Green groups struggle to turn anger to action

Life was never going to be easy for the environment movement under the Abbott Government. As expected, hard-won environmental gains from the Howard, Rudd and Gillard years were the first to go to the wall once the new ministry was sworn in.

Protections for Australia’s marine parks were diminished, legislation was introduced to abolishrestraints on progress-hungry state governments, and funding for environmental advocates was withdrawn.

Attempts were also made to access World Heritage-listed forests in Tasmania, and approval was given to senselessly cull sharks off the shore of Western Australia.

Perhaps most importantly the entire climate action architecture, created by the minority Gillard government in negotiation with the independents and Greens, was slated for demolition.

Given they faced a minimum of three years’ Government obstructionism, abetted by a socially conservative Senate crossbench, it’s surprising the environment movement didn’t simply decamp to the nearest beach to await the next federal election.

Maybe that’s what many were contemplating. That is, until the first Abbott budget ignited a spark of unrest in the Australian community that breathed new life into the protest movement.

Suddenly the value of environmental (and other) protest was re-established, and what had only recently seemed as pointless and painful as hitting one’s head against a brick wall suddenly became a vital part of the democratic process again.

Even so, it appears green advocates are unsure how to meaningfully leverage voters’ new appetite for dissent. This is particularly the case when it comes to addressing climate change.

Climate action undoubtedly remains a tough sell. The Australian public has been desensitised by almost five years of Abbott homilies on the evils of the “toxic” carbon tax, conservative media attacks on climate science, and progressive parties’ relegation of the issue to a matter of faith by jostling over the moral high ground.

To counter this, several attempts have been made over recent years to create a bandwagon effect – with the 2011 Say Yes rallies being the most prominent – to create a groundswell of support by suggesting there already is one.

However such rallies can be labour-intensive, unpredictable and to a large extent ignored by the media as an indicator of broader support. So climate action advocates have taken instead to commissioning opinion polls to suggest there’s growing public support for their cause and an inevitable consensus approaching.

This tactic can prove tricky, however, if the numbers are not moving strongly in one’s favour.

A time-honoured way of showing weak polling results in the best possible light is to selectively quote the numbers in a text-heavy report instead of publishing the full tables of data. Such cherry-picking depends on journalists being too busy to read more than the executive summary and discourages independent analysis of the outcome.

This approach was used last week by the lobby group, The Climate Institute, with its Climate of the Nation 2014 report.

In fact TCI’s tactics would have done a shonky corporate lobbyist proud. Their selective interpretation of the poll results was released at a media event replete with puppet dinosaurs and the Liberal anti-hero John Hewson, guaranteeing a great picture and headline but limited scrutiny of the numbers.

The “full” report was not launched until 24 hours later. Even then the results were only partially provided and obscured within 25 pages of mostly text. This allowed TCI to avoid any detailed examination of whether the questions were leading, what the real trends were, and what the percentages really meant. The report could well have been an embarrassing own goal if TCI’s pre-cooked summary turned out to be less than representative of the actual results.

Thankfully for TCI, they were saved by the Gore-Palmer spectacle, which could yet descend into a debacle for the environmentalists who brokered the deal.

It must have seemed a good idea at the time to offer Palmer some reflected Gorish glory and a blind eye on the scrapping of the carbon price in return for the retention of most of Gillard’s other climate action mechanisms.

But the Faustian deal with Palmer means the centerpiece of Australia’s emissions reduction effort, the carbon price, will be scrapped. And there is no chance Palmer’s zero-rated pseudo-ETS will take its place.

So Australia will have an increasing amount of renewables in the electricity supply mix but no price on carbon to drive down emissions from transport, agriculture or other forms of energy production.

Yes, something is better than nothing, and the retention of artefacts like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority could be seen as a win.

But let’s not forget Palmer’s commitments are as certain as the shifting sands. He moved from being a climate sceptic to a believer overnight, and took a similar time to shift from wanting the renewable energy target to be voluntary to insisting that it be untouched for two years.

Now the Member for Fairfax is reportedly moving away from the environmental rhetoric he used when standing alongside Gore, to argue that Australia needs to avoid as-yet non-existent climate tariffs imposed by our trading partners. PUP Senator-elect Jacqui Lambie has also jumped onto the economic bandwagon by insisting that businesses in Tasmania be exempted from the renewable energy target.

