and explored several dimensions of the issue. And thirdly, I learned something new and my view adjusted as a consequence.

Perhaps the other interesting thing is that the conversation sprang, dare I say organically, in response to a rather snarky tweet from me about the science of climate change and the science of GM crops. Despite the tone of my initial tweet, there were ten people nevertheless willing to engage me in a serious and respectful manner on the issue.

Two weeks ago it was a different story. I participated in an online event that discussed the same topic. While some people tried to have a sensible conversation, others turned up merely to troll. The event ended up as something slightly less edifying than a shouting match.

Similar shouty behaviour last night (concerning the relative wisdom of nuclear power) and this morning (concerning the relative wisdom of Andrew Bolt) have led me to think it’s such a shame we don’t use the amazing platforms provided to us by Twitter and blogs to respectfully explore each other’s views.

As a blogger I’m familiar with the online writers’ creed that one must never read the comments for fear of losing oneself in a spiral of self-doubt and despair (or some such).

But I WANT to read the comments: they show me what other people think about the issues that are of interest to me. Sadly, much of the commentary is shoutiness too, which is a sure-fired way to make me retreat and hold even more firmly to my own point of view. Nonetheless, there are other comments that help me better understand and evolve my own views. I value that exchange because I’ve realised that “In the act of blogging, I am written”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m surprised most of us like to indulge in a game of “Extreme Rhetoric” on the twitters every now and then. Even I do.

You don’t have to be a sociologist to understand how or why this game has emerged. It’s a natural extension of the he said/she said dichotomy being deployed by mainstream media outlets to create fodder for the insatiable 24/7 news media cycle.

While on the one hand we deplore the distortion and disunity that this tabloid journalistic approach wreaks, we’re not above using it ourselves to score a point or two when engaging online.

So, what to do, what to do? Perhaps we should stop getting so angry for a start. Shouting at or about someone is never going to change their mind.

Instead of bemoaning the diminished state of so-called “discussion” programs like Q&A, The Insiders and Contrarians, let’s just accept them for what they are: political Punch and Judy shows.

Instead of clenching fists, gritting teeth and sending shouty tweets about the latest bout of Extreme Rhetoric, why not laugh and enjoy the staged pugilism for what it is: tabloid entertainment and nothing more.

Don’t look to those platforms for genuine exploration and discussion of the issues – you’ll not find it there. Look elsewhere, and if you can’t find it, then do it yourself.

Just start a civilised conversation and take it from there. There’s a whole world of interested people online just waiting for you to do so.

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.