Meantime, The Climate Institute is running a campaign to stop the scrapping of the carbon price that was essentially sanctioned by their climate action compatriots.

It could all yet end in tears.

Nobody expected the Abbott years to be easy for the environment movement. But green advocates have been given a gift by the Coalition Government that they’ve squandered so far.

While the Government’s environmental vandalism has less immediacy for the community than other budget measures, the opportunity remains for it to be incorporated into the ongoing campaign about the unfairness of the budget.

Environmentalists should be tapping into this voter angst instead of spinning survey results and making devil’s pacts with unreliable politicians.

Palmer – united against the nation?

Clive Palmer and his eponymous united party will be pivotal figures in Canberra over the next 3 years. Despite his claim that he is only interested in the good of the nation, how well equipped (and well intentioned) is Palmer for the role he will play in national affairs?

Later today, Clive Palmer will unveil how his Palmer United Party will vote on key elements of the budget, ahead of a meeting tomorrow with Prime Minister Tony Abbott to ‘discuss’ the budget’s passage through the Senate.

Continue reading “Palmer – united against the nation?”

Fear and hubris drive fuel excise response

Fear and hubris. These seem to be the key driving forces behind budget deliberations as the Australian Parliament careens ever closer to the new Senate configuration on July 1.

Fear of political irrelevancy; fear of voter opprobrium and retribution; delusions of voter apathy and complacency; and over-estimations of voter malleability; each of these self-indulgent forces are shaping the budget that will ultimately impact on Australians’ lives. And in the process sound policy has been relegated to a distant second place.

At this point it’s hard to know whether yesterday’s decision by the Greens to oppose the reintroduction of fuel excise indexation was an act of fear or hubris.

The minor party has learnt well from the demise of the Australian Democrats, as well as their own ill-fated power-sharing experiences with the Gillard and Giddings governments. They know their supporters want the party to stick to principled protest rather than dilute those principles through negotiated outcomes.

And if they need reminding, the Greens have to look no further than the tongue-lashing many supporters gave them after allowing the Abbott Government to abolish the debt ceiling, even though the deal included concessions that improved the transparency of the Government’s decision-making processes.

Greens Leader Christine Milne says one of the reasons her party will oppose the indexation of fuel excise is because it will disproportionately affect those who have no access to public transport. This appeared to be less of a concern in 2011 when the Greens attempted to have the carbon tax imposed on fuel. Milne’s other criticism is that the funds raised will be used to build roads that will result in more congestion. This contention has no basis in fact.

Both justifications are merely a ruse. Now that the deep unpopularity of the first Abbott budget is being confirmed by successive opinion polls, the Greens have more likely concluded there is too much political risk involved in letting budget measures through – even those that accord with their principles – lest they become inadvertently splashed by the waves of voter opprobrium.

But that’s where the matter becomes vexed for the protest party. Given the choice between realising a policy ambition to put a price signal on fuel, considering carbon emissions from transport are the second highest contributor to Australia’s total emissions, and depriving Abbott of a budget win, the Greens chose the latter.

Fear of being seen to be complicit in Abbott’s budget seemingly overrode any motivation to see a version of their policy implemented.

Or was the decision a result of the party’s young guns seeing more political capital to be gained from simple obstructionism than policy purity? This theory aligns with Adam Bandt’s “Bust the Budget” campaign, which is focused on blocking the budget and kicking the Prime Minister out of office by Christmas. It may also be why denials were swiftly issued yesterday to hose down any suggestion that Milne had been overruled by her party on the fuel excise decision.

While a question mark still remains over the Greens’ motivation for opposing the fuel price indexation, there’s no doubt that hubris shaped the budget measure in the first place.

Only a person deluded by pride would assume the channelling of additional funds raised by the increased excise into road-building activities would placate those incensed by the new (albeit small) impost on their cost of living. The same applies to the equally misjudged hypothecation of the proposed GP co-payment to a medical research fund.

The author of those budget measures was being too smart by half, and seriously underestimated the capacity of Australian voters to sense when they are being duped.

Equally, the Prime Minister has been ill-advisedly cocksure in telling Australian voters the fuel excise indexation measure is about road-building, while boasting to US president Barack Obama that it’s a price signal to reduce carbon emissions. Perhaps Abbott thought the internet didn’t stretch as far as the US and those he promised to “axe the tax” would not learn of his defacto carbon tax on transport fuel. A bit less hubris and a lot more fear of electoral consequences might have been the wiser course.

Only Labor seems to have managed so far to withstand the temptation to succumb to the twin indulgences. They’ve declared the ALP will support some budget measures according to merit and alignment with their party’s values.

Unpopular federal budgets have come and gone, but this first Abbott budget could well be remembered as the one that was destroyed from both without and within. If that occurs, fear and hubris will have been responsible for its demise: the over-confidence of those who created it, the fear of those who would be subjected to it, and the political rather than policy motivations of those who tore it down.

Political dissenters a romantic diversion

Last week, outgoing Liberal Senator Sue Boyce became the latest poster child of politicians with principle.

With a clumsy clarification that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is more an old-style sexist than a misogynist, and having crossed the floor in the past to vote against her party on same-sex marriage and an emissions trading scheme, Boyce is now recognised and celebrated as a politician who has remained true to her own (progressive) values in an increasingly right-wing party.

Boyce joins other moral malcontents such as Sharman Stone, who stood up to the PM and Treasurer on Government assistance to SPC Ardmona; Judi Moylan and Mal Washer who campaigned for more humane asylum seeker policy; and even Malcolm Turnbull who continues to challenge the Coalition’s orthodoxy on climate change.

Labor MPs Melissa Parke and former speaker Anna Burke also joined the ranks of MPs with morals last week when they (ultimately unsuccessfully) attempted to get their party to withdraw support for the processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

So it seems political principles have become the new black.

Voters appear to be rejecting consensus-based political parties as too scripted and poll-driven, and are instead embracing political outriders who resist party group-think and put their own strongly-held values ahead of established policies.

The trouble with the celebration of these political insurgents is their influence can cut either way. Politicians who take a stand according to their core beliefs are not limited to the progressive side of politics.

For every Sue Boyce trying to drag the Coalition back the political centre, there’s a Cory Bernardi trying to heave it further to the right. And to the voters who share Bernardi’s world view, he is no less a rebel to be championed and celebrated than Boyce, Stone or Washer.

The same could be said of other Coalition MPs such as John Williams and Ian Macdonald or any other Government member who’s taken to speaking out against Government policy such as the proposed paid parental leave scheme. Or former Liberal senator Nick Minchin, who campaigned against climate action within the Coalition when Malcolm Turnbull was leader.

And then there are the MPs who are not from mainstream parties, whose whole reason for being is to dissent from or provide an alternative to the status quo. Libertarian David Leyonhjelm, who will soon take a decisive seat in the new Senate, firmly believes schools and hospitals should be privatised. He’ll join the DLP’s John Madigan and Family First’s Bob Day, both of whom are anti-abortion.

These men make the party consensus that often takes the edge off such extreme views suddenly look a lot more attractive.

Finally, there are the practical consequences of being a principled political dissident. Both the Democrats and the Greens discovered the hard way that there’s a political cost to relinquishing their moral malcontent role for real influence in government policymaking. One simply cannot keep the bastards honest while also being one of them.

The Greens appear to have learnt this lesson and reverted to their predominantly spoiling role with gusto. While their dissent is not always based on core values, as will likely be seen in the Greens’ opposition to the fuel excise increase and paid parental leave, they’re at least taking a principled stance on most matters.

The Greens’ experience should also be instructive for Clive Palmer and the assortment of MPs who will hold the balance of power in the Senate in a week’s time.

Palmer has run interference until now, demonstrating an absence of consistent values as he’s tried to leverage concessions from the Government before having to declare his own intentions.

On Wednesday Palmer will apparently announce how his party will vote in the Senate on key issues, ahead of a meeting with the PM on Thursday. Voters may at this time finally get an indication whether Palmer intends to be anything other than a spoiler.

And this will likely set the course for PUP’s political future.

While moral malcontents and principled revolutionaries may be inspiring, entertaining and able to tap into dissatisfied voters’ need for retribution, there is still a point at which they will either have to reach a compromise or fail.

Without consensus is it impossible (within a democracy at least) to make and implement decisions for the good of the nation.

Voters might like the idea of principled insurgents but they seek consensus-driven politics as an assurance that somebody is in charge. The deep-seated need for political stability leads voters ultimately to relegate political dissenters to nothing more than a romantic diversion.

For one person’s rebel can easily be another person’s traitor – which is why disunity is death in politics. The adage may apply more to political leadership than policy, but it remains a potent one nevertheless.

The Greens play tough but will avoid double trouble

In two weeks Australian federal politics will shift slightly on its axis. The balance of power in the Senate will move from being the sole domain of the Australian Greens to also being shared by a motley collection of mostly conservative senators.

In theory the Greens have enough votes to join with the Coalition Government to pass proposed legislation, but in practice they’re unlikely to do so.

Branded on their psyches would be the memory of the Australian Democrats being made to pay dearly for what was seen by voters as an act of collusion with the Howard government when the minor party secured concessions to pass the GST.

The more recent and direct opprobrium received by the Greens for helping the Government to abolish the debt ceiling would also be fresh on their minds.

In fact there’s next to no benefit for the Greens in cooperating with the Abbott Government, not even on policies that are ostensibly in line with their philosophical positions such as paid parental leave and fuel excise. This is why Greens Leader Christine Milne has a clearly marked exit plan for both proposals, aimed at allowing her senators to retain credibility while essentially walking away from party policy.

Having already secured a drop from $150,000 to $100,000 in the upper limit for Prime Minister Abbott’s proposed paid parental leave, Milne has now completely backed away by reserving her party’s decision until the detail of the scheme is known. Milne may even be spared from having to disown PPL if the Nationals succeed in distorting the workplace benefit into another form of welfare for farm-based stay at home mothers.

The Greens leader is on less secure political ground with the Government’s proposal to re-introduce indexation to fuel excise. Milne’s criticism of the tax being hypothecated into road-building instead of public transport ignores the fact that at least one major form of public transport requires modern and safe road networks. It also dismisses those people in rural, regional and remote Australia who have limited access to public transport and continue to endure poor quality roads.

Again, Milne has reserved her party’s decision on fuel excise indexation until the detail is known. But judging from her comments on the weekend, the Greens leader’s exit plan is to demand the introduction of mandatory fuel efficiency standards instead.

The Abbott Government won’t impose a new and costly regulatory impost on what is left of the diminishing Australian car manufacturing industry, so Milne will be provided with her other escape route.

Come July and the new Senate, the Greens may be shunted from centre stage but they’re not about to slip silently into the night. The configuration of the new Senate may actually favour the minor party, transferring much of the responsibility for sealing devilish pacts with the Government to the rest of the crossbench senators and leaving the Greens to return to being a party of protest.

Hence the latest “Bust the Budget” rally held in Melbourne with prominent involvement by Greens MPs and candidates for the upcoming state election.

This also explains the latest Greens’ tactic, flagged by Milne this past weekend, to bring on consideration of the proposed legislation to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation while the Greens still have the balance of power, so that it can be defeated again.

Such a defeat would provide the Abbott Government with the trigger needed to call a double dissolution election. It appears that the Greens, having provided the means by which Abbott could call an election, would then call him a lame duck (or perhaps even accuse him of not having the ticker) until he does so.

This appears to be the basis for Greens MP Adam Bandt sounding eerily like former opposition leader Abbott, by calling for another election and suggesting that Australia could have a new prime minister by Christmas.

However, Abbott won’t be pressured into holding a double dissolution election and he can’t be forced to do so. Even if Labor reversed its historical opposition to the blocking of supply and stopped the appropriation bills in the Senate, Abbott would still only be required to hold a House of Representatives election. Incidentally, the Greens don’t support blocking supply either.

What is more likely is that Abbott will attempt to pass the most unpopular of his proposed changes through the Senate, and once they’ve been twice rejected he will hold these in abeyance. If the polls turn back in his favour, Abbott then has the ability to call a double dissolution election and, on the re-attainment of government, pass all the outstanding double dissolution triggers through the joint sitting of parliament that can be held following a DD election if the senate remains uncooperative.*

So in short, a double dissolution election would be a high stakes game for everyone involved.

The Coalition would risk losing government. The major parties would risk losing seats to the minors, micros and independents. And anyone opposed to the double dissolution triggers would risk them becoming law